So, there I was at a tiny rural school in the biggest city in the continental US (in area, not population) and with no experience! I had done my student teaching in St. Johns County in an affluent area with advanced 8th graders. I was hoping some of my experience from student teaching would help me as I took over my first classroom.
Reader, it did not.
In hindsight, my year at “Middle-Senior High” was just fine. There were normal ups and downs for a first year of teaching. But, in the moment…I felt like a failure at all times.
Relevant backstory: The teaching position I was taking was vacated more than 5 weeks previous to my hiring. There had been a slew of substitute teachers in and out of the class.
I cannot walk you through my first day with any clarity, but I can give you some high and low points of my time there. I started teaching at the end of January 2012 and remained at MSH until February of 2013.
For the remained of the 2011-12 school year, I taught English I Honors and English II.
In my first week, I witnessed two horrible fights…all involving my students. In the more brutal of the two, one boy broke his hand on the face of another boy on the way to the lunchroom. (Yes, I had to walk high school students to lunch!) In the other fight, I had to jump over a pair of fighting girls to get to the room across the hall to find the emergency button for security. No one had shown me where mine was, or who to call if something like this happened.
My classroom was located in the oldest building on campus (built in 1949) and cockroaches were frequent visitors in the classroom. My colleagues were congenial, but collaboration was pretty nonexistent.
The teacher lunch room was the stereotypical example of why you should avoid the teacher’s lounge as a young teacher.
One class period had 22 students (which seemed great on paper!) with 15 IEPS and 18 of the 22 students were boys. I had a paraprofessional push in to my room during this class period, but after I corrected her about FCAT testing information, she never returned.
Each day was a struggle for me. I never felt like I was doing enough for the kids as a person or a teacher. I had very strong ideals about reading and writing and I was unable to translate any of that into practice. When I was hired it was February and only a few days from “Testing Season” (cue dramatic music) and the season never ended! Every meeting was centered around scores and targets and standards. I did not feel like I fit. I did what I could to stay on top of the curriculum map, but once my classroom door was shut I would do what I thought was best for the kids.
At the end of the school year, I remember thinking that I had wasted all that time in college, because I was never going to be a successful teacher. I even started looking for other jobs. I went back to MSH in the fall though, flattered by the teaching schedule laid in front of me: English 2, Yearbook, and AP Lang.
I had 40 students in each AP Lang section (if you passed FCAT in 10th grade, you took AP. There was no Honors option) and 40 in yearbook class. I realized that I was a sucker for agreeing to be a yearbook adviser while teaching an AP course and still in my first year of teaching!
I was also only two months from my wedding when the school year began! It was a whirlwind.
I honestly cannot remember much of the content of my lessons from 2012, but I do remember having an evaluation from my principal where she stopped me and took over multiple times, and then left only a note saying “your date was wrong on your board 🙁 ” when she left. I remember having the beginning of a panic attack the next time I heard her keys clanking in the hallway. I remember the joy of finally breaking through with a few of my 11th grade girls who were so determined not to like my class, or me. I remember the To Kill A Mockingbird rap my students produced to the tune of “Boys in the Hood.” I remember the tearful goodbyes on my last day at MSH after telling my students I was leaving to go teach ‘back home’.
I remember failing, over and over. It took five years for me to look back and see that my time at MSH was not the horrible year I thought it was. My time there taught me so much more than I knew at the time. I never felt like I made a difference in the lives of those students, but I was wrong.
I met some wonderful students, who are now young adults making their way into the world. One student I taught in the Honors course died by suicide a few years after I left the school. He used to high five me in the hallway and surreptitiously slip a folded note into my hand. The note was always a new poem of his. He was a musician and a writer. The world would be brighter with him in it. A student I taught in English II was in a tragic car wreck the year after I left Baldwin. He was a goofball. No matter what kind of day I was having, he would try to make me smile. I visited him while he was in a coma after the wreck. I will never forget the outpouring of love and support I saw from that community for him. These two boys changed my heart forever and left us too soon. I miss them.
I recently went to the wedding of two of my students, who credited my sly seat change in 11th grade for the start of their relationship. I stay in touch with many of my former students. Over winter break this year, I went through all the notes the kids had left me at the end of the 2011-12 school year, and letters and pictures they gave me on my last day at MSH in February of 2013. As I found their letters I would send a quick note on Facebook, “Hey, look what I found! Happy New Year!” The responses were joyous and life-affirming. I expected a few responses and mostly radio silence. Instead, I was reminded that caring about your students can and will make a bigger impact than you can ever predict. I got to hear about babies, marriages, jobs, degrees. One student is playing college football as a senior but plans on pursuing his Masters and starting a nonprofit!
A few of the ones that moved me to tears…
Why did I leave MSH? Well, I got a phone call in the middle of the night from an educator who I deeply admire and respect. Her message, “Put in your application, a position is opening! Hurry!” and the rest, as they say…
will be in my next post.