My Worst Year of Teaching!
I recently spoke with a young teacher from Minnesota; she said something that resonated deeply within me. This young woman had signed up for an “Ask the Author” session over a product question. However, as we spoke, she made a striking comment. “I am trying my best, but many parents want to blame everything on me!”
Her voice cracked as she said it.
I felt her pain! I’ve been there before.
The summer after I married, I moved to the opposite side of town and had to find a new job. I quickly learned that finding a job is all about who you know. Being new to town, I knew no one. September had come and gone with no luck. I was very discouraged.
One day, I made a bold networking move (which is another story for another day) and connected with a principal who needed a fifth-grade teacher. While waiting in her office for an interview, three different people popped in, each advising me to get out of there.
Interestingly, each of them described the group as, “The class from (and then they sank into a whisper) H-E-L-L!”
For better or worse, I was offered the job and poured my heart and soul into it. But the months that followed were the longest of my life!
The classroom was a disaster. Mouse droppings poured out of the storage cabinets, interlaced with throngs of clutter from the previous teacher. There were no textbooks or established curriculum of any kind. There were no teachers with whom I could team because the school only had one fifth-grade classroom. I had to create all materials from scratch.
For a few months, I did not leave that building before 9 PM. I got the classroom in order. I developed curriculum materials for math, language arts, science, and social studies. I had things humming.
But, it was not very long before the vultures dove in. The Nasty Parents.
Every day became a battle
These parents challenged every decision I made, every assignment I created, and every routine I put in place.
“What took you so long to start teaching here?” they asked.
(As if I voluntarily opted out of a job for six weeks.)
“Why is it taking you two weeks to grade their work?”
(Did I mention I had to create EVERYTHING from scratch?)
They were undermining discipline in the classroom.
(If the parents did not respect me, why would their children?)
As the months went on, things escalated.
Eventually, they petitioned the superintendent to have me fired!
The superintendent came to visit and assured me that everything was okay.
“I kept asking them why they were upset,” she said.
“I asked what you were specifically doing that they didn’t like. But, they couldn’t come up with anything. The most specific complaint they had is that you make them write sentences with their spelling words!” (Yes, you read that correctly.)
She went on to explain that this group of parents had a history of causing problems. Their children had all been in the same class since kindergarten and the parents had been trouble-makers for years.
Not only did these parents have a bad reputation, their anger was rapidly escalating; the school –their neighborhood school since their childhood– would be permanently closed at the end of the year.
I basically stepped into a No-Possible-Chance-of-a-Win situation. I shouldn’t have been surprised; I did get some pretty strong warnings from total strangers just before my interview.
Thankfully, I had two years of successful teaching experience under my belt. Without that prior, positive experience, I would FOR SURE have left the profession thinking I was an utter failure.
There are no words to properly convey what it feels like to pour yourself into something, only to have it routinely, systematically, and heartlessly squashed by others. It hurt. And, I felt like I was going crazy!
Many people asked why I didn’t leave. There were three reasons:
- First and foremost, I needed an income.
- Second, I did not have a “Plan B.”
- Third, I wasn’t about to let them get the best of me!
But, they were getting the best of me. My health quickly deteriorated. I have lupus and rheumatoid arthritis; that year caused my worst flare-up!
Every morning, my hands and legs were so stiff I could not grasp anything and could barely walk. My husband would start shower water for me, then walk me to the bathroom. We had only been married for a few months and his formerly vibrant and reasonably healthy wife was now walking worse than his 90 year-old grandmother!
I couldn’t squeeze a shampoo bottle, so he would patiently wait outside of the shower and pour shampoo into my gnarled hands when I was ready. After a long, hot shower, I could eventually flex my fingers and walk normal. The only sign to the outside world that I was struggling was rapid weight loss. Generally, weight-loss is welcomed, but never at this expense!
The director of human resources for my school district was willing to grant me a medical leave. In fact, she was the one who noticed the weight loss more than anyone. “Every time I see you, you’ve disappeared more,” she said one time, as I arrived for a meeting.
I was eager to get out, but reluctant to give up. Every time I hit a point where I didn’t think I could take any more, we reached a scheduled break…Christmas, winter break, and spring break. The short reprieves were just enough to get me through.
One fateful day in April, a student in my class brought a cap g*n to school. (Again, another story for another day.) But, that episode turned the Nasty Parents’ attention off of me and on to our principal. I felt bad for her, but it gave me a reprieve from their wrath!
Turning The Corner
The end of the school year turned out to be a great success. With cooperation from my class, we created a “Mini City” (economic simulation) that integrated all subjects together.
It was fun for the students and a bit hit in the community, especially after all of the attention we had drawn from the “cap g*n” incident.
I also received a few “thank you” notes from parents who witnessed my struggles from a distance. (Apparently, the Nasty Parents intimidated more than just me.) The following school year, I secured a new job in a new school district, where I resumed my career under better circumstances.
There were some positive things that came from that embattled year. Most significantly, that was when I realized, at a visceral level, that I needed to make a SOAR a reality. As my world felt like it was caving in around me, my work with study skills was a constant beacon of hope!
But, what can I say to this young teacher from Minnesota… my fellow colleague who is putting her best into something and getting blamed for things she cannot control?
At best, this situation is demoralizing.
At worst, well… it could cripple her sense of value for years, or even a lifetime. The sadness and frustration in her voice have been nagging at me for weeks.
I don’t know if I have any good words of encouragement, other than to share my story and acknowledge that she is NOT crazy. I imagine many teachers reading this might have experienced something similar, whether it was a one-time situation or something more long-term. Either way, teachers are often isolated and don’t realize that others have faced similar challenges. I hope it helps her to know that she is not alone.
I have a Leadership Bible sitting next to me. I have been trying to find a passage that might offer words of encouragement to my fellow teacher.
Regardless of anyone’s faith background, if a situation is described in the Bible, you have to know you are not alone; at the very least, the same struggle was fought a couple thousand years before you!
I flipped through several pages when I realized that this is the very same story of the key figure in the New Testament…
…that there is at least one Teacher who has come before us, with nothing but positive intentions. He was persecuted more than any of us.
He changed the world.
I hope my fellow teacher can maintain her convictions and change the world, too.