Why I Didn’t Quit My First Year of Teaching

The first year of teaching is notoriously horrible.

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source: takepart.com

Mine was.

In fact, I came VERY close to leaving ACE around October and November of my first year. I had never worked so hard or felt so overwhelmed or under-qualified. I had never felt so lonely or inept in my life. I was far away from friends, family, security… sanity. I was mired in papers and students whom I cared about but did not know how to help.

I had pretty much made the decision to leave after my first semester of teaching. This just wasn’t for me. So many of my friends were getting married, meeting people, loving their jobs, living healthy, fulfilling lives… and here I was, in the middle of nowhere, far away from everything and everyone I loved, and not making one whit of difference no matter how hard I tried.

Project1I remember sitting at my desk, exhausted, too tired to stand and walk around the room monitoring my students as they labored over their exam.

It was December. Christmas break was in sight. I wondered what I would do when I left Louisiana, or how I could begin to explain my decision to my principal or ACE housemates.

I had never really failed at anything before. I had never tried something, given it all I had, and watched as my efforts crumbled into humiliations, day after day.

I didn’t like failing.

I had never failed a subject in school, and here I was, feeling like a failure as a teacher.

I kind of knew what some of my students must feel like. You try and try and nothing ever seems to get better.

As I sat at my desk, chin on my hand, I began to look at each of my students*. There was Kelly with a frown on her face as she scribbled down the first few sentences of her essay. She had scared me to death when I first met her, because I knew she was exactly the sort of person who would have really intimidated me when I was in high school. She wasn’t afraid to speak her mind or let you know if she thought you were complete incompetent. And yet we had developed a mutual, if guarded, respect.

And then there was Jeffery, gazing off into space as he absent-mindedly chewed the end of his pen. He was always too “cool” to care about school, or most anything else for that matter. But we got along. He smiled sometimes when I forced him to write an answer down.

Then there was Peter, dark-eyed and kind of scary. The other teachers had warned me about him. But I had always given him things to do from day one. “Hey, Peter, could you please take this to the office for me?” “Peter, would you go and tell Mr. Benoit that…” “Peter, I’m going to trust you with this: please…” And I think he was so surprised I entrusted him with anything that he never acted up in my class. Not once.

I looked at smug Mike, the one who always annoyingly tried to compliment me. “Hey, Ms. Shea, I like that dress.” “Do your bell work, Mike.” “Hey, Ms. Shea, you look beautiful today.” “Irrelevant, Mike. Sit down.” “But Ms. Shea, I’m just trying’ to…” “I don’t care, Mike.” “Hey, Ms. Shea…” “I’m happy to see you too, Mike. Do your work.”

I smiled in spite of myself.

I kept looking around the room at all the faces bent down over my exam, the pens and pencils scratching, heads leaning heavily on hands that occasionally were waved vigorously to get the blood circulating again after so much writing.

And I realized something strange.

So many of my college friends were finding love in so many beautiful ways (okay, mostly via marriage and children), and yet I suddenly saw that I had found love too.

I loved my students.

I don’t know exactly when it happened, but that December I realized that somewhere along the way, it had.

God may not have given me the kind of love I was looking for or hoping for, but He had given me these kids.

And I knew I couldn’t leave.

I had to stay.

And that’s why I didn’t quit my first year of teaching.

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source: theteachergarden.blogspot.com

 

 

*All names have been changed.

Notes from my First Year of Teaching

Here are excerpts from notes I wrote during my first full year of teaching (last year).

1. circa September 2011

“Come see Ms. Shea! Come see!”

I remembered that the other ACE teachers at my high school in rural LA had mentioned this verbal phenomenon to me before my first day of school. Instead of saying “Could you come and look at this, Ms. Shea?” or “I need to show you something, Ms. Shea,” or even “I have a question, Ms. Shea,” my sophomores, juniors and seniors consistently say, “Come see!” –even if they don’t actually want to show me something.

As I remember, the theme of the opening April ACE retreat was the invitation of Christ – “Come and see” (John1:39).  Little did I know then how often I would hear that invitation in the classroom from my students! I am not sure if this phrase is particular to the local area or to all of Louisiana, but I think it is a daily gift that reminds me of my purpose as an ACE teacher.

carpetbaggerI came to Louisiana with a lot of ideas about what it would be like—small, rural Southern towns conjure up a lot of Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor-esque images for northern English majors like me. Seeing the ramshackle houses on cinder blocks alongside my school, the black and white neighborhoods distinctly separated by streets, the bizarre Daiquiris drive-through stations, the flat, steamy landscape rich with both sugarcane and humidity was enough to bewilder me the first few days and to make me feel further from my own cultural comfort zone than ever. But one of the most important things I am discovering, with the help of my students, is the simple necessity to come and see—to put aside whatever cultural preconceptions might hinder me from really appreciating this strange, beautiful place and my strange, beautiful students.

2. circa October 2011

“She had observed that the more education they got, the less they could do. Their father had gone to a one-room schoolhouse through the eighth grade and he could do anything.” (Everything that Rises Must Converge, Flannery O’Connor)

            This quote may seem rather discouraging to teachers but I think it describes with painful accuracy the challenge of getting students to take responsibility for their own learning. I have found myself falling into the trap of doing most of the talking, most of the working, most of the thinking in the classroom—and if I continue I will not only burn myself out, I will also have failed to engage my students.

Part of this failure of engaging and providing feedback for my students seems to be the direct results of my efforts find realistic and efficient ways to do both.  I have started to create guided notes for my students so that during direct instruction they don’t just sit and listen passively or (on the opposite end of the spectrum) try to copy down everything from a power point presentation or lecture. Giving them a concrete task to accomplish during direct instruction helps engage them and even encourages their participation since they know what information they need to discover. However, the drawback to these guided notes is that students tend to want to listen only for the right “answer” so that they can copy it down, rather than ask intelligent questions and engage the subject more for its own sake. I have found that students are so focused on getting the right answer that they are not concerned with learning how to think critically and independently—I want to find ways to push them toward that. This is very difficult, however, since many of my students resent the ways that I try to push and challenge them already.

[…] But honestly, I feel overwhelmed standing in front of so many students. Sometimes I feel teacherstresslike I can really see the ones who are struggling or who are disengaged, but I don’t feel as though I have the time or energy to find a way to bring them back in since I feel like I am barely making it through lesson plans. I feel frustrated because I know there are so many things I could be doing better, or so many other “methods” I could try to help my students, but at the same time I still feel like I am in survival mode and I am just trying to get through the day. Unfortunately, I am afraid that this sense of being totally overwhelmed is both caused by and starting to result in the students working less and me working more.

But as O’Connor says, “To expect too much is to have a sentimental view of life and this is a softness that ends in bitterness.” Somehow, I need to set high expectations for myself and for my students while at the same time realizing that teaching is much more about love and consistency than it is about visible success.

3. circa December 2011

Student A said to me a couple of weeks ago, “Ms. Shea, at first I thought you were really scary. You were so serious! But actually you’re very nice.”

I smiled and silently remembered that the reason I looked so serious all the time the first four or five weeks was because I felt sick every morning from being so nervous. Gradually, however, as I got to know the students I found myself smiling more and engaging in conversation with them—I found myself sharing, every once in a while, a little bit about my own past experiences. The fact that I have a second-degree black belt and used to teach marital arts received a particularly enthusiastic (albeit slightly apprehensive) response.

Sharing myself with my students at times (I am still rather shy and hesitant about this) I think has helped them feel more comfortable with me and more willing to take risks in the classroom—good risks, like volunteering when no other hands are raised, or arguing for an unpopular perspective. I think that knowing me better has even helped the students who I sometimes have to keep after class—a part of them sees that I am a real person with a real history; that I care about them, and that my “real” black-belt, Red Sox fan, Texan and twin-sister self is not separate from my identity as the teacher and authority figure.

The wonderful thing about this is that the sacramental view of reality—God communicating Himself to us through created things in tangible, sometimes even mundane ways—means that these simple acts of mutual trust are potentially vehicles of His grace. Occasionally I even see the fruit of this grace—like when Student B was leading prayer and suggested that all of us mention something that we would really like to improve in our lives. The honest and humble responses of each student created a special moment of shared trust and even vulnerability—the answers ranged from “patience” to “improving my attitude at school.” It was a little moment, but I think it really reflected the respect that the members of the class had developed for one another.

4. circa June 2012 (coming full circle)

“Come see, Ms. Shea! Come see!”

This is the second or third time I have written a reflection about this phrase in my spiritual life, but ever since I joined ACE it keeps coming up! As the 12 Steps of ACE mainslide-come-and-seespirituality indicate, this is the first invitation of Christ to his disciples in the Gospel of John—“Where are you staying?” “Come, and you will see!” It is also the first invitation of Christ to all of us ACE teachers on April retreat. There’s a beautiful Providence at work in the fact that “come see” is a daily phrase of my students in rural Louisiana. It can mean many things—but for my students, it usually is their way of saying “I need you!” So it has always been very moving and strange for me to hear similar words coming from the mouth of Christ: “Come and see, I need you.”

In the computer lab as I move across the room from student to student, trying to encourage them and push them along in revising their essays, or in my classrooms amidst the hum (sometimes the chaos) of group activities, or on my way to lunch in the cafeteria, I constantly hear that phrase. “Can you come see, Ms. Shea?” “Ms. Shea, please come see!” And no matter how exhausted or stressed I am, I love hearing those words. They always bring me back to April retreat and my first moments of hopeful enthusiasm in ACE. They have served as a reminder again and again this past year of Christ being somehow in my students. It feels like I keep being nudged or woken up, whenever I fall into the sleep of discouragement or exhaustion or frustration—I’m invited to open my eyes again. “Yes, I’ll come see.”

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An Introduction I wrote for my seniors, and my first post

peacock001Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen: The Art of Manners

The 20th century American Southern writer Flannery O’Connor says:

Here are two qualities that make fiction. One is the sense of mystery and the other is the sense of manners. You get the manners from the texture of existence that surrounds you. The great advantage of being a Southern writer is that we don’t have to go anywhere to look for manners; bad or good, we’ve got them in abundance. We in the South live in a society that is rich in contradiction, rich in irony, rich in contrast, and particularly rich in its speech. The type of mind that can understand good fiction is not necessarily the educated mind, but it is at all times the kind of mind that is willing to have its sense of mystery deepened by contact with reality, and its sense of reality deepened by contact with mystery (O’Connor, Mystery and Manners).

Flannery O’Connor’s description of the relationship between mystery (that which can never be fully understood by the human mind) and manners (our rituals, the acts of courtesy and custom that preserve the mysteries of life) is a wonderful way to begin to understand Jane Austen. Again, “mystery” here does not mean a murder mystery or an area of empirical/physical/scientific reality that we just haven’t figured out yet. “Mystery” for O’Connor (and probably Jane Austen) really means those areas of life and experience that are so deep that we will never (in this life or the next) get to the end of them—such as love, friendship, holiness, suffering, forgiveness, redemption, death, etc. “Manners” definitely includes things like saying “Please” and “thank you,” opening the door for people, dressing appropriately, etc. But “manners” for O’Connor and Austen also includes something more: respecting the privacy of others, understanding and negotiating social boundaries, the art of conversation, the art of listening, etc.

Although Flannery O’Connor wrote in the 20th century American South (Georgia, to be specific) and Jane Austen wrote in the 19th century English countryside, they both are really interested in manners and how manners/social boundaries/customs can either preserve or damage human mystery. For example, good manners for Austen, like waiting to be properly introduced to someone before you talk to them, help people build relationships and friendships based on a solid foundation. Bad manners, on the other hand, like telling your whole life story to someone the first time you meet them, can damage both people involved because one hasn’t established the right foundation yet for that kind of intimacy.

Forgive me for generalizing a little bit, but the Southern states, for some reason, actually seem to pay a lot more attention to manners than the Northern states do, because their priorities are somewhat different. In this way, living in the South might help you appreciate Jane Austen more, since she too would appreciate people saying things like “Yes ma’am” and “Yes sir” and offering people welcome and hospitality.

So:

When you are reading Jane Austen, pay VERY close attention to the manners of the various characters, how they treat one another, judge one another, respond to social situations, etc. Jane Austen is not going to directly describe a lot of emotions to you—but they are definitely there. They are brimming beneath the surface.

It’s like she respects the characters’ interior lives so much that she does not want to completely reveal all of their thoughts and feelings—since that would be a violation of manners and proper boundaries.

At the same time, Austen’s narrator is VERY critical of many of the characters. You may or may not always agree with her.

Don’t be fooled by Austen’s rather cool or lighthearted tone, or her stereotypes, or her ridiculous characters. There is some serious stuff going on underneath all the witty dialogue and brief descriptions.

Good luck!