22 January 2005

The First Year (or "Why Teachers Need Therapy")

In the olden days, when I was a freshly minted teacher, I lived in Carlsbad, New Mexico. I know most people have some sort of idealized vision of the state. However, I lived there. And I am here to tell you that it is the state where family trees don't fork.

It's difficult enough to be a first year teacher. Most any teacher will tell you that it was a year from hell for them...and it is no surprise that 50% of new teachers are no longer in the profession 5 years later. Many of them are gone after 2 years. There is no substitute (including college training) for just getting in the classroom and going for it. It is an experience after which I have seen even grown mean weep.

I was all of 21 when I stepped into the classroom, and I looked even younger. The school was P. R. Leyva, and was the largest junior high in the state: 1200 eighth and ninth graders. I was frequently mistaken for a student. Considering that we had some 18-year old ninth graders, maybe that wasn't such a stretch of the imagination. I was assigned to teach physical science and life science. Each one was a semester course.

By October that year, I'd had two of the most gut-wrenching experiences I've had in my (now) 14 year career. In the first case, it was the end of the school day---maybe 10 minutes before the final bell. A boy I had never seen before walked into my classroom. (My room was open to the outside. It wasn't in the main building.) My kids were finishing up a lab and this other kid walks up to one of mine and starts pounding him. Students scattered like cockroaches with the light turned on. I certainly couldn't make them stop and really, my professors never covered anything like this in college. I at least gathered up enough of my wits to send a student next door to get that teacher: a big man who came in and had no trouble separating the two boys. When all was said and done, there were teeth on my floor and blood was everywhere. It turned out that the boy who had come into my room had been kicked out of the room next door---and on his very first day of school.

Not too much later, we had Open House. This is an evening event where parents come to school and go from class to class as their kids do, in order to meet the teachers and hear more about what happens in class. During "second period" that evening, a girl from my 6th period class showed up with her mother and stepfather in tow. I did my song and dance and had maybe 90 seconds left. I asked my small audience (which did include maybe 4 other families) if they had any questions that they'd like to ask me. Big mistake. The stepfather raised his hand and asked about his stepdaughter's grade. I told him that I wasn't permitted to discuss grades this evening, but if he would like to make an appointment, that I would be pleased to sit down and go over that information with him. He blew up. He yelled at me and swore at me. He had a conniption fit. And when the bell finally rang to end that session, stunned parents scurried away. Eventually, I got to go in and check with my principal, who reassured me that I had done the right thing.

A couple of months later, it was discovered that the stepfather (currently on parole) was having sex with the stepdaughter. Her mom found out, took the girl, and ran. I always wonder what happened to her. There are so many kids that I wonder about.

The hardest lesson I learned as a first-year teacher is one that each of us who stay in the profession have to discover: You can't save them all. You come out of college feeling like you can make a difference...that you can get out and inspire the world to change. And you can do so in very tiny ways. The other part of the reality of this is simply that there are too many problems that kids have that can't be solved in the classroom.

For many reasons, I just had to get away from teaching in New Mexico, although I did make it for five years in that environment. But I have to say that the experiences I had while I lived and worked there shaped the way I work with kids, as well as my drive to improve the educational experience for everyone involved. Now, I live in a place and work an environment that feeds my mind and teacher soul.

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