It is the time of the year when school is about to be starting again, which takes me back to this time in 2011. After a whirlwind summer of interviews and uncertainty, I was offered a job teaching high school French. As most of you know, I ended up leaving the teaching field after my one and only year and returning to graduate school to be a librarian. Now that I’m looking for a librarian job, I frequently get questions about why I left teaching so quickly. So, I thought I would share what happened during that time.
Firstly, I won’t share the name of the district or school that I worked for here. It’s not really a secret, but it seems inappropriate to include here because I have some less than positive things to say. Also, I would like to preface by adding that about 20% of first year teachers leave the field (don’t quote me on that stat, I read it online and can’t verify the validity). About half of all teachers leave the field within the first five years and report feeling “burned out”. I personally know one teacher that quit after only one semester. I list these factoids so you go into this with an idea of what a difficult job teaching really is. No one really warns you before you go into teaching that it will kick your butt. Then, once you’re committed, the horror stories start.
So, some things I did wrong before entering teaching. During my undergraduate career, I did not take any education classes or get my teaching certificate. I decided I wanted to finish school as quickly as possible and do alternative certification afterward. That means I never had an internship or student teaching opportunity. I never even substitute taught a class. I left college at the age of 21 (yes, 21), and began applying for teaching jobs and alternative certification programs. If you don’t know, in Texas, if you are considered “highly qualified” for your field (which equates to 18 college hours in your subject) you can be hired to teach without a certificate as long as you are enrolled in a certification program. You then complete your certification requirements during your first year. I decided to apply for a Master of Education in Teaching program at UTA because you could get a MEdT and teacher certification at the same time.
During the summer between my graduation in May and the start of school in August, I applied and applied and got ready to start a master’s program in the fall. I interviewed at a few fantastic school districts and one not-so-great district. I received rejections from all of the good districts. My interview with the head of the World Languages at the district I ended up working for, we’ll call it City ISD. The head of the department was a sweet woman who also spoke French and took a shine to me. She told me there were several schools with openings and explained which ones she would like me to end up at. At the bottom of her list was a school she described as “rough” and not a great fit for a young, white girl. Guess which school called me? I interviewed at a high school, we’ll call it City HS. This is tier 1 school for poverty (that’s the top level), where almost 90% of the students qualify for free lunch due to low income. The population was about half Hispanic, half African American. Most of the Hispanic students were first generation Americans. The area was know for gang activity from the Bloods, Crypts, and Latin Kings. The average student only reads at a 5th grade level and the drop out rate is 50%.
I was offered a position to teach French 1-3 at City HS two weeks before school started. The rush to get hiring paperwork and everything taken care of began. The first major snag came from my certification program at UTA. they refused to sponsor my probationary teaching certificate because I had not taken my LOTE test (the content TEXES test to prove I could speak French). Without their sponsorship, I could not be hired. I found this out the day I was to fill out my hiring paper work around lunchtime. I panicked. I called another certification program I had applied to and asked them if they would sponsor me without taking my LOTE test. They said yes. However, in order or to be enrolled they needed a transcript from my college. I then drove from one city to another to pick up my transcript, then to yet another city to the office of the certification program. Where I was enrolled under emergency allowances, approved by the president of the program because I was past the enrollment deadline and was behind on the requirements. I then drove back tot eh first city in a rush to make it before closing at 5pm so I could complete my hiring paperwork. The next day, I dropped out of the master’s program at UTA.
I began my career in teaching the week before the start of classes. I was offered the position so late in the summer that I missed New Teacher Camp. Still not sure what I missed out on, but probably a something useful. My very first day was a teacher work day. Now, you might expect that, on the first day of a new job, the boss would show up, welcome you, and show you around, maybe introduce you to some people. What actually happened was that I was handed a key to my classroom and told “I think that class is one of the portable buildings” and sent out on my own. A veteran teacher saw me wandering around lost and showed me to my class in the portable building behind the school.
When we reached the classroom and tried to flip on the lights, there was no electricity. I headed back to the office, who knew nothing about the issue. I spent an unknown amount of time wandering around hoping to figure out what was wrong. My building house another classroom, but I had yet to see a teacher show up to that room. Now, keep in mind, this is Texas in August. It was about 100 degrees out and my classroom was a metal building baking in the sun with no electricity, so it was unbelievably hot in there. I eventually found the other teacher who shared my building and she figured out what was going on. The electricity to our building had to be unhooked due to some construction. We were told there might be electricity the next day. That was a blatant lie. What was actually going on was that a whole new portable building was being moved in. In order to make room, the electric pole had to be taken down. On this first day, the pole was down, but there was no building. Once the new building was installed, a new pole had to be put up, then the new building had to be wired, the electric company had to come inspect, and then finally turn on the power.
So, my first day as a teacher consisted of finding all of this out, feeling totally lost, and then cutting out at lunch time with my new teacher edition textbook in hand to go work at home since I couldn’t get my classroom ready. Day two was pretty much the same. The rest of the week was spent in in-service meetings. Every day I checked my classroom, praying for electricity, and was disappointed. That Saturday, my Dad and I went up to the school to set my classroom up in the crazy heat so that I would be ready for the first day of school on Monday.
The first day of school came and still there was no electricity in my room. I was told to teach in the cafeteria and auditorium, along with the other teachers from portable classrooms who were displaced. I entered the cafeteria bright and early in my cute but professional teacher outfit, ready to hand out syllabi and introduce myself to my students. I was met with a substitute who told me he was there for my class… The office then told me, minutes before the school day started, that there had been an issue with my paperwork and I had not actually been cleared to teach. So, until my background check was finished, I wasn’t allowed to teach. I ended up leaving my very first classes ever to a sub and rushed to the district building to figure out what was wrong. It turns out, nothing. My background check had cleared, it just hadn’t been put into the system yet. I made it back to the school around lunch time, after purchasing a big notepad and markers to use as a makeshift whiteboard. I kicked the sub out and readied myself for the second half of the day, still determined to make the best of my first day. The second issue I ran into was that the teacher from the year before had quit without warning her students and, because of my paperwork snafu, her name still appeared on my student’s schedules. For my French I kids, this wasn’t an issue but, for French II, it was. They showed up expecting their former teacher and were furious with me for her absence. And so ended my first day.
The second day of school, I met my second period class for the first time, all 41 of them. They were loud, unruly, and hated my guts. They also seemed to have little to no knowledge of French, which was an problem. Later that day, during my 7th period class, I was threatened with physical violence by a student when I asked her to move away from a girl she was talking to. I got a crash course in writing office referrals, I got to know the assistant principal over the 9th grade, and got the student a ticket and sent to alternative school. The end of that school day, I was told one of my sophomores had gone into labor and I needed to send her six weeks worth of classwork to do during her maternity leave. That night, I called my mother in tears and had to be talked in to ever going back for day three.
Things stayed difficult for the first six weeks. I taught in the cafeteria and auditorium for six weeks before my classroom finally had electricity. Let me tell you about the challenge of that. I couldn’t haul my class set of text books with me. I didn’t have board to right on at all. And I had no clue what the hell I was doing. I did my best to make copies of the book and worksheets to actually teach something. My classroom was a tote bag that I hauled around with me. To say it was difficult does not describe the level of overwhelmed and terrified I felt every day. That I continued to go back each day represents one of the most difficult struggles I’ve had in my life. During this time, I also did not have a district email or computer log on. One of the Spanish teachers let me use their log on so I could make my lesson plans on the student computers in the library during planning periods. One of the huge issues I face during this time was my student’s behavior. It was almost impossible to put classroom management in place when you’re in a cafeteria. All of that Henry Wong stuff goes out the window. How can you have a seating chart or routines in a damn cafeteria? People were always wandering through and disrupting. It is also difficult to keep your own students in place when there are so many exits and distractions. During this time, I also learned that the first weeks of the year acts as the weeding out period for the really troublesome kids. They all come back from the summer allowed at regular school until they screw up. That means you get the joy of having them in your class until they do something bad enough to get knock back to alternative school. I can’t even tell you how many kids I, thankfully, lost due to this. My giant class never did get balanced out. My largest class had 40 kids and my smallest had 10.
When my classroom finally had electricity and we were able to move in, I could’ve wept with joy. The very next day, my students arrived to seating arrangements and a new, more regimented way of doing things. It also took this long or a little longer to eliminate my French II kids’ hatred of me. Admittedly, it dissolved into a really immature argument between myself and a handful of sophomore girls. I got sick of being told how inadequate I was compared to the previous teacher on a daily basis and finally blew up. One of my students told me that the old teacher was nicer, more helpful, and they liked her better. I had heard the same complaint from them constantly but that day I said “well, obviously she didn’t like it here or she wouldn’t have quit”. It shut them up long enough for me to explain that the previous teacher had quit long before I ever interviewed for this job and that I had nothing to do with her departure, she wasn’t returning, and it was time to get over it. Sadly, it didn’t happen that quickly, but it did happen.
Over the course of the first semester, I learned so much. I got familiar with my students, the materials I had at my disposal, and the school. I made friends with my neighboring teacher and absorbed anything I could from her. I learned how to use the awesome set up curriculum that I had at a rudimentary level. I got by on using the lesson plans, worksheets, quizzes, and tests from out textbook set. It isn’t the ideal way to teach a class, I now know, but it was the best I could accomplish at the time. I started to get my classroom management under control and, by my first observation, was being praised on the rapport I had with my students. It came down to learning my own style for dealing with disruptions. Basically, I sent people out onto the porch to talk so they had a minute to cool off. Then I did my best to level with them and I wasn’t afraid to talk to them on their level. We were so close in age I usually had a little attitude when my kids got in trouble. I think the phrase I said the most was “are you kidding me?” It sounds unprofessional or crazy, but for these kids, it got through to them so much more than just talking at them. Those sophomore girls that hated me? Well, the worst one moved away. Without her influence, the others folded quickly. I got in another argument with one and we ended up having a heart to heart after class one day. I wanted to do a teacher conference but her family didn’t speak English. They told the secretary that was translating that I was mean to their daughter and always singled her out. Once I realized how she viewed it, we were able to actually talk it out. I asked her if I needed to apologize for my own behavior, because I would. She end up saying no and admitting that she had said that to her mother out of spite. We reached a truce and, eventually, had a fairly pleasant relationship. I left for Christmas break with a lighter heart than I had felt since August.
The second semester brought its own challenges because new students came and some left. Some just changed class periods so the dynamics shifted. The adjustment period was fairly quick compared to the beginning of the year. The second semester saw the most helpful moment of my brief teaching career. The World Languages department head agreed to pay for a substitute so I could take a day and go observe other French teachers, since I was the only one at my school. Talking to those other teachers about their methods and resources changed my outlook on teaching completely. Sadly, this didn’t happen until February but, if I had returned for year two, I would’ve had a much better plan for the year. I started to use songs in my lessons to encourage memorization. I used more creative projects which both made my life easier, and gave my students more time to absorb material. I learned to slow down. It was unrealistic to expect my students, who barely read in English, to take in a whole textbook of French so quickly. I got more selective with my material. TAKS and STAAR testing brought a stressful time period but, since I didn’t teach one of those subjects, it wasn’t too bad for me. By the time I had made the decision to leave teaching and announced it to my students, it was with sadness on both sides.
When it comes down to it, there were a lot of reasons I left the profession. It’s a tough job. There’s no dressing that up, it’s just plain tough. What made it worse was that I knew it wasn’t my passion. The bad days were horrible, and the good days could be ok or boring. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, but I have never felt that it was the wrong decision. One of the major issues was with my teacher certification.
The certification process was a long and difficult one that I didn’t actually finish. I did online coursework during my already busy and stressful year. I finished everything online by January, as required. I had my required observations by the program. I had two elements left: my LOTE test and PPR test. I took the LOTE (languages other than English) once in September (I think) and, after 5 hours of the most difficult test of my life, failed. The test consists of a listening comprehension section, writing, speaking, and reading. It is all timed and totals up to a brutal 5 hours. Failing crushed me. I got 78% and needed 80% to pass. I decided to study up and take my time before taking it again. I waited until February. After Spring Break, when I returned feeling positive about being a teacher, finally, I got the news I had failed again. Due to the scheduling of the exams, I wouldn’t be able to take it again until the end of the school year, which meant there was no way to finish my certification by the end of the year. That morning, I stood in my classroom and cried between classes, feeling like a total failure. Not finishing my certification by the end of the year meant that I couldn’t get a job at another school district. City ISD would have sponsored my probationary certificate for a second year. That would have given me another year to get it worked out but I would’ve been required to teach at my same school. After much thought, I realized that it wasn’t what I wanted at all.
I felt like I was fighting so hard for a job I didn’t like, and I couldn’t remember why anymore.
And so, I left the profession to go back to working part-time for the library and get my master’s degree in library science.
The absolute worst experiences I had over the course of that year have stuck with me. Of course, getting threatened the second day of school was bad, but wasn’t that scary. I did have a scary moment later in the year. A student joined my class for the first time after leaving alternative school. We got along for about two weeks. Then, one day, he didn’t get his way when I wouldn’t let him bully another student and he lost his cool with me. He threw a fit in class and I kicked him out. His principal was out of the school that day, so he wasn’t seen. The next day he returned my neighbor teacher and I had decided he should work in her class until he and I had a chance to work out the previous day’s issues with the principal. This news set him off again. I kicked him out, again. The third day (he still had yet to see the principal) he came into the room ready for a fight. He threw a backpack across my room. I had prepared for an outburst so I had another teacher in my room as a witness. He told both of us that we would “find out the hard way what happens if you mess with me”. Keep in mind, this is a 6ft tall teenager with a chip on his shoulder. This time, the school resource police officer got involved and, thankfully, he was not put back in my classroom. Once, one of my football players kicked over three desks as part of a tantrum. I had students show up high, walk out of class thinking I wouldn’t notice, two girls almost fought each other, there was bullying, I was insulted countless times, and I had students who disrupted on a daily basis. I walked into each class never knowing what to expect. I once had a class that was so out of control I couldn’t teach for the entire 45 minutes. I ended up forcing them to sit in silence after one girl yelled at me and left the room. That day resulted in two students being removed from my class and everyone having to fill our a form about what they had done wrong, as well as a crazy seating arrangement where no one could be within one seat of their neighbor.
Thankfully, I did have several great experiences that I remember fondly. I got to know my students so well. I was awed by the talent that some of the had for the arts. I had fantastic artists and musicians who were passionate about those fields. I had students who felt close enough to me to talk to me about their lives. I learned so much that has changed how I view the world. I still remember the reactions I got when I told my students I wouldn’t return for a second year. I had a girl actually cry and a class of students that begged me to change my mind. My seventh period class set me up on a date with a cute substitute teacher. I watched my students have breakthroughs and some developed a love for French. I had a student with bipolar disorder who fought with every one of his teachers, except me, tell me that I was his favorite teacher and never give me a problem all year. I made excellent, supportive friends with the AVID teacher who’s class neighbored mine and the tutors she had in her classroom. I had one of my most disruptive students get kicked out of our school and, on her last day, she came by my room to tell me goodbye and say that I had been one of her favorite teachers because I never let her get away with anything, yet I was never mean, so she felt like I cared about her. I had a girl write me a letter at the end of the year to say how much she had enjoyed my class.
There were some laugh out loud funny moments that year. One of my most disruptive students was also the funniest. He quickly learned je m’apelle (my name is…) but started using it for everything by changing the inflection. When a girl would enter my classroom to deliver a note he would say it seductively, when he left for the day he said it like a greeting. It always made me laugh. He could make the funniest expressions. He and his friend used to stand at the door to the classroom during passing period as students entered and tell the kids hurrying toward the room “Here at City, when that bell rings you’re late!” Which I think was so funny because he was known for being tardy to class most days. I had to call his mom so many times I saved her number in my cell phone and we would call her during class about his behavior. He started joking that his mom and I were best friends who were going to hang out on the weekends. I had one of my more clueless students tell me that unicorns are real and that they’re made by breeding a horse with a narwal. Then taking that baby and breeding it with a horse again. Then taking that offspring and breeding it with a horse one more time until you end up with a unicorn. There were moments when you shouldn’t laugh, but couldn’t help it.
Some of saddest things I dealt with over the year included losing a student because her dad kicked her out of the house for having a boyfriend of a different race. So, at 15 years old, she was homeless until her mom sent her a bus ticket to come live with her in Houston. She told me the horrible names her own father had called her and I saw how hard it was on her to lose her Dad to that. I saw students struggle and fall behind, make bad choices, and have babies. I had two freshmen girls who already had babies and one sophomore. (Our school actually had a daycare for the students’ children) I dealt with my own personal sadness over the end of one of the most important relationships I’ve ever had in my life, which made it hard to go to work.
The most important thing is that I survived the year. I can be proud that I didn’t give up. I learned so much about myself, my students, and the world. I grew up. I struggled and overcame. I met students who I still miss today, and some I hope to never see again. I hope that I somehow had a positive impact on at least one of my students.
If there’s something I would add to this is that, if school districts want to retain teachers, they need to start supporting them. I never did have anyone from admin show me around, introduce me to anyone, or check in to see if things were going ok. My principal entered my classroom only two times in a year. Once for a quick walk through and once for my official PDAS evaluation. I was assigned a mentor, but it was a very symbolic arrangement which did nothing to actually help me. Teachers should not be entering a classroom without the principal talking to them about their new position. If you have an unexpected situation, like my classroom without electricity, the principal should show some support for the teachers affected. Help out your new teachers if you want them to stick around.