I have a confession to make. I sucked my first year teaching. I sucked so bad the Principal made a point of coming into my room at least once a day to tell me how much I sucked. She would even go as far as to tell me how much I sucked in front of my students. One day she pulled me aside in the middle of a lesson and proclaimed “That’s not teaching.” She continued on a twenty minute tangent about how when she was a teacher she would take her students on a magic carpet ride every class. She had been an elementary school teacher and my students, who were seniors, looked at me with quiet desperation and wondered when “their magic carpet ride” would end. At my first annual evaluation she told me “I wouldn’t have hired you back but the district made you permanent.” I entered the teaching profession when there was a teaching shortage and even English teachers were hard to come by. Real estate was hot, teaching was not.
In fact, I moved to smoldering Miami from foggy San Francisco because I knew that all you needed to enter the teaching profession was a Bachelor’s degree and a pulse. I took a couple of tests, applied for a temporary teaching license, and the next thing you know I’m standing in front of 30 seniors teaching Beowulf. I had not been in a high school since I graduated from one 10 years earlier. I never had an education class. I never substitute taught. I wasn’t even an English major. I was an Anthropology major who secretly hated Beowulf because every year in high school that was the first thing we read.
It was not entirely my fault that I sucked so much as a teacher my first year. I had zero training and zero support. I started after the school year began and I didn’t even have a classroom. There is no punishment crueler than being a “floating” teacher. “Floating” is an oxymoronic expression for a teacher that does not have a classroom and instead “floats” around from class to class during another teacher’s planning period. You cannot “float” when you do not have a classroom. I would push around an overhead projector (because the hosting teachers would never let me erase anything from their boards) loaded with 30 textbooks, markers, butcher paper, student work…..You can barely get from class to class before your students arrive, forget about ever having a chance to use the bathroom between classes. Classroom management when you don’t have a classroom is extraordinarily difficult even for a seasoned pro, but it is usually the new teachers who are stuck “floating.”
So there I was trying to figure out how to teach with no training, no support, no classroom and a Principal who prided herself on being able to fire any teacher, new ones and old ones. Contrary to the myth that a tenured teacher can never be fired, I was hired to replace a tenured teacher that my Principal had filed the necessary paperwork to get rid of. My Principal believed that great teachers are born, not made. That no amount of professional development could help a bad teacher improve. Perhaps that’s why she never offered me any professional development or a mentor teacher. To her credit, letting me know how much I sucked every day did drive me to improve. A little help and support would have been nice, but I’m the type of person that when you tell me I can’t do something, I will spend all my energy determined to prove you wrong.
Speaking of energy. New teachers are often praised for the “energy” they bring to the classroom by education reformers like Michelle Rhee who advocate for destroying seniority rights. This is a myth. As a new teacher I was exhausted and did not bring any extra “energy” to the classroom. Because new teachers are not paid very well, most of them have to work a second job. I had a second and a third job. I taught regular school from 7:30-2:30, night school from 3:00-5:00 and then worked at a restaurant from 6:00-2:00 am. That schedule does not leave one “energized” for the classroom or with much spare time for lesson planning and grading papers. Not to mention the classes I had to take with the district for my professional teaching license.
Newer, younger teachers are praised for their energy and fresh ideas. In reality, they are often too busy trying to be friends with their students to discipline them. Young teachers like to party and many will admit to showing up to class hungover on more than one occasion. Because I taught seniors they wanted to know when we were going to the club together. Being young and short did not help me to be taken seriously as an authority figure. Only recently, have the security guards stopped yelling at me to get to class because they mistake me for a student (I guess that means I’m getting old, sigh…). My first year I taught non-college bound seniors who towered over me. I had half the football team in my class and one time they took a mannequin head that had been part of another student’s Lady MacBeth project and tossed it around the room like a football while I jumped around trying to stop it. I doubt this is the vision of innovative instruction that Michelle Rhee claims that newer, younger teachers bring to the classroom over veteran teachers.
Although I’m sure that there are some amazing first year teachers out there, they are not the majority. Most teachers are willing to confess they were not great teachers their first few years. The ones who aren’t and claim to have been amazing since day one have probably left the classroom and are working as either as administrators or have taken positions with the district or education think tanks instead. Their egos require it. Truly great teachers will always have an element of humility. They will know they made a mistake teaching their first period class and they hope they can correct it by their last class. They will seek out meaningful professional development in their subject area and hopefully bring back new knowledge and techniques to their classrooms. They will always strive to be a better teacher than the year before and most of the times they are. That’s why we pay experienced teachers more. They deserve it. We need to end the myth of the “new energetic” teacher and call them what they are “inexperienced novices who are cheap to hire.”