“Confessions of an Educator” columnist Chris Margolin shares what it was like being a lethargic, first-year teacher to becoming an ever-evolving, more engaged and effective teacher.
I was hired two days before the school year began. It was my first year teaching and I was given four preps and absolutely no curriculum from which to teach. I wore jeans and a hoodie almost every day and, other than my hefty weight issues at the time, I looked like a student. And frankly, my students were only a few years younger than me; I had to remember that they weren’t my friends and shouldn’t be treated as such.
For the first month of school I showed episodes of Family Guy and The Simpsons and told them that if anyone asked, they were learning about irony. I interspersed writing assignments and character reflections. We read really basic materials. My sophomores, freshmen, credit recovery, and creative writing students were all learning the exact same thing—or, rather, watching the same episodes. I didn’t have a gauge on what exactly I should be teaching them and the television seemed like the easiest route as I attempted to piece together whatever it was I thought teaching should look like.
And then I got caught. My neighboring teacher walked in just as Peter Griffin was pulling down his pants to show his doctor his testicles. It wasn’t my best moment. Students were fully engaged in the show, but there was no work to go with it. They were just watching and laughing. I was not. Neither was she. Later that afternoon, I received a call from my principal requesting my presence in her office.
I want to make all the excuses in the world for my first foray into the teaching world, but I can’t. I knew exactly what I was doing versus what I should have been doing. I was diligently learning the curriculum, but I wasn’t really bringing it to the classroom. I was a fairly young 22-year-old and my mind was still stuck firmly in the post-college haze of booze, pills, and a lack of interest in really doing anything work-related. But that phone call brought me, firmly, into reality.
I can be a fairly emotional person, so I felt scared and sick and was probably starting to tear up before I even started my walk to her office. Once inside, I crumbled as she told me that if I didn’t change what I was doing, I might not even make it through the year, let alone return for the next one. I was given a list of must-do items in order to change my trajectory: submit weekly lesson plans a week in advance, dress appropriately for work, enter grades, and stop showing television shows that have absolutely nothing to do with school. I had twice-weekly observations and constant conferences with both my mentor teacher, as well as my administrator.
But I changed. I grew up. I stopped the booze and the pills and the lack of any sort of effort at my job—and probably my life as well. I didn’t really have an interest in any type of boxed curriculum, so I still taught that which interested both my students and myself. But I was teaching, and the lesson plans were approved, applicable, and different for each prep I taught.
To actually work was refreshing. It reminded me why I wanted to teach in the first place. I could impart knowledge about my interests on my students and, in turn, they could do the same for me. After all, teaching is a mutually beneficial occupation as we should be learning as much, if not more, from our students as they learn from us.
It is not easy to be a first-year teacher. It’s not easy at 10 years or 20 years or 30 years either. Rather, it’s a learning experience. It’s growing up. It’s finding your own set of personal Common Core Standards and figuring out not only the teacher you want to be, but the person you want to be. I wanted to be a good teacher when I started, but I wasn’t giving myself the opportunity to do that because I was lazy and lacked a serious amount of “give a shit” when it came to planning and taking care of what was needed. At the end of the day, you either do the work or find different work. As secondary teachers, we are accountable for more than 100+ students a day. If we don’t step in front of them as leaders, facilitators, and instructors of life and learning, then we are doing a disservice to everyone involved.