Nothing Compares to Being a First-Year Teacher

“A student urinated on my floor when I was out in the hallway.  On a day I was absent, students jettisoned textbooks and graded papers out my second-story classroom window.  A computer monitor was smashed on my floor after a rage-filled overhead toss.  I witnessed a basketball player punch another student in the face before school, stay in class all day, and then suit up for the afternoon’s game.  No consequences.”

When I reread the following essay I wrote over eight years ago about my first-year teaching in 2004-2005, I’m still shocked.

I’m shocked I stayed in the teaching profession after resigning from this job.  I’m shocked that somebody thought it’d be reasonable for a first-year teacher to endure and persist working in an absurdly stressful and, at times, dangerous environment.  I’m shocked–even angry–that there are schools like this across the country, where populations of highly troubled and needy students are corralled into schools staffed with mostly inexperienced teachers.  Right now, we don’t have the political will to treat certain groups of students differently in order to give them reasonable hope for adult and career success. 

Regardless of where you teach, the first-year on the job will inevitably be one of the toughest undertakings of your life.

_______________________________________

Standing in front of the 8th grade class, my heart palpitated to near panic-attack speed as I watched the molasses-slow second hand of the clock.  Please bell—ring early, I prayed.  It was my second day of teaching middle school, and the boys were putting me to the test. 

In the span of three minutes, the boys had gone from contained to out of control.  Two students were shooting dice in the back of the room, and while I told them to put their crumpled dollar bills away, several others took off their shiny new basketball shoes.  They began tossing them around like ill-shaped footballs.  Before I could react, one boy successfully broke into my supply closet.  He snatched handfuls of No. 2 pencils and yellow highlighters and sprinted out of the room, slamming the door behind him.

The bell soon bailed me out, and I survived the last periods of the school day—somehow—and eventually staggered out a back entrance and across the faculty parking lot to my car.  I fumbled for my keys, started the Honda up, and headed toward the freeway to return to my sparsely furnished apartment.  I should have screamed in frustration or cried tears of self-pity while on the expressway.  But I did neither—I suspect I was too numb from the day to have any emotional response.

Just three months prior, I had been enjoying a care-free senior spring of college in the bucolic hills of Vermont, taking advantage of local swimming holes, hiking trails, and barbecue opportunities with friends.  To say I was content would be an understatement.  Life was wonderful.  Plans were set to move to Kentucky and teach middle school for at least two years.  I was eager to face the challenges of urban public education.

By the beginning of summer, I had resettled in Louisville and was enrolled in an alternative teacher certification program.  I had roughly two months to prepare to teach 8th grade boys’ language arts.  While I was well-versed content wise, I had no experience with classroom management.

Things got slightly better for a while after I toiled through the opening days.  I gained the respect of some students, learning on the fly that conventional means of educating wouldn’t work with this group of belligerent kids.  Operating within a school culture that tolerated extreme student misconduct, I had to battle fire with fire.  At one point, I challenged a student to fight me in front of the class. 

If I had to be unethical to reach the point where I could actually teach, I’d do it—let the ends justify the means, I told myself repeatedly.  I wanted to “leave no child behind,” and was determined to overcome a nearly impossible situation.  I stepped outside myself one morning to shatter a wooden paddle across a desk, sending splinters flying everywhere, then delivered a passionate 20-minute tirade to my most unruly class.  Controlled explosions didn’t become routine, but they were one of many reluctant strategies I employed to try to get the job done.  I started to make some progress, but was often derailed from potentially engaging lessons by a number of frustrations.

When I did gain control of the classroom, external forces almost always seeped into my room, seriously disrupting student learning.  Roaming students might barge in unannounced to taunt boys in my class.  Students would daily come to my room after spending two hours with a substitute teacher, hardly in a good frame of mind to sit down and focus.  Some days, I was hardly teaching but 25% of the time; I was babysitting, containing mini-riots, and policing.  A steady occurrence of shocking behavior further inhibited my ability to instruct. 

A student urinated on my floor when I was out in the hallway.  On a day I was absent, students jettisoned textbooks and graded papers out my second-story classroom window.  A computer monitor was smashed on my floor after a rage-filled overhead toss.  I witnessed a basketball player punch another student in the face before school, stay in class all day, and then suit up for the afternoon’s game.  No consequences.

Not one horrific event got me thinking about resigning, but after about three months the reality of the situation started to take a significant mental and physical toll.  I felt constantly in a daze, and my neck and shoulders were knotted up with immense stress.  I was at a crossroads—do I stay, or move on to something more manageable?  It had come to the point where, even if I was able to make measurable progress in the classroom, the little gains came at too great a cost to my mental and physical well-being.

What ensued was the two absolute toughest weeks of my life.  I endured some near-sleepless nights and a constant preoccupation in my brain—I just couldn’t tune out the question of resignation.  I consulted family, friends, and colleagues, letting them know how I was feeling and seeking out advice.  What I needed to do soon became clear.  I resigned the day before Thanksgiving.   

Making the decision to leave the job was the toughest choice I’ve ever had to make, but I know it was the right one.  Not succeeding wasn’t my fault, and it certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort.  I had been tossed around by negative forces way out of my control.

Substantial systemic change is necessary if we, as a nation, are truly committed to providing quality education for those who need it most.  I haven’t given up the commitment to help others, but am unsure if I will resurface in urban public education.  What I do know is that if I teach again, I hope I won’t feel like every child is being left behind.

43 thoughts on “Nothing Compares to Being a First-Year Teacher

  1. You don’t have to be a first year teacher to feel the “shock and awe” stress. I’m 26 years into it, and am counting the days to retirement.

    • I understand. Due to the first job being so out-of-control, nothing has surprised me on the job since. Doesn’t make it any easier.
      For those folks who think it only takes a few years to become an effective teacher, they are dreaming!

  2. This is an astonishing post. It’s hard to even imagine such chaos and insanity in any classroom and I admire you for getting out with your sanity, health and life. No doubt (?) you’ve read Alex Kotlowitz and Jonathan Kozol…both of which I read right after moving to the US in 1989. It was searing and I doubt much has changed.

    • Astonishing but true! Five years ago, a student asked for a pass to the bathroom. I said no. School rules prohibit passes during the last ten minutes of class. He was going to lunch next period when the opportunity to relieve himself was allowed. Instead of being patient, he cursed me out, marched into the back band instrument storage room, barricaded the door, and uninated onto a drum set!

      Sorry, but PARENTS MUST teach their children civility and correctness. Children who don’t give a “Rat’s Ass” about an education should be funneled into schools that will involve (notice I didn’t say teach) them in a trade.

      • Agree about the trade/vocational training. It’s sorely lacking, and so many students end up with a high school diploma, unprepared for college, with no marketable skills.

    • Oh my god, I am living this situation right now. I love teaching, but I can’t stand where I currently teach, and believe it or not a lot of this stuff has already happened to me. It’s awful, I’ve lost 35 pounds due to stress. To top it all off, my principal is a very hateful person and blames everything on me even as I received the job mid-year and it’s only my second year. I get no administrative support, and they blame the student’s innate behavior on me, when I’ve done everything to tame them, including starting off strong with rules and consequences. The bad part is, the administration doesn’t approve the consequences I’ve given the students, so the kids think I’m a joke and they are very rude and out of control. I mean OUT OF CONTROL. I thought about quitting due to this situation, but I love it. I hate my circumstances, but love to teach, and by golly I’m going to find another school I love like my first school so I can get back to that side of me, not the me that goes home exhausted and aching all over.

      Needless to say, I’m resigning as of June and setting out across the state to find a new teaching job. My first year was phenomenal, but being the newest hire, I was cut due to mandatory county cuts. I loved my first year, but this year has been the pits. I just tell myself, only 52 days left…I hope I make it that long without being out on leave – we have two teachers out on medical leave due to kids beating them up.

  3. The key here is this line: “Substantial systemic change is necessary if we, as a nation, are truly committed to providing quality education for those who need it most.” We are not committed as a nation to quality education. Period. We piss and moan about high taxes while we denigrate teachers and insist they are overpaid and under-worked as we expect them to raise our kids — because we are too busy working to make payments on the house and new car. I found your story unsettling in the extreme, but I dare say it is repeated again and again across this country as good teachers quit and the ones who can persevere — somehow. How very sad.

    • I truly had a brutal first-job placement, and it was only because of community support that I’m still in the teaching game.
      Combat pay for teachers in tough situations may help, but it’s really the school structures that need to change. Smaller schools, more social workers, etc.

  4. First of all, thank you for sharing that traumatic experience. It’s incredible that you were able to come away from that and still be in the teaching profession.

    I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but your story reminds me of Season Four of the Wire, in which one of the narratives followed a new teacher was tasked to teach in a Baltimore city school. It was quite depressing, but your story is equally as grim and rooted in reality.

    • Thanks Issac.
      I have seen Season Four of the Wire, and it did bring me right back into that first 8th grade classroom.
      I’m loving teaching now, and it’s sometimes hard to believe this was my start.

  5. I must admit now as an high schooler i have mature from my 8th grade year ! i really can say that it doesn’t matter what year of teaching you are in , if you students can sense fear on you or know that you are ” all talk and no bark” than they will act on it , hoping that you will do something about it . I can’t lie i was that student that would test you. i Would do certain things to see how far i could go with you . for example my 8th grade english teacher , i DOGGED him , walked over him , pretty much ran that class along with my peers . Back than i thought that was cute , but now just wish i could take it back and give him a better chance . For one i knew he couldn’t tolerate too much because he had a bad heart , so than i saw that as a weakness and ran with it . Now i must say , i was an HORRIBLE person for that , and i regret those actions in a way , but as i see it when you go through bad students and than you eventually learn how to conquer them , than you have learn how to be a better teacher and learn how to get to different kids . Now its stressful but fight through it .

    • It is mind-blowing to look back and realize how awful adolescents can be. I was far from a model person as an 8th grade boy, but I didn’t go to school in an environment where inexperienced teachers would get abused and DOGGED like you describe.

  6. I would never be a teacher. I have put a lot of thought into becoming a professor though, but it would be for archeology or new media. I don’t know, the thought of working with kids at that age i just wouldn’t be able to do it. I can work with younger kids like 5 and under or older people but never teens. The thing is that i always try to make peoples lives better and you cant really change people and that’s what i would want to do so no teaching for me.

    • Kaylie,
      Not all school jobs are brutal, but it’s always stressful and demanding. I disagree about not being able to change people–I think us teachers can positively influence (hopefully for the good) a lot of students. However, you’re right in pointing out that with some students, it feels like a lost cause sometimes. There’s nothing worse that truly caring and dealing with students who have so many issues that they constantly fight back, not cooperate, and seem to be on a fast track to prison/no job/no social skills.

  7. When I read this I started to think about all the bad things I did to teachers especially subs in class. And I realize that it is very hard to be a teacher and for you to come to school and have to put up with the stuff you put up with takes a lot!!!

  8. First year teachers are easily manipulated. Pick a school, walk down to the teacher’s lounge and find yourself in the ninth circle of hell. It’s not always the same but the student population continues to thrive on cruelty and humiliation. Like wolves to dead cold, lifeless meat students will feed on your insecurities and twist them to break you. Theres always a first time for everything but if anyone reading this is interested in being a teacher, I highly recommend rethinking your desire to be a facilitator. It’s nothing like the stimulations you’ll be experimenting in your college classes. This comes from a student who’s seen her fair share of mentally unstable, emotionally inept, first year teachers. In fact, in my last year of middle school I literally taught the science class. I would take my notebook home at night and do five days worth of work for a student and one day for a teacher. In other words, I’ve had the bitter taste of being an educator. Please, rethink your decisions regarding the educational field. It’s a shark tank, and students will rip you to shreds. There’s no need to put yourself through such torture.

  9. Damn, I had no idea that middle schoolers could be that crazy! I don’t know what schools you’ve been going to but my school was not like that. Everything was chill and no one ever did stuff like that without major consequences. I mean i was never gonna be a teacher but now I am for sure never be one. I mean the most kids got in trouble for was turning in something late. Thats for real crazy!

  10. When I were in middle school, I was ‘The Class Clown’. I never did my work. I always slept. If I wasn’t sleeping, I was eating or being obnoxiously loud. As the years passed, it got old and reality hit me. I got worked up about my grades, and decided to make a change.

    I can’t believe you continued to teach, I would have quit the first day!

  11. Way back when I was in middle school, I myself was a TERRIBLE student. I remember using profanity towards my teachers, throwing their personal items out the windows, fighting in class, and far worse. I’m not afraid to admit any of my wrong doings from those days. Its true when they say teachers have by far the hardest job, stuck in a classroom for 7 hours with unruly teens. My hats off to ya. I wouldn’t do it. Just thinking about the things I used to do in class would scare me away from a career in education. Seriously, I’m that kid in class that would go out of my way to make the teachers life a living hell. My 8th grade teacher had a really bad heart condition, his head would turn a bright fire truck color when his heart was beating to fast. One day he grew sick of my antics, but by then it was far too late.. I’m the type of person if you don’t lay down the law on the first day, you will never be able to control me like, ever. I used to hide in his closet and scare him, kick the doors open, throw things in class, drum on other student heads, sing inappropriate songs, and cuss like a sailor. I’m telling you I was horrible – no lower case. Even my graduation speech was talking down on the school. At the time I thought it was cute, I thought it was the thing to do.. I think I thought I was really doing something, being somebody because of my behavior. Looking back, I wish I could go back and take a belt to my backside.. My behavior was not cute. I would love to go back and apologize to all my teachers, but its too late.

    I have a bunch more to say but there goes the bell, I’m out.

    • Disclaimer: Azariah and the other student commenters above are in my advanced digital media class. They are great students now, thoughtful, and willing to engage in this dialogue. It’s amazing to see such students be so open about the realities of being in a tough middle school where, sadly, taking advantage of weak teachers happens too often.
      Riah, if any of your former teachers are still working, we can send them a message!

  12. Discussion has hit several salient points:
    1) The country’s politicians lack the will to even begin to address public education’s woes
    2) Parents should (some do) raise their children to practice civility and self-control as the very minimum for civilization, especially when someone is trying to help their kids.
    3) Consequences for actions (good and bad) should be clear, reasonable, and prompt.
    4) Teachers, like any other professionals, benefit from practice. And also like any other professional group, there are a few bad/ineffective ones out there.

    The one thing I want to add is that until our society values education, sees education as a key to success, then unfortunately, nothing much will change for the better. Many of us, especially teachers and students who’ve gone on to reflect a bit, see that value, but not most people. Even some parents don’t care. Many voters don’t. Without (literate) voters to advocate for change and demand change from their politicians, the politicians won’t expend much thought or energy. Without lots of citizens to affect some grass-roots changes, nothing does.

    I don’t know what the exact answers are. I watched a small community college become increasingly choked with red tape and paperwork, leaving me less and less time to actually teach. Simultaneously, student behavior really did go downhill (not so bad as the horror stories of middle school above). Also, the buzzwords “student accountability” increasingly laid the responsibility and blame on teachers. And that’s COMMUNITY COLLEGE, which is by far the least rule-bound system I’ve found. I became a LESS effective teacher as I gained experience because the folderol increased faster than my skill. (I value other teachers’ greater experience and pay attention, so I learn fast.)

    So if you’ve got some ideas about how to change people’s attitudes, or how you can reach students despite the massive flaws in the system, we really REALLY need you!

  13. I know what it’s like to be swamped in Red Tape, but luckily it’s not so bad for me this year. I’m strictly teaching (4 different classes, which is a lot of planning) but I’m not required to attend many meetings. Luckily.
    Should we increase teacher education requirements and preparation, increase salaries, in an attempt to make it a more prestigious occupation (like in Finland)?

  14. Honestly, I don’t think there is any plan that cam make teaching a more effective occupation these beyond simply giving up on and excluding students who do not wan to learn. It can’t be your job to believe in these students, that’s just unfair to the ones who are genuinely trying. Put them put on the streets and let the pipe and gang life take care of them and educate the better part of the generation that wants to get ahead. That’s the only thing fair on the students and the dedicated teacher.

    • Radney, your thoughts are echoed throughout faculty break rooms across the country. Us educators hate to give up on kids, but sometimes, it’s such an uphill battle.
      You’re right–there is nothing worse than students massively disrupting the learning process for those who care. Unfortunately, high-needs students who do care are disproportionately affected by this, further hurting their chances to receive a solid education.

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  16. I am a first year teacher at a low-income, comprehensive school teaching freshmen. I came across this post while searching “First year teaching horror stories”. I started the school year late, about three weeks into the school year. One of the things that I found the most shocking is how many student show up to school high. Not just show up high, but how many students get high ON CAMPUS. I never dared try drugs in high school, not even as a senior and seeing how many of my students show up high makes me sick. The worse part, the schools don’t seem to do much. If a teacher suspects a student to be high, the student must be taken to the office, then examined by a nurse to determine whether they are high or not.

    I am not a doctor but from what I do know about drugs use is that these children who use these drugs to “feel good” or “behave in class” (as they claim) will eventually need some other stronger drug to get that “feel good” feeling. I fear that most of these students will end up trying the wrong drug, or asking the wrong people for these drugs, or worse, end up doing bad things for these drugs. Not all, but most students come from broken homes e.i.: single parent, divorce, separated, low income, on well fare, so many students think this is what the world is. I hope that these students will someday see that there is something better and they do not have to be a product of their environment. I sometimes even feel guilty for giving up on some of these kids, but it is just to stressful and takes a lot out of me.

    If anyone has anymore insight, it would be greatly appreaciated. I know this post was started a few months ago so we’ll see.

    Peace, Love, Oranges

    • Peacelove,
      I’ve been there. I remember being so overwhelmed by the magnified societal problems in just one classroom. Don’t feel guilty about not being able to get through to all of the kids. Nobody can. It’s a tough, but important lesson for teachers, especially in difficult environments.

  17. I am a first year teacher in a situation almost identical to the one you described. I haven’t encountered any urination in my room, but much of the rest of it is a daily battle for me. As I type, I’m starting to see double. I’m exhausted. It’s the end of the second quarter. Grades need to be inputted by Monday night, and I’m horrified at the amount of students who will fail–roughly 1/3 of them.
    I’m teaching three different grade levels in each one of my classes. They’re all supposed to be learning different content, but it is absolutely impossible to maintain multiple lesson plans in one class at the same time. It’s ludicrous! With a general population it would be difficult. Here, it’s just out of the question.
    The worst part is that my boss is totally dilusional and makes our lives a living hell. We can’t come to her for assistance with anything. Every single time I have ever asked her for guidance with discipline or how she expects us all to run a project/center-based classroom for these kids, she responds with passive-aggressiveness or by insulting me, telling me that , since the last teacher was able to handle it, I should be, too. I’m at a loss. How do I get at-risk students the information that they individually need when I have three different grades in one room and some of them, for instance, read at a second grade level?!

    I can’t find the balance between making sure that these kids trust me enough to be willing to accept instruction from me and being their friend, as opposed to an authority figure. Both are very necessary roles I must play. Tonight, my major stressor stems from one of the above posts that dealt with drugs. My classroom reeked like pot this morning. About halfway through class, I paused and said something like, “Listen, you guys know that I don’t want anyone here to get into any serious trouble. But, the pot smell in here is stifling. Whoever has it needs to get rid of it asap.” Well, I DIDN’T REALLY MEAN THAT LITERALLY! One of my students says, “I need to go to the bathroom.” I was shocked. I just let him go.

    Now, I’m terrified that one of the other kids who were in the room are going to say something to the principal next week or something and I’m going to get into some awful kind of trouble for saying that to the class and not telling her in private so that she could address it. The thing is that she has intentionally denied having smelled pot just so that she didn’t have to deal with the headache of paperwork and police. And, anytime anyone comes to her with anything that will force her to do work she wasn’t expecting, she makes him or her feel terrible for it–like they created the issue! My sense of foresight is off all the time now. And, I’m constantly nervous because I’m worried that my kids aren’t going to get the information they need or that my boss is going to make my life miserable. Help. Please, help.

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  19. I’m a first-year-teacher, and I started mid-year this February. I first took on an 8th grade ELA class, but soon realized I could not handle it. My first day of teaching was the worst day of my life. I had no control. After two weeks of teaching the class, I told the principal that she needed to find a replacement. She hired a sub and moved me to 6th grade “enrichment.” I am still having trouble with my classes.
    The principal is new at this junior high school, and she has only had experience with elementary schools. Thus, the kids have no consequences for bad behavior. They are only sent to In School Suspension in which they get to take their shoes off and “hang out.” My students actually ASK me to send them to ISS.
    The kids bring drugs to school, and the principal gives drug tests, but no one ever gets suspended. Instead, the principal gives the meek announcement stating “No one bring illegal substances to school. We’re not going to play with that.” Anytime I write a student up and send them to the office, the principal gets upset because she doesn’t want to (or know how to) deal with them. I started sending my kids to the ISS room for Friday detention until the assistant principal told me that “The ISS room is full.” Any form of punishment I try to give just gets lifted by the faculty, so I don’t know what to do.
    The kids throw pencils into my ceiling tiles. They call me names and constantly yell in class. They’re always up out of their seats. No matter how strict I try to be, it doesn’t work because I am thin and young so I don’t think they see me as an authority figure. They’re so rude every day; I often cry after work. Teachers come poking their heads into my room because it’s so loud, but I can’t give any punishments so the behavior doesn’t stop! Many of them have ankle bracelets. One of my 8th graders was pregnant with twins. The kids are just…out of control.
    I have about 3.5 months left, but the idea of resignation is always lingering in my mind. My mental health is worth much more than me check. I really do want to teach the kids, and I want to be a role model for them, but it just seems that I’m not doing any good at this school. Perhaps, it just isn’t the right fit. I feel like I have no support at all.

    • Firstyear,
      I’ve been there. Starting mid-year is such a disadvantage, especially in a dysfunctional school. As brutal as it is, there are the stories that must get out there so that new teachers aren’t put in such unhealthy and unrealistic positions.
      I barely decided to stay in the classroom after my first year.
      Try to be easy on yourself–none of this is your fault, and I hope you can find yourself in a manageable situation next year.

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  23. While I am fortunate to have not had such terrible horror stories, I am looking at my second year of teaching with dread rather than excitement. As a first year teacher last year I was expected to teach Language Arts to grades 7-11 with materials for only 2 of those 5 classes. It was completely overwhelming, and looking back I’m not even sure how I made it without collapsing with exhaustion. Fortunately my kids helped me out quite a bit, and it even became a running joke that someday I would be able to quit and work my dream job as a Walmart greeter (yup, I’ve considered it!). Wonderful (and a few not so wonderful) students aside, why is it that new teachers are given little to no help in one of the most stressful jobs in our country? WHY is our education system so broken?!

    Besides my rant, any words of advice for an apprehensive second year teacher would be greatly appreciated. Great and thoughtful post!

      • Yes, I was able to get into my classroom and get it lined up this summer. Mostly I’m worried about the classroom management aspect of things. Walking the line between the dragon lady and the pushover will probably be the most difficult thing I will have to do! Also, thank you for the link; it looks great!

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