"I got to thinking one day about all those women on the Titanic who passed up dessert at dinner that fateful night in an effort to 'cut back.' From then on, I've tried to be a little more flexible."
(Erma Bombeck)

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Teaching and the Art of Staying Sane

My first quarter as an official teacher ended last Friday and I also had my first evaluation. Seems like a good time for an update.

Let me be honest—I am pretty darn green as a teacher. When I say “green,” I’m not talking about recycling my paperwork. No, I mean green as in: newbie, inexperienced, novice, beginner, rookie.

I first got the bee in my bonnet to teach in the spring of 2009—(not so coincidentally), after I’d finished cancer treatment. Truth be told, I'd contemplated the idea of teaching a few years prior, but not very seriously. A few months later, I was sitting in my first certification class, and a few months after that, I secured a stint as a long-term substitute (April to June, 2010).

In between, I observed a few classes and substituted a few. I had also worked in the education environment for the previous twelve years. Oh, sure, I read some good books about teaching and received excellent advice from other teachers here and there, but let me tell ya—the true test of teaching is when you’re standing in front of a room full of students and you have the privilege—responsibility—to engage and enlighten them for the next 60 minutes. And then to do it again the next day. And the next. And the next day after that. It’s a tall order indeed and not for the faint of heart.

As long as I’m being honest, I’ll admit that most of the time, I feel like I’m in survival mode. I’m faking it until I make it. I hope that doesn’t shock anyone, because I believe that’s what most new teachers do. It takes a whole lot of practice and experience before you get a handle on teaching, although there are probably some people with more of a bent toward it than others.

I believe I have some very definite assets to bring to my students, one of which is a genuine desire to help them be successful. The more I’m around my students, the more I see them as intrinsically valuable human beings who deserve the best I have to give them. I am still finding my own teaching and classroom management style and know it will take some time.

I try to be realistic about my abilities and am acutely aware of the areas where I need to improve. I’ve noticed that good teachers are not cut from the same cloth. Some of them are laid back; others are super structured, and so on. If I had to pick the one thing that makes a good teacher, it’s that he/she has genuine rapport with the students. If you can earn the students’ respect, they will work harder.

There’s a lot of psychology involved in teaching—similar to parenting. And this is what helps calm me down when I fret about learning to be a good teacher. I think that having raised a child gives me an edge in the “life experience” department. I have encountered situations as a parent that a younger person hasn’t. I have personally seen the results of my own methods of “child psychology” right in my own home. Decent parents pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, same as decent teachers.

The day of my evaluation, my director sat in the back of the classroom, intently scribbling on his notepad. I didn’t realize how stressed I’d been until the class was over. I’ve experienced stage fright before and it was very similar.

Fortunately, he told me during our debriefing that I did “fine.” He gave me some ideas for embellishing on the lesson plan and for classroom management. He told me that I did what rookie teachers often do—they get preoccupied with giving one student individual instruction and miss what’s happening in another section of the classroom. He noted a couple of students who were taking advantage of my not being able to monitor them. I knew exactly which students he was talking about. He suggested that I start calling parents.

Since our debriefing session, I’m on a renewed campaign to put more effort into management of my classroom. I think I came into it thinking that I was dealing with far more cooperative people than teenagers are wont to be. If I noticed a student behaving inappropriately, I’d ask him to stop and he would. I naively figured that it was handled, but NO-O-O, the same behavior pops up again and again. Thus, the dreaded PARENT PHONE CALL.

“Hello, is this Mrs. Stinkbeiner?” (Names have been changed to protect the guilty.)


“Oh, hello. This is your son’s marketing instructor at Lakewood High School.”

Long pause (sound of parent grimacing on other end of the phone). Parent clearing throat, “Uh, yes?”

“The reason I’m calling is that I’m concerned with your son’s behavior in my class and I wanted to see if we could come up with a plan to help him. If you have any ideas for what might be causing his behavior or how I might help him, I’d love to work with you.”

“What has he done?!!!”

“Well, I had to wake him up three times during class today. He seems to have a tough time focusing on his assignments and spends his time either talking or sleeping.” 

Note the judicious use of psychology in the parent phone call. DO NOT offend the parent when talking about their child. No parent wants to hear that their kid is a terror or the source of groaning when teachers trade stories in the teacher’s lounge. No matter if their offspring is the high school equivalent of Attila the Hun; words must be chosen carefully so as to move the parent to sympathize with the teacher’s plight.

So far (and I know I’m tempting fate when I say this), my parent phone calls have gone well. Most parents genuinely want to address problems their kids have at school and really appreciate getting a heads-up about it. I don’t know why (probably because I’m a newbie), I hadn’t thought to call parents at such an early stage. I somehow figured I would hold off on calling in the “big guns” (parents) until the problem behavior was over the top. Not so, said my supervisor. “Get parents involved early.” Check.

The time required for lesson planning and paper grading is eating my lunch. Having to locate and deliver engaging curriculum is mentally fatiguing. I am looking forward to second semester (end of January), when one of my classes will repeat with new students and I won’t have to pull together all new material.

I’ve had some days that I have enjoyed. Those are the days when everything “clicks;” the students share their thoughts and opinions during discussion time, they stay mostly on task, they are cooperative, the classroom is under control, and some genuine learning and engagement is going on. This is where I want to be every day—but I’m not there yet. I can see how a person might come to love teaching when everything flows.

On the days when I feel discouraged, I try to take a step back and figure out what I can do differently. I ask other teachers for advice. I talk to my mentors. I’m encouraged to know that I’m not facing anything they haven’t dealt with. They have had more time to learn how everything works. But I will admit that those are also the days when I question this new career and whether I want to keep it up. In a weird way, it helps to know that I could just walk away from it, if I so desired. It keeps me from feeling trapped.

I have an inner conviction that, even if this teaching thing is hard, even if I feel that I’m not all that good at it yet, I will miss out on something much more rewarding if I don’t stick it out. So I plod forward each day, sometimes discouraged, but not beaten down, with just enough enjoyable moments to make me think I can do this—at least for another day. I spend my time driving to work in prayer, asking God to give me wisdom and to bless my dealings with all who surround me. I’m not sure why I’m there, but I believe it’s exactly where I’m supposed to be in this season of my life.

Oh, and the “art of staying sane”? Here it is:

"God is at the center of every person's life. He is in our heart, whether we accept Him or not. He never separates Himself from us, because He is the Giver of life Who gives life to every created being. We have buried Him with our worries and worldly cares, which destroy the peace within us; and that is why we have no peace or rest. No one on earth can give us unshakable, inner peace. Money cannot give us peace; neither can fame, honor, a high ranking position, nor even our closest friends and family. The only Giver of peace and life is the Lord. He gives peace, stillness and joy--to the angels and the saints, to us and to every created being. Therefore, we must repent and turn to the Lord." -- Elder Thaddeus

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Reader Comments (2)

I'm 58 and my wife and daughter think I'd make a good high school teacher. I just don't know if I'm willing to do all that stuff. Talking to teenagers at my supper table is a long way from trying to get them to absorb academics. Thanks for the reality check. :)

November 23, 2010 | Unregistered Commenters-p

Keep up the good work. I have been teaching high school English since 1985 and it is clear from this post that your head and heart are in the right place.

November 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterkaren

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