Last night marks the third Friday night in a row that I’ve gone to Casa Nueva in Athens for an order of Tofu Fries and a couple of amaretto sours. I’ve loved this restaurant since my time at OU, but I’ve been frequenting Casa more and more over the last year or so, particularly for brunch on Saturday or Sunday morning… so much so that there have been occasions when they’ve asked me if I even need a menu. Once, a waitress recited my usual brunch order when she came to wait on me. But Casa is such a chill and relaxing environment, they love their regulars and I’m happy I’m slowly becoming one of them.
I’ve served my term in working in foodservice and you do get to a point when you identify people by what they order. I remember a former co-worker here talking about refusing to eat alone in a restaurant, I suppose out of fear of being embarrassed for not having anyone to eat with. Being a single guy, this is a regular occurrence for me (eating alone, not being embarrassed or afraid to eat… obviously). While it is nice to sit, eat, and talk with someone, I am more than happy on nights like this to just sit, eat, drink, and not say a word to anyone other than the waitress. These weekly, and sometimes bi-weekly, trips to eat at Casa, or somewhere else in Athens, have become one my techniques to survive my job. Not only is the food good, but I need the mental check-out from being “Mr. Jeffers.”
While every job has its unique stresses, sometimes teaching feels like a completely different animal that no one, except other teachers, truly understands. There are some days where I am particularly productive and I leave school feeling extremely accomplished. Then there are other days when I all I want to do is toss all of my papers into my recycling box, roll up my poster of Shakespearean insults, and never come back. I had the thought the other day that if I make it to Thanksgiving break without smacking a kid or sneaking wine into my water bottle, it’ll be a miracle.
Beginning teachers hear all the time that “Your first year of teaching will be the hardest.” That is definitely true. As useful as student teaching is, it really doesn’t prepare you; it’s completely different when you’re on your own… and I feel like I had two “first years” of teaching.
I struggled to get a high school teaching position right out of grad school (because I suck at interviews where you essentially have to brag about yourself), so I ended up doing a year as a Fourth Grade Intervention Specialist. Here, I was in a co-teaching position and not in my own classroom, and I was in a constant state of “I have no clue what I’m doing,” because I didn’t want to teach 9 and 10-year-olds and my focus was not Special Education. Many have given me a quizzical look when I talk about getting this job without a degree in Special Ed. I got a one-year temporary license for Intervention, which in order to renew for the next year I would have had to take additional courses in Special Ed. I knew very quickly into the school year that I didn’t want to do it again, but nonetheless it was a teaching job and I did learn some useful teaching techniques.
I was successful the next summer in finding my current teaching position, and last year felt like my first year all over again; high school English is a completely different world than Fourth Grade Intervention… and this time I was on my own. Since making the transition, I’ve had days that were “Wow. That was good. I want to do that again.” But most days my first year seemed like an “Okay… now I know what not to do” kind of experience.
I thought my second year of teaching high school would be easier and much more relaxed… I survived the “first year of teaching,” I have a year’s worth of lessons that I can reuse, I know more on how to handle the kids’ attitudes… and some aspects have been much easier than last year. I’ve reused some of my assignments, I still have a little bit of the “cool, young teacher” persona working for me, and I know the content better than I did last year. But for every easier aspect, there are probably two or three that have become more intense, with one of the biggest ones being the feeling that my lessons aren’t good enough. I’ve spent a lot of time this year updating my previous lessons, or completely redoing them because what I did last year was shit.
Most lesson planning sessions consist of scouring the Internet for things that other teachers have already done, borrowing some of their ideas, and putting your own spin on it. As they told us in grad school: don’t reinvent the wheel… use what’s already out there. My intention going into this year was to completely plan out all of my units and know exactly what I was doing. I wanted to create the kind of unit plans I constantly find online where every single aspect is planned out from the beginning: every lecture, assignment, activity, and assessment is well thought out, supported with research, and each educational standard being covered is fully documented. The biggest problem with following through with that intention is that it takes a lot of time that I physically don’t have, and the knowledge to put together a comprehensive plan like that only comes from years of experience of trying different kinds of assignments and figuring out what works and what doesn’t with your specific teaching style.
Much like my first year of teaching, I’m often in a state of pulling things together at the last minute, and I often feel guilty that I’m not doing enough for my students. I’ll admit, some late nights are due to my own poor time management, but others are simply the byproduct of necessary procrastination caused of the size of my work load. Last year, I felt like a lazy teacher if I gave the students an assignment and class time to work on it rather than leading an extremely engaging, interactive activity that we would do together. The truth of the matter is, teachers are still human. I’m still a human being and I can only handle so much before I crack. But all too often, teachers aren’t given the option to “crack.”
Unfortunately by societal rules, teachers aren’t always allowed to have bad days. We consistently face the pressure of having excellent and engaging lesson plans for every instructional day, exceptional classroom management and no disciplinary issues, evaluations and test scores that are often required to be above a certain standard in order to keep our jobs, all while dealing with the perception from some people that teachers nowadays are failing our students and are glorified babysitters. There is no doubt that there are problems in our education system, but all too often teachers are the scapegoats for issues that are simply out of our control. We’re on the front line enforcing the rules that are being made by the wealthy people in charge who have little to no experience in the classroom. It’s like me telling a doctor how to perform a surgery because I know where the pain is.
Just like any other person with any other job, I am going to have some awesome days. I’m going to have some not so awesome days. I’m going to have some days where I am able to grade every paper I have sitting on my desk. I’m going to have some days where the pile just sits there and gets bigger. There are going to be lessons that students really enjoy and actually learn something from it. There are going to be lessons that crash and burn and make me want to quit teaching. It’s not fair for myself or anyone else to expect me or any other teacher to be “super teacher” every single day. While engaging, interactive, lecturing type lessons are good and necessary, students need a break from these kinds of activities as much as teachers do.
In addition to not being allowed to have bad days, it sometimes feels like teachers aren’t afforded the time to have a life outside of school. I’m often jealous of those who have jobs where they don’t have to think about work after they clock out for the day. Again… we’re just like everyone else. We need the time to mentally check out. We need to be afforded the time to have a lazy day at work every once and a while. We need to be able to relax and focus on other aspects of our lives without feeling guilty that we aren’t working on schoolwork. Because of this, I made a rule for myself when I started teaching: I don’t do any school related work on Saturday. No matter how many papers or unfinished lesson plans I have piled up, I don’t touch any of it on Saturday. It’s my one day a week to just completely relax and do what I want to do. I remember another person in my grad program who talked about Sunday being her only day to spend with her husband and her daughter and how she wasn’t willing to give that up… nor should she give it up. While some people have both Saturday and Sunday, everyone deserves at least one day a week to focus on themselves, relax, and to not think about any work responsibilities they might have, and teachers are no different.
I know that teaching is never going to be a stress-free job. There are always going to be students who don’t listen and don’t do their work. There are always going to be lessons that suck. There are always going to be days when everything goes wrong. I’ve been told by other teachers that you don’t start to feel that you really have a handle on your content and who you are as a teacher until at least your third year. I’ve also talked to another teacher who said she just started to really feel comfortable and confident in her teaching, and she just finished her fifth year (or sixth?… I don’t remember). I’m obviously going to continue to work on improving my skills as a teacher for as long as I stay in the profession, but I’m also not willing to give up the much needed time to focus on myself and my own mental needs in the free time that I have between my lessons on The Odyssey and The Scottish Play.
I look forward to the day when I am able to manage the ins and outs of this profession with minimal sweating and scarring. Until then, I’ll be keeping my Tofu Fries and amaretto sours close by.