Overworked New Teacher: An Email Exchange

Subject: Are you there?
Date: Fri, 20 Nov 1998 06:35:49 -0500 (EST)
From: JJoh817194@aol.com
To: allen.webb@wmich.edu

Dear Allen,

I hope you haven't forgotten me! Jackie Johnson. (Tall, confused black girl!) :) I intern taught at Loy Norrix High School? Yeah, me! How are you?

I'm not doing so well. I'm down here in Greensboro, North Carolina, teaching at Lincoln Middle School. I have seventh graders. I teach Language Arts and Social Studies (yes, they stuck me with an area I know absolutely nothing about!).

I got my wish...I'm teaching in the inner city. The school is in one of the worst areas in the city. Our students population is 97% minority. The faculty is 98% minority. I enjoy working with my students and I love my colleagues. The principal, Mr. Hash, is okay. He's a push-over, but he loves people... especially our "exceptional" children at Lincoln.

Despite the fact that I enjoy living here in the south where it's nice and warm, I hate teaching. I don't like using that word but I do feel that strongly about my career choice. It's too much work. I was not prepared for this workload. I'm up late every night grading papers and getting lesson plans together. Then I'm up early the next morning meeting with parents before school. Then there are the boring, pointless staff meetings, which are really "bitch sessions." I have no time for myself.

I realize I'm overwhelmed since it's my first year teaching, but my mentor teacher, Joyce, who has been teaching for eleven years now, says my situation may or may not change, depending on how much I put into my career. She told me she hasn't read a book or written in her journal in ten years!

I'm considering resigning at the end of the school year and going back to school to find a different career. My once passionate love for teaching has dwindled down to mere survival.

If you receive this message, please give me some words of encouragement so that I have a prayer of making it to Christmas.

Please tell me it gets better!


Jackie Johnson

Subject:RE: Are you there?
Date:Mon, 23 Nov 1998 04:28:33-2300

Dear Jackie,

Thanks so much for writing.

I know something of what you must be going through. After the second month of my first year I also decided I wasn't coming back. The next August I think the only reason I signed the contract again was that I was so disappointed in my performance that I wanted to prove to myself that I didn't have to be a complete failure.

Not much of a reason to stick with it, was it?

You talk about being overwhelmed with work. I know what you mean. Five classes a day, some of them in subjects I didn't know well, students with tremendous needs bombarding me every moment-some of the students outright hostile-, papers to grade, almost no time to reflect on what I was doing, let alone time for myself... yes, teaching middle school or high school English is an awesome undertaking.

In a way I agree with Joyce. There are teachers, some of them very fine teachers, who work so hard at teaching that it swallows them up entirely. It is also true that often these same people can come out of balance and, in the long run, that can hurt their teaching, not to mention their private lives.

There are also teachers who are basically burned out, do the minimum amount of work, and stick with poor methods just because they are easier. (We both know a teacher like that; I don't need to mention her name.) It is hard for me to believe that this burnout doesn't carry over into their private lives as well...

Where I disagree with Joyce is that I believe there are ways to lead a balanced life, not be overwhelmed with work, and also be a great teacher.

Though it is true that such a goal is hardest to achieve in the first year, even in the first year you have to have some kind of balance.

You said that the word "survival" is replacing your "passion for teaching." You know what? In my opinion your own survival is a perfectly good goal to aim at this year. Survival is enough for the first year.

You have survived the semester so far and now just take it a week, a day, even, one class period at a time and try to hold on till Christmas. Don't think about whether or not you will teach again next year; you can make that decision later. Don't try to be the world's greatest teacher-save that for the future. For now, just survive.

If you have a good moment in your class even just once a week or with just one student that is really something to celebrate and to tell other people about-no matter that the rest of the time seems like chaos and disappointment. Find those good moments and give yourself credit for them. You deserve it, and as you clearly recognize, you are working hard to make those moments happen.

I think it is a good sign that you can still enjoy your students and that you like your colleagues. I remember when I was new I found it difficult to talk with my fellow teachers about my frustrations; I didn't want to give them the impression that I was doing a bad job and I didn't know exactly who I should trust.

Bob Hamm, the teacher whose room was next to mine, occasionally invited me out after school for a beer and a talk. I wonder if he knows to this day how precious those conversations were to me.

My poor family and friends must have been sick of hearing about school and my students. It seemed like that was all I could talk about-and that I couldn't stop talking. I realize now how much I needed them to simply listen.

The main thing you mention in your letter is the amount of work. There are no magical answers. Here are four suggestions:

1) You mention staying up every night grading papers. I suggest that you don't read all, or even most, of your student's writing. Just as a good track coach does not have to comment every time a javelin thrower practices tossing a javelin, a good teacher doesn't have to read all of her student's writing. Writing takes practice and not all of that practice can or should be closely scrutinized. Many assignments can just be checked off.

When you do read student writing, remember responding to what they are saying is more important than correcting their errors. Just a few words of human response and good listening on an occasional assignment can do a great deal to encourage students to keep writing-and that is the real goal, isn't it?

I imagine that your students have many problems in their writing, right? Remember the research that shows that writing lots of comments on their papers or doing whole class grammar exercises is not very helpful. Mini-lessons, carefully targeted comments, and writing practice are likely to be the most important-and these don't have to take up a great deal of your preparation time.

Remember also that students are more likely to have homework done if you collect it from them personally and individually at the beginning of the period (rather than picking it up after class or just having them pass papers to the front).

2) Steal lesson plans, worksheets, activities from other teachers even if they might not be the greatest or especially relevant to what you are doing. A perfectly reasonable question to ask a colleague is: do you have any worksheets, assignments, or activities that you have used that I could try? Experimenting in this way doesn't require much preparation time either and is a good way to get ideas. It helps you develop rapport with other teachers as well.

In my first year I felt like I was going through a dark tunnel. I didn't know what was coming next or how it related to what came before. I didn't know where I was going and I didn't have any clue about whether there was light at the end or not. Developing materials, and building a really good thematically integrated curriculum at the right level for your students takes years of experience; don't feel you have to be there already.

3) Allow yourself to have some classes that don't require much planning on your part. Sometimes such classes are more valuable than those you slave over.

One of the best things you can do as a new teacher is just have a few class periods where you and students talk with each other in an open way about things that are on your mind or theirs. Issues in the news, in their lives, or at school, for example. Telling stories about yourself, your experiences in high school and college can be very valuable to your students. Whether they admit it or not, they are looking to you as a role model. These conversations may be equally or more important than the official curriculum; they can also create jumping off points for important writing and learning.

Reading aloud to students is a good way to spend a class period. Most students enjoy being read to and they learn about written language in this way. If you can find the right book, you might even set up a regular schedule for reading it a chapter at a time. Short stories work well. Remember having students spend time in class simply reading on their own is a good utilization of the period. Writing in class and writing workshops are also important and a perfectly valid way to put class time to use. (Of course, as I am sure you have already found out, these activities do require classroom management, students to bring their materials, etc...) Nancie Atwell's book In the Middle is a great resource for using writing workshops in middle school, and it is a quick read.

There is no shame in showing the occasional movie, especially if you can integrate it into what you are doing. Many educational films are not all that great, but when I was a new teacher I tried them all. I don't know if your school has a computer lab or language arts software, if so, experimenting with computers might be interesting. I found word processing programs a great help for kids with writing difficulties.

But don't get involved in activities or lessons that will eat up your time. I learned, for example, that while I thought guest speakers or field trips might take some of the pressure off, it was a lot more work to have someone come to my class or try to arrange a trip than to hold class as usual.

4) Jackie, above all, take time for yourself. Keeping yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally healthy is vital to maintaining your poise, energy, and attentiveness as a teacher. One of the most important things you can do, in my opinion, is to bring some of your own joy in life to your students. It is pretty hard to do this when you are stressed out, isn't it?

The topic of your own reading and writing is one point where I disagree with your colleague Joyce. I have found it very important to keep reading and writing. I think it has been more valuable to my students that I do this-and that I talk with them about my reading and writing-than that I spend the same time grading their papers or, even preparing lessons. Students will pay more attention to what you do than what you say.

I know it is hard to carve out the time, but your own sanity must be your number one priority.

I don't know if it is any comfort, but whether or not you leave the profession, I suspect that the time you are in right now, the last couple of months of your first semester, is likely to be the absolute bottom. It was for me.

I don't really have any magic story about myself or any "silver bullets" that will make teaching easy.

I can tell you, Jackie, that I know you well and that I have tremendous faith in you. Of the many, many teachers I know, I am completely confident that Jackie Johnson has exactly what it takes to become, in time, one of the truly greats.

I imagine it doesn't feel like that now.

You might be interested in some educational research that shows that it is often the most sensitive, imaginative, and intelligent new teachers who have the greatest frustration and disappointment at the beginning of their careers. Do you know why?

To me the answer is clear: it is because these teachers can visualize what really good teaching ought to be like, and they can also, at the same time, see very clearly how far short of this goal their own teaching is falling.

Ironically, it is the potentially best teachers who are often the ones to leave the profession. Should you leave, Jackie, you would be in this category.

I think this is what really killed me and made me want to quit when I was at your point in teaching.

At times it felt like it was the amount of work, but, deep down, it really wasn't the overwhelming work or the stress on my personal life. It was the just plain fact staring me in the face every day and almost every class period: I was not a good teacher.

Hard as it was, I could survive the work (barely), but what was I to make of the fact that even with my incredible efforts I was not only not helping my students, I was, indeed, at times, actually damaging them?

I had started teaching because I wanted to help kids, but the truth was, and no one knew this better than me-even my colleagues and friends who tried to encourage me- my classes were, very often, a true disaster. The students didn't seem to want to learn. They wouldn't do the work and I was lucky to even get them to sit down and listen every once in a while.

My classes were a disaster and, not only that, I couldn't be myself. I was turning into just the kind of rigid, unfeeling, and uptight teacher that I precisely dreaded. At times I hated myself for not being able to control the class, for losing my cool, for demanding too much (or not enough) from my students, for not being able to respond to students as a person because I was too busy trying to figure out how to take the damn attendance. I found myself trying to force students to jump through the hoops of a boring, irrelevant curriculum that, to tell the truth, I didn't even believe in.

I saw that I was starting to blame the students for my own failure. Yet I couldn't see any way to do it differently given the situation I was in. All I could see ahead of me in this teaching career that I had wanted so much was work, frustration, and a sense that I was, at some profound level, a failure.

Since you know me now and have been my student, I hope you agree that it didn't turn out that way. The joy and meaning that teaching has brought me, in time, is something that I could barely have guessed at in those dark days of the first year. I realize now that eighteen years ago I was awfully young to try to confront the monumental challenge of teaching.

Learning about my students, the classroom, and myself that first year was like trying to drink out of a fire hydrant, with the full force of the water hitting me in the face.

Now it is almost too easy for me to say that there was also something wonderful about that first year, even about the way I was overwhelmed and frustrated. I learned so much, including a solid dose of humility. I did some wonderful and good things despite my shortcomings, and, I survived to tell the story. In the years that have followed I have kept learning, growing, and changing. The story is still far from over; I guess in my own writing about teaching I am still trying to tell it.

Jackie, I am sorry that I have written so long a letter to you. I realize you will barely have time to read it. But I want you to know that you are important to me and that you are having impacts on your students this year that you can't yet begin to appreciate. Should you stay in teaching your influence will be beyond measure.



Subject:Thanks, so much!
Date:Sun, 06 Dec 1998 21:58:41 -0500 (EST)

I'm so glad I was able to get in touch with you. Thank you for writing back. I can't begin to thank you enough for the positive messages and the suggestions. I needed to hear those things.

I appreciate you sharing your past experiences with me. I can't believe you faced some of the difficulties I am! I look at you now as Allen, the awesome professor, and find it hard to picture you as a struggling teacher like me.

I guess it does take work, huh? I am too hard on myself. I want to be the best NOW.

I've tried some of your suggestions. For one, I've checked homework at the beginning of class. I went around the room with my gradebook and gave credit to those who did the assignment. That worked well. I checked journal entries on Friday during my plan period instead of taking them all home with me over the weekend. I have three plan periods, so I was able to still read them thoroughly. That's one of my highlights of the week...reading their daily entries. Their ways of thinking are of great interest to me.

I can't believe I didn't have any work to take home with me over the weekend! I did all of my lesson plans for the upcoming week during my plan periods, too, so I'm all set to go tomorrow. I set time aside just for me this weekend. I went to dinner with my teacher buddies and we went to one of the college basketball games last night. Today we caught a movie. I even wrote in my journal this morning after breakfast! I was so excited! I must have written ten pages. The last entry was dated September 10th!!!! I had a lot of catching up to do! I feel so much better now!

Despite the very positive week I've had, I'm still feeling uneasy. I know things won't happen overnight, but I'm still doubting my decision to become a teacher. Something just doesn't feel right. I can't put my finger on it, but I'm still not happy about going to work in the morning. I chose a career so that I could enjoy going to work everyday...maybe even look forward to it. I don't feel that with this teaching job.

I don't want to give up on my dream just yet, but I can't help but feelthat this just isn't my niche in life.

I've been checking out graduate programs around here in Greensboro. I want to keep my options open. I don't want to trap myself into a profession I don't like, but at the same time, I don't want to throw in the towel too soon.


Well, thanks again for listening. I hope things are going well for you.

Where are you now? How's your family? Please keep in touch. Take care.

With thanks,