A Failed Teacher’s Journey Back to the Classroom

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I should begin with a confession: I am a failed teacher.

I was nearly 21, on the tail end of wrapping up an English degree, and hadn’t the faintest idea of what I’d do once I crossed the graduation stage with my diploma in hand. And then it occurred to me, as I’m sure it had to the thousands of directionless humanities students before my time: I would become a teacher!

How hard could it be? After all, I liked kids, loved learning, and had always enjoyed my years at school.

So I signed up for a couple of education classes my last semester, took the qualifier test, and moved back to my hometown where I promptly enrolled in the district’s alternative certification program.

I attended round after round of seminars and training. Then I was handed The First Days of School by Harry and Rosemary Wong and was told if I followed it that my class would run smooth as butter. And finally, as summer was coming to an end, I interviewed and accepted a position at a new, inner-city middle school. I was well-equipped and ready to roll.

Or so I thought.

The job turned out to be vastly different from the idealistic picture that had been floating around in my head.

Each day I came in to work at 6 am and left the school around 6 pm. I taught 5th grade, all subjects, and had an inclusion classroom. That meant I had to modify every lesson to differentiate instruction for my special education, gifted and talented, and at-level kids. We spent a decent amount of time in class practicing for the TAKS, the predecessor to today’s statewide STAAR test.

I was surprised to find that my kids, who were all around 12 years old, didn’t know their multiplication tables. Nor did they know how to spell. When I asked about this, I was told that memorization work was boring for the students and that I should instead tape the multiplication charts to their desks. And as far as spelling went, since it wasn’t being tested, it wasn’t worth spending class time on.

I was also informed that if I had more than two students failing per grading period, I would find myself in hot water. Many of my students didn’t do their work and never turned their assignments in, despite my best efforts, so I figured I’d soon be cooked as thoroughly as a lobster.

But the real icing on the cake were the behavioral issues.

For one, I — the sheltered, naive, unprepared 21-year old that I was — really had no idea how to manage a classroom. Reading through The First Days of School, you get the impression that it’s quite simple, like training a puppy to sit and shake with a couple of hand signals and a few rounds of positive reinforcement. That just wasn’t the case for me.

And despite the school being a shining, pristine new-construction and decked out with the latest technological gadgets, it had a bad reputation. Substitutes refused assignments unless a teacher was sick, so teachers frequently had to turn down professional development days to stay with their classes.

Some students cussed out and physically abused staff. Others defaced and destroyed property. And in my class, I had one student in particular that all of my other kids were afraid of. He had brought iron knuckles to his previous school, threatened other students with violence, and could be unpredictable. I was told to handle behavioral issues in my classroom and not to send students to the office. The few times I did, the student was given a coke and a snack and a nice friendly chat and then sent back to my room.

I was overwhelmed, overworked, and had no idea what I was doing. My mental health was crumbling. I had no time to enjoy anything outside of work. The only respite I found was in food. I ate away my troubles and put on an unhealthy amount of weight. Eventually I hit a breaking point, and with some encouragement from my parents, I turned in my resignation.

I had lasted half a year.

I felt like an utter failure. Education was an industry that I thought I would love. Instead it chewed me up and spit me out in record time.

But leaving was exactly what I needed. I started eating better and exercising, my mental health improved, and I got married. I bounced around from job to job for a while before deciding to go back to school to study computer science. By the time I finished my second degree and started my career as a software developer, I had two kids and had put all thought of teaching aside.

I was chugging along, living the typical overworked, overstretched, middle-class suburban life, busy shuffling my kids between school and daycare and extracurriculars and occasionally finding a moment or two to catch my breath.

Then 2020 hit the world like a load of bricks and brought it crashing to a halt.

For the first time in my life the future was so shrouded in uncertainty that I couldn’t even guess what the next day might bring. I felt like I was speeding down a highway in a fog so thick I couldn’t make out where the next turn or intersection might be — and neither could the other million cars on the road with me.

My husband and I were working ourselves to exhaustion trying to keep up with our work assignments while taking care of our kids. It was unsustainable.

After a lot of discussion, a breakdown or two, and finally a huge sense of relief, I left my job. We decided to homeschool our kids while the pandemic raged on.

That year of homeschooling was so meaningful and memorable, and I saw my kids blossom and grow so much in that time. I also realized just how much of their lives I had missed out on over the past couple of years. Because of my work commitments I hadn’t been able to get to know their friends or be involved with their school. I hadn’t truly spent much quality time with them.

So as things started to improve and we decided to send them back to school, I applied to become a substitute teacher in our district.

I figured it would be a flexible job that would allow me to spend more time with my kids, and I was excited at the prospect of getting involved at their school. I wanted to see what they were learning and get to know their teachers so that I could do a better job supplementing their education at home. And I also thought it would be a fantastic way to give back and help all the teachers and staff who had been stretched so thin by the pandemic.

Was I nervous about going back into the classroom?

Not one bit.

OK, maybe I was a little jittery, but it was the typical nervousness that accompanies any sort of job change. As far as going back into the world of public education though, I wasn’t worried.

For one, the woman I am today is a far cry from the wide-eyed, inexperienced, fresh-out-of-college girl I was fifteen years ago. I’m a mom of two boys — two rowdy boys who get into all sorts of mischief together — so I’ve got a bit more authority in me now.

Secondly, this is a whole different school district. It has a reputation for good students, great academics, and excellent teachers. People buy homes in our area to enroll their kids in the schools, and open positions for teachers are highly sought after and quite competitive.

Lastly, I’m just a sub. I don’t mean that in a way derisive to the position. I love my job and take it very seriously. But as a sub, I do not have to worry with grades and paperwork and state tests. I don’t have to deal with irate parents who blame me for little Johnny’s bad behavior or poor grades. I don’t have the long hours and extra duties and all the other stresses that a full-time, certified teacher must deal with.

So it was with great excitement and anticipation that I filled out the application, got my references and transcripts, and submitted myself to a background check. I passed the interview, which was much more thorough and in-depth than I had imagined it would be, attended an orientation session, and picked up my id badge from the district office.

I was officially a substitute, and I was finally heading back to the classroom!

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