The journey … of a statistically challenged fifth-year teacher

Monday, October 16, 2006

Around 50 percent of all teachers leave the profession within five years. There are several suggested reasons for this, but the one I find most interesting is the sense of helplessness.

After high school, options were few. College was expensive. I was without direction. The Army took care of both. Training was tough, but it provided me with some of the best memories of my life. That is the case with most personal trials. They are rewarding, not fun.

College. This place was freethinking. I liked it while I was there. It would be a few years later that I decided that the freethinking was not free at all. Looking back, it was skewed and liberal. Between the education program's credo that passion was necessary to teach and steady diet of warnings in general, I first started to struggle with doubts and trepidation.

My student-teaching semester, the last challenge of college, was shocking. The kids were less respectful than I had thought. So many were from broken homes. This was when I first realized there was more to teaching English than English.

I clearly remember a ninth-grader swearing at me in the 10th week. I talked him down. I let it go. I was young. I thought teachers were more respected than that.

Hallelujah! The first year of teaching arrived. I was given the keys to a classroom. Nervousness or anxiousness ruled the day. I'm not sure which. I worked long hours. Grades sometimes went up, sometimes down. I fell asleep at my desk on two occasions. I became close with my first faculty. I didn't understand why some veteran teachers were so mean. I would understand later. I caught a seventh-grade girl chewing tobacco in my class (more odd than upsetting).

The students' abilities to lie straight to my face were alarming. I also remember a much older student who picked on a small seventh-grader. I addressed him. He threatened me with violence. I heard that he was in jail just a week earlier. It certainly matched his tattoo. I sent him to the office. He skipped it and went to class.

The second year. I was in a new school. I missed the old one. Budget cuts took me from some kids I still care about today. The new school meant new rules, new habits and new students. I now had 15-to-18-year-olds. My tactics had to change. These students needed to be taught character, honesty and respect more than any book subject.

Meanwhile, I noticed that I was attending conferences and professional development meetings that I didn't have time or energy to employ. One student told me he couldn't read the book "Night" because his mother was Italian and Italians hated Jews. I contained my temper and tried to escort him to the office. He too skipped the office and went home. I am willing to guess that the parent defended him.

I tried to vent in my night classes. I was still attending college with hopes of helping teachers by becoming a principal. I later found out that many administrations were largely still part of the good old boy network, the coaches who were able and wanted more money. I wasn't a coach. I didn't fit.

The third year. I moved willingly, this time to a larger school. This was my wife's first year as a teacher. Two people were bringing home horror stories, and now two people were appalled by the students, the lack of control and the politics. We had to agree to leave it at school. We never did.

The first time I noticed that much of the community lacked support for the school occurred in my third week. I called a parent in the middle of my lecture to notify her that her child (a seventh-grader) was writing explicit notes about sex. I handed the phone to the student so the parent could address the situation. The parent was not surprised. She merely told the student to stop.

Another student (a second-year seventh-grader) spent 31 out of 42 days of the first quarter in in-school suspension. Those are school days in walled desks. He was immune to them. He dropped out when he could drive himself to seventh-grade. I had attempted to save him so many times.

Heartbreak. Most of my failing students refused to work at all. I could stand over them, drill them, entertain them, reward them and punish them, but little changed. At the end of a quarter, the average class of 20 students had 50 to 60 missing assignments.

The fourth year. Finally, a second consecutive year in a school district. I told myself that this was the year I would peak. I was comfortable. I told myself that I would have more energy and enthusiasm than any student ever thought about having. Within the first month, I felt defeated. Kids were still refusing to work, refusing responsibility. I told two students that they were on the road to failing seventh grade.

One replied, "So?"

The other replied, "I'll just go to summer school."

I shook my head at the fire that I was to fight with a Dixie cup of water and some chalk.

The fifth year. This is it. I am looking around. The kids are still unruly. I've spotted the kids who have no concept of guilt, and I don't attempt to appeal to that part of them. I try to teach the good kids the best I can.

I feel so sorry for those few who are always prepared, respectful and willing. God bless their parents. They have kept me here this long, but I have less energy.

My patience is shorter than ever. I finally realize why some of the veteran teachers are so angry. When I ask them about the profession, many tell me that they couldn't do it all again under today's standards.

I look at a picture of my new baby boy, and I wonder if I can afford a private school. All the while, we are called to one meeting after another that points out where teachers are coming up short, where teachers need to improve and how we can hold teachers more accountable.

I'm a 29-year-old man who has invested in a bachelor's degree for teaching, a master's degree for a principalship and 30 credit hours toward a superintendency. I am so invested in a system that has stopped investing in me.

Though I'm scared of what a future outside of school means, this year I will likely become a teaching statistic.

Support your teachers and return authority to the classroom.

Brian White of Poplar Bluff, Mo., teaches seventh-grade English at Poplar Bluff Junior High School.

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