ack! disaster in 7-1!

On October 21, 2007, I sent an email to the other accelerated 7th grade math teacher. The subject: “ack! disaster in 7-1!”

I had only been teaching for about a month and half. I hadn’t learned the “mountain vs. molehill” principle, which — when I figured it out — changed my life. I was filled with insecurities, even though I had started gaining my sea legs. But the event conveyed in this email below kept me up all night. I was freakin’ out.

Wanna read the email?
Thought so.

[Other 7-1 teacher],

A total disaster! So the test that I gave right after the fire drill? The students were making ALL sorts of careless errors and conceptual errors. I don’t know what it is — either it could be that it was Thursday last period, everyone was crazy after the fire drill, or students felt rushed. I told them they could finish the next day — and so I gave them an extra 12 minutes…

But once you see the grades, you’ll see why I’m freaking out:

[list of all students’ names and grades]

I don’t know if I messed up teaching it, or if they were just all flustered, or what. Even the best students were really mucking things up. The mistakes ranged from sign errors to not simplifying to conceptual errors. What I’m thinking of doing is having a “make-up test” for them this Thursday during lunch or after school (whichever they can make it to). Is that sort of thing allowed? If they took it during lunch, when would they get a chance to eat? Or do you think I should give them “test corrections” for extra points on the test?

As for if they are totally missing the boat or not, I don’t know how to fix that since we’re starting on new things! Maybe each day my Do Now will be stuff from the last chapter?

Best,
Sam

I sound reasonable in this email. But internally, I was an absolute mess. How could I be such a bad teacher? It was one of those “take stock of things” moments. And I was coming up short.

What brought this back was misscalcul8’s recent tweet:

Picture 2And it all felt so familiar. What’s great is that she has a support network with all our twitter buddies! Not that anyone can really help too much — I mean, we’re so far away from the situation we’re taking stabs in the dark on how to deal with it — but I can only imagine that the commiseration and advice was soothing.

I can just say that I didn’t have that on October 21, 2007. I was convinced that I was simply terrible, and that no other teacher had ever had a class bomb. No, seriously, I was so terrified that I believed that. (What a moron I was.)

I know I’ve grown a lot since those first few terrifying months, where I felt I was on trial — with the students, with the school, and most importantly, with myself.

As that first year went on, and I was exposed to some serious trial by fire, I found I slowly started to thrive. I dealt with a few (not many) challenging parent situations, had a few discussions with students who were acting out, actually sort-of yelled at a student when nothing else was getting through, coped with excessive absences of some students due to mono, and dealt with cheaters. A lot.

But as the year progressed, I got comfortable in my teacher skin. I gained my teacher voice. I learned to just lay my expectations and not try to justify everything or argue with students about them [1]. I learned not to be defensive.

But the only thing that does that is time.

So for anyone out there who might be new, and hitting their first major so-called-hurdle, just know that

(a) it probably isn’t as huge a hurdle as you think it is

(b) we’ve all probably gone through it too

and

(c) the best remedy is time and perspective.

If your teaching trajectory is anything like mine, I had a few bumps my first year, and my second year was smooth as silk. There wasn’t one major bump. I might have encountered the same problems again, but this time I knew what I needed to do when dealing with them.

Example? Last year my Algebra 2 students all bombed a take home quiz on quadratic applications. I knew they were going to. I rushed, taught it badly, and knew I was doing a bad job for the three days we worked on it. I wasn’t surprised by their (very low) quiz grades. So what did I do? I just fessed up. I told ’em I frakked up, and I knew it, and I couldn’t hold my mistakes against them. Quiz was wiped. We moved on from there. Not a huge deal. The previous year I wouldn’t have been nearly as mature as that.

[1] I’m requiring my Algebra II students to use a binder this year, and I got some pushback. “But I don’t like binders! Can I use something else?” “No.” “Why?” “Because I said so. But if you need, I’ll hold your hand when we use the binder, promise.”

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10 comments

  1. Sam,

    Nice post! I too remember panic mode from my first year. Two things in particular stick with me. First, frustrated one day with trying to actually do work in the ‘popular’ teachers lounge (the one closest to me, of course) I trooped over to the other one – the smoking one (that will date me some, I know). As I sat at a table in there, anxious about the same issues you faced and @misscalcul8 faces now, my principal walked. Looking back on it, I suppose he meant well and it was supposed to be a pep talk, but he basically told me that my first 3 years of teaching would be crap, and it would only start to get better after that.

    The second thing I remember was my 4th period Math 8 class, and one student (who shall remain nameless) in particular. This class had my number in the worst way. I was a new teacher, who had gone to a suburban and private school myself, teaching in a really urban school. That particular day my 4th period was horrible. The funny thing is that I no longer remember the details – only the emotions, and what happened after they left the room. After wanting to be a math teacher since I had been in high school, I sat in my room after they left, my first real teaching job, and decided there was no way I could make it. I decided, on the spot at that moment to pack up, walk to the office, and officially quit. I would leave and never come back.

    I started to pack up, was almost done when I remembered that my wife had dropped me off, I was in a part of town I was scared to death to walk through, and I had no way to leave. 18 years later I’m still teaching.

    Keep the faith!

  2. Aw Sam, thanks! You’re right that I have a whole network of twitterers which are who I turn to first and foremost. I’m getting to where I don’t panic so much about ‘what to do’ but now, ‘what do I do when what I’m doing doesn’t work?’ Although a lot of my ideas don’t work, I know a ton of twitterers that have ideas that DO work. So my job becomes to take those ideas and create my own, that works for my students.

    For the rest of you readers, let me share what Sam’s (the 3 year vet) said to me (the 3 week newb):

    “my only suggestion is not to change too much. i had kneejerk reactions my 1st year and wanted to come up with “systems”…but kids need to have clear, consistent expectations and routines, and by changing these midstream you’re sending a msg…NOT that you shouldn’t change things. but just choose carefully what they are, and be VERY explicit w/kids about the changes.i should also add the qualifiers “in my humble opinion” and “read with a grain of salt” and “i’ve only taught 2 yrs”

    And wisest of all:

    ” i don’t know your class so i can only say: keep showing you care, be ok using tough love, and know we ALL had/have these days”

    Thanks to all my math gurus, including Mr. Sam J Shah :)

  3. I’ve never taught math at the high school level, but I have a passing interest in math education so I read a few math ed blogs. Now I’m probably going to look really stupid asking this, but I’ve seen it a few times recently and I am totally clueless. What is PEMDAS?

  4. Augh, is this familiar. After one seriously bombed test last year, I kept gnashing my teeth in my sleep for days, I was simply so stressed out. I’m still trying to get my “teacher voice” – are you SURE time is the only way to learn?

    1. @Alison
      Ha, I never said time was the ONLY way to learn. I just know for me that I didn’t do anything to “learn” to be a teacher. I just evolved.

      You know what’s funny about my “teacher voice”? It’s slightly louder than my regular voice, and everything I say is with conviction (so I don’t often use qualifiers), but other than that, it’s my regular voice. It’s me. Some of my colleagues talk about “pulling out their teacher voice” when they’re in certain non-school situations (e.g. dealing with a difficult hotel manager), and I get what they’re saying, but for me, I can’t really do that. When I do pull out my teacher voice, it is just is a little more confident than my everyday voice.

  5. Wow.. I needed that post. I am beginning my 16 week practicum (Week 3 done now!) and I feel very overwhelmed. After reading this post, I think I might be able to become a teacher eventually, and like you said… “Time” is all I need.

    The first week I felt like a huge failure and going through a major career choice reflection. I really hope I will get to where you are now next year.. or in the coming months..

    I’m still workin on my “teacher voice”.. Thank you. :)

    1. I’ll be your biggest cheerleader! The thing I find so hard about being a teacher (but I guess this is true about anything I’ve taken on) is that my whole self worth gets tied up with how I do in the classroom. I have a bad day, I feel like a failure. It’s more than “I did a bad job at work”… it gets almost to the “I am a failure as a person” state. Dealing with that is hard – because who you are and what you do get so emotionally intertwined. Even though it’s probably not possible, try to keep the two separated so you don’t start feeling too down. Now if only I could do that… (as you’ve probably seen, I’ve been feeling like a bit of a failure lately too).

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