They say teaching gets easier after the first year. What happens when it doesn’t?


I am about to enter my third year of teaching, rapidly approaching retirement, as recently teacher attrition data suggests. Arguably, many educators, myself included, who began their teaching careers at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic are facing the most demanding year of our careers.

The test results were slow to bounce back, especially for the intermediate classes. Given the hostile political climate we live in, a demanding administration means more than ever being asked of teachers and I couldn’t help but feel immense pressure to thrive for myself and my students.

The desire to deliver results coupled with suboptimal working conditions places undue stress on an already overstretched profession. Yet my first and second years of teaching were also where I learned what it meant to put real boundaries on work and reject the perfectionism I was implicitly forced to hold onto. Thinking back to my early years as a teacher, what does it mean to me to strive to maintain the boundaries I set to protect my sanity in a profession that demands so much?

Coming to a breaking point

I interviewed for my first teaching job when I was fresh out of college. At the time, I was living with my parents during the first wave of COVID-19 (back when we actually care about flattening the curve), so naturally the opportunity to work with students and teachers like-minded got me excited. On the initial call, I remember the recruiter telling me bluntly, “Teachers here usually end up working a lot longer than other schools in the area.”

Weird sales pitch, but then I thought, why not? I was a hardworking student at school; how could it be different? Before I knew it, the next two years passed like a fever dream. Before I knew it, it was my third year and a whole cohort of sixth graders returned to school in person for the first time since they were in fourth grade.

I constantly had to remind myself that it would take time for the students to readjust to school. Day after day, they would relearn how to walk down the hall in level one voices, introduce themselves to a new classmate, and maybe – just maybe – return my pencils at the end of class (for the sake of it). love of God, just give them back).

I longed for the day when I would finally become the calm and serene teacher that I had always dreamed of being. But each day, my litany of demands became less compelling and more desperate:

Go sit.
Stop talking.
Don’t throw this away.
Don’t touch her.
Do not touch it.
Don’t hit him.
Give it back.
Push your chair.
We do not use this language towards our friends.
It’s your friend Because I said so.

Every day my ability to deal with everyday stressors diminished and it started to take its toll. I often cried during class, turning to the board and writing another goal to hide it from my students.

“STOP IT,” I shouted, suddenly and from the diaphragm, to two students who were jostling in the hallway. The scream left my lungs before I could think. I would commute home to school in stunned silence with what I can only describe as the sound of pots and pans banging together, ringing in my ears.

The worst was winter. I arrived at school before the sun came up and found myself stuck in rush hour traffic as the last light waned from the sky, becoming more and more desperate to get home. For the first time in my life, I experienced seasonal affective disorder. I was callous to my partner, short with my family, and lost touch with old friends.

During the winter break, I took a step back and saw that even though my students brought me joy, teaching took something away from me, and if I didn’t change something quickly, I didn’t. wasn’t going to get it back.

Building boundaries

In January, halfway through my second year, I became ruthless with my limits. No more 10 hour days – I would do what I could within the scheduled planning time and nothing more. I would pack my things during layoff announcements and walk out of the building with my last bus driver, waving at my students as the buses pulled out and followed them down the road.

More importantly, I rebuilt the idea that teaching should be a vocation, as I had always heard. The question is, had I heard this from real teachers or from people who absolved themselves of not doing their part to raise the next generation? I don’t remember, and the world may never know. I decided that was my job, just that and nothing more. I renewed my contract in the spring, anticipating that my limits would keep me sane and my third year would be more tolerable.

Then summer came, and I forgot so quickly what being in class really demanded of me. During one of our summer professional development days, the latest Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program test data came out – and the percentage of students who met proficiency level in each subject considerably decreased.

If that wasn’t depressing enough, once we looked at our internal school performance, the faces of the 200 teachers in the room simultaneously deflated, crushed that our best during the pandemic hadn’t been good enough. We were instructed by the school administration to accept the guilt.

Other demographically similar schools in Nashville had grown bigger than us. Where else could we look, other than teachers? Where else could I look but myself?

I looked at my class photos from the previous year while my inner saboteur subconsciously added captions: Here I am modeling an experiment and failing my students. Here, I make small groups and fail my students.

My mind started racing, feeling charged and anticipating diving headlong into the school year and what it would take to lift my students’ scores from the abyss. If I hadn’t been able to rectify the COVID learning loss in my “Year of Limits”, then maybe it wouldn’t be the worst thing to shoot a few 10-hour days…plus a few Sundays?

Yet despite all of this, I knew that the worst thing I could do for my students was to fall back into the scorched shell of a person I had been the year before. No one learns anything from a grumpy, overworked 24-year-old, let alone a thirty-something 11-year-old.

In the long term, I want to model for them empathy, emotional constancy and joy. I haven’t yet figured out exactly how to do this, but I know two things are true: I can want and believe in what’s best for my students. and put my sanity first. If anyone has any ideas on how to achieve this, I’m open to suggestions.


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