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This is Not a Drill: In the middle school trenches with a first-year teacher

How to persevere when job stress is weighing you down

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The condemnation bellowed across the play yard as I stood at the helm of my Seventh Grade class—my first class ever—they shifting and squirming, me beet red as their prepubescent antics and my inept classroom management had gotten us in big trouble with both my administrator and local fire department.

“Miss Myall! I’ve never had a teacher or their class be more disastrous in a fire drill! Ever.”

I was mortified.

No. I was too exhausted to muster up mortification.

I was embarrassed.

No. I had lost my pride back at the beginning of the year after weeks upon weeks of calamity.

I was defeated.

It wasn’t the fact that I was being called out amongst my school community, all wide-eyed, mouths gaping at my public flogging. And, it wasn’t that I knew that I had sunk lower in credibility with my own class who already trampled over me like gum on their shoes—something akin to a nuisance needing to be scraped off and discarded with reckless disdain. No, this defeat came from deep within my gut—a pang of regret, confusion, and how did I think that becoming a Middle School teacher was a good idea?

During grad school lectures, I would daydream about my classroom set-up: the novels flanking my bookshelves; the bulletin boards adorned with bright colors and witty phrases; desks, in perfectly aligned rows, with my students hanging on every word of a vibrant conversation about literary devices and character development. And, when I was offered the chance to teach Seventh Grade, I couldn’t have imagined a better opportunity to really get into the trenches and impact our youth.

Well, my daydreams soon turned to nightmares.

Those bookshelves filled to the brim with the literary genius of authors I wanted my students to espouse? Those became a cache for gum wrappers, leftover Doritos, and wadded up binder paper that would be launched across the classroom at any given time. Those bulletin boards? They would consume the better part of a Saturday to take down and put back up, only to end up with pen pricked holes and scrawled messages about how much I sucked and so did my English class. And, those perfectly aligned desks and Socratic conversations? You don’t even want to know.

More times than I can count, I just wanted to throw in the towel and walk away.

Apparently, I wasn’t alone in those thoughts, though, at the time, I felt isolated in my chaos. According to Abigail Hess for cnbc.com, “50% of teachers surveyed say they’ve considered quitting, blaming pay, stress and lack of respect.”

I didn’t get into teaching for the money, though the amount of time, energy, and stamina it takes to do our job well should undoubtedly manifest itself through a hearty paycheck. But, frankly, you couldn’t have paid me enough that first year to not feel the anvil of failure pounding deep into my chest.

I was letting down my students.

I was letting down their parents.

I was letting down my administrator.

But, most of all, I was letting down myself.

The naiveté of daydreaming about my classroom and curriculum was one built upon a misperception that has been often perpetuated about teaching. It is seen as simplistic, something that can be done by anyone if they just try hard enough. The fact that our day “ends” at 3 p.m. and we have summers off is typically viewed as that of a lightweight.

But, I dare any naysayer to get into the ring with a motivated teacher. The tenacity to come to the bargaining table with stalwart parents or indignant students. The brainpower to create new assignments, projects, immersive experiences to inspire kids to do their best work and be their best selves. The dedication to work long past the day’s end at 3 p.m., burning on well into the evenings and weekends to make sure that standards are being taught, test scores are measuring up, that the integrity of the profession radiates.

Did I walk away after that first year? I did not, no matter how tempting it was to quit.

I cannot tell you how grateful I am that I persevered.

There wasn’t one singular moment that stands out from the rest as the “aha!” when I decided to face my fears and insecurities and keep on going. It took time and patience to realize that I was exactly where I was supposed to be. That first year taught me so many lessons that have shaped the educator I am today.

Ask for help. I turned to my seasoned colleagues and sought their insight regarding how to keep to a schedule, not sweat the small stuff, and learn strategies like posting my classroom rules and expectations in a visible place, using an auditory signal to draw back students’ wandering engagement, and streamlining my grading process with a range of rubrics to fit varied assignments.

Develop trust. I learned that only when my students began to trust that I had their best intentions at heart could we get to a place where they took what I had to say seriously. I needed to be transparent with them in order to receive the same candor in return. They needed to know that my edits to their essays, my critique of the way they spoke to one another, and the Math test returned with a failing grade were all ways that I was striving to help them grow, not looking to hold them down.

Listen. I learned that when their parents began to talk to me rather than at me, we could establish a rapport of accountability and teamwork. But first, I had to be willing to listen to what they had to say.

My life as an educator has been so rich.

Here I am, thirteen years past those first days in my Seventh Grade classroom. And, while a fire alarm still gives me a brief moment of pause, remembering back to that disastrous drill many moons ago, my heart also skips a beat for the memories that this crazy career choice has afforded me.

And, that makes me smile.

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