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A new teacher’s worst day in school — and how it can help homeschooling parents

(Illustration by Ginger Seehafer) (For The Washington Post)
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This is the second in a weekly series on The Answer Sheet for parents who have found themselves learning to home-school their children on the fly now that the covid-19 pandemic has closed schools across the country.

The series is written by Roxanna Elden, who combines 11 years of experience as a public school teacher with a decade of speaking about education-related topics.

Her first book, “See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers,” is nonfiction and widely used in teacher training. Her debut novel, “Adequate Yearly Progress,” follows a diverse group of educators in an urban high school. She has adapted some of the advice she has long provided to new teachers for this series. You can see more of her work on her website, here.

And the first part of this series — “Sanity-saving advice for parents now trying to teach their kids” — is available here.

By Roxanna Elden

The worst day of my first year of teaching happened near the end of October.

By that time, two months into school year, I had made plenty of rookie mistakes. For one thing, I had fallen way behind on grading and didn’t realize it until the first report-card grades were almost due. There were also about five loud kids in the class whose behavior engulfed all my attention, even though there were other kids who desperately needed my attention and weren’t getting enough of it.

I was so tired that on Friday afternoons, I would fall asleep on the couch and wake up Saturday morning with my shoes still on. When I was with the kids, I couldn’t be the teacher they needed me to be, because my own emotional rubber band was always stretched to its breaking point.

There was a particular day when I was even more exhausted than usual. The kids, by contrast, were even more hyper than usual. They just would. Not. Be. Quiet. And — I can’t emphasize this enough — I really needed them to be quiet. But the only way I could get them to stop talking for even five minutes was to add more math problems to their homework. Did I know this was a terrible thing to do? I did.

In fact, I had learned in teacher training that we should never give homework as a punishment because it “makes kids hate learning.” So, even as I was assigning these problems, I knew I was doing exactly the opposite of everything I had ever hoped to do as a teacher. Worse still, I knew that the kids who were misbehaving the most were never even going to do the punishment homework; I was only inflicting this hate of learning on my best-behaved students.

But I was just out of ideas. I was desperate. And to be completely honest, I was also angry. I mean, all I was asking them to do was stay quiet. Why couldn’t they just stay quiet?

At the end of the day, I sent my fourth-grade students home with about 70 long-division problems. Then I ran into another teacher in the hallway — who was carrying a plastic pumpkin full of candy — making me realize, for the first time that day, that it was Halloween. On top of all my other failures as a teacher, I had ruined Halloween for a class full of 9-year-olds.

On my way home, I started crying so hard I couldn’t see the road. I pulled into a Burger King parking lot and sat there for two hours crying and wondering how these kids ever got stuck with a teacher like me.

I didn’t know this at the time, but I was right on schedule.

The New Teacher Center, which researches such things, has documented five phases of first-year teaching: anticipation, survival, disillusionment, rejuvenation, and reflection. Each of these phases lasts for about one to two months of the school year. They vary in length, they don’t always come in order, and all of them have the potential to be not a lot of fun.

The disillusionment phase, however, is particularly brutal.

This phase often falls between mid-October and Thanksgiving (though, like lots of things in teaching, it doesn't always match the printed schedule). It is a time frame during which teachers are exhausted, caught in a self-woven web of early missteps, and especially prone to thinking that their mistakes will ruin kids’ lives forever.

I suspect there's a version of the disillusionment phase in the works for parents who are learning to become teachers on the fly during this crisis. For some, it may have already arrived.

Which is why it seems like a good time to share a bit of perspective gained after 11 years of (mostly) successful teaching and over a decade of coaching other teachers through their early career years.

Here are a few things I know now that I did not know on the day described above.

First: Not every day was this bad. Don’t get me wrong; there were definitely bad days both before and after this one. But there were also some nice moments — and when those moments arrived, I really, really appreciated them.

Second: This day may not feel nearly as bad for anyone else as it does to you. The students from the class in this story are now adults. I'm friends with many of them on Facebook, and they don't seem to have been permanently scarred by the mistakes I made. In fact, many of them claim to have positive overall memories of that year, which seems amazing to me given the way I remember it. One takeaway is that if you show up every day and do the best job you are capable of at that moment, the kids notice that, too.

Third: This day would not have felt as bad if I hadn't been so, so tired. I can almost guarantee I was running on four hours of sleep or fewer at the time this incident occurred. In a misguided attempt to do "whatever it takes," because "failure is not an option," I usually stayed up way past what should have been my bedtime. That did not make me a great teacher. Instead it meant that, in addition to all the other challenges my students faced, they had a teacher who lacked the mental and emotional resources to process what was happening in the classroom.

Because I had no compassion for myself, I had none for my students, either. Often, I felt as though the 9-year-olds in my classroom knew I stayed up until 2 a.m. planning lessons and were now consciously choosing to throw my efforts in my face by behaving badly. Needless to say, this didn’t bring out the best in me. I took everything personally and lost my temper all the time.

The sleep issue is especially worth mentioning because it's a common mistake, and it's an area where you can try to make change almost immediately. You can't turn everything around in one day, but you can commit to getting eight hours of sleep tonight.

Try it. See how things look in the morning.

Do you have a homeschool teaching topic you’d like to see addressed in a future column in this series? If so, feel free to share it in the comments section. You can also get emails on this topic by subscribing here.