A Year In The Life

The statistics should scare every parent. The nation's public schools will need 2 million new teachers in the next decade, according to a recent government report. It'll be tough to recruit them and even tougher to keep them in the classroom. More than 20 percent of new teachers leave the profession in the first three years; after five years, more than a third have gone on to other careers. Money is the major reason. But rowdy kids, apathetic parents and long hours also push even idealistic teachers out. To find out more about what makes some stay and others leave, NEWSWEEK asked three first-year teachers to keep diaries. Here's how they did:

Elizabeth Jackson looks so young that more than one parent has mistaken her for a student. And this is middle school. But her youth hasn't spared her from shouldering the responsibility of educating six classes a day at Nichols Middle School, and 120 students representing an amazing cross section of America: white and black, rich and poor. She says she learned to teach by paying attention to the good and bad teachers in her own life. Her mother, who teaches elementary school in Iowa City, was her first role model. But Jackson is also haunted by the memory of a high-school English teacher whose rules for writing were paralyzingly rigid. Years later Jackson still recalls agonizing over a paper. "I sat writing a sentence, then deleting it, for over an hour," she says. "In the end I dropped the class, but the damage was done, and one thing was sure: I was not a writer."

At Minnesota's St. Olaf College another teacher--a trusted professor--undid that damage by recommending that Jackson take a class in expository writing to help overcome her fears. It worked, and at the end of the semester Jackson wrote her professor a note: "There is nothing to say but thank you. You know what a struggle this has been for me. I still have a lot of growing to do, but at least I'm no longer scared."

Jackson's getting notes like that from her own students these days, as well as some amazing pieces of writing. One boy, Gareth, "writes as well as the best writers I knew in college," she says. "He wrote a story early in the year that had me completely spellbound." There have been rough moments, too: trying to help her students with learning disabilities, difficult home lives and the inevitable agonies of being stuck somewhere between childhood and the glories of being a full-fledged teen-ager. Marlyn Payne, Jackson's mentor during her student-teaching days at Nichols in the fall of 1999, says that when Jackson first entered her classroom, she knew immediately that this one was a keeper. "She had a strong sense of herself," Payne says, "and she knew what she expected from the students."

After a year in the trenches, that hasn't changed. "I became a teacher," Jackson says, "because I understand the power to change a person, for good or ill. And I hope, because I paid attention to my teachers, that I will know how to nurture. I teach writing not because it was easy and I was good at it, but because it was hard and I learned to love it anyway."


OCT. 13: Another Friday. I want nothing but silence. The low buzz of Juan's vacuum cleaner is about all I can take. I never appreciated Fridays before. Never in college, not even during finals. Now, on my drive home from school on Fridays, I take a deep breath and slowly allow myself to become 22 again, to become Elizabeth rather than Ms. Jackson. I look forward to a night on the town, maybe a date even, but more than anything I think of how I will really sleep for the first time in five nights, how I will allow myself to let go of my students--the ones who never turn in any work despite my calls home, the ones who won't sit still and can't stop talking, the ones who work diligently every day and never get the praise they deserve because I'm too frantic and disorganized to worry about anyone except those who aren't "meeting the standard." I will not think about the hours of grading I have to do. And I will not fret about what, and how, I'm going to teach next week or next month. My dreams will be school-free for at least tonight, which is the most relaxing thing I can imagine. Three different teachers told me what a wonderful job I'm doing today. Would they still say that if they sat in on my first-period class today? If I'm doing so well then why won't my ninth-period class shut up? If I'm wonderful, then why do I feel that on most days I'm treading water and it's only a matter of time until I drown?

OCT. 23: I have spent so much time and energy chasing after students who are not turning in their work--offering them extra help after school or at lunch, calling their parents, practically begging them. I brood during the day and dream about them at night. I tried every angle, and slowly I became less understanding and more frustrated and threatening. I was a basket case. I was burning out to the point where I could hardly enjoy the often phenomenal work I was getting from many of my students. So, over the weekend I pounded it into perspective. I said no to the guilt, let go of the anger and faced facts. I cannot make my students work, and I cannot force them to succeed. If teachers had that kind of power, no student would fail. There are no magic words that will motivate every student. Teachers find it hard to let go of the idea that we can be that one person who guides all to success. And so many people seem to want us to be able to fill that role. I wanted to scream when I watched George W talking about "holding teachers accountable" during the debates. Give me families that have enough money to feed their children and time to read to them before bed. Give me 15 students in a class and a copy machine that works more than every other week, and then we'll talk.

NOV. 27: When I came home last night and still had a pile of papers to read, I just sort of froze up. Is this my life? One of my roommates asked me what was wrong, and I peered up pathetically from under my stack of papers. "I feel like my life, everything, is racing past me at 90 miles per hour, and all I can do is just sit here like this and watch it zoom by." I am a picture of confusion, dumbfounded inadequacy, panic, failure and guilt. Regardless of how many hours I give, I always feel like I could have/should have given more. So why do I do this? Why not join my roommate, who works at an ad agency, with an office on the 31st floor with a beautiful view of the city? On days like today I have a hard time answering that question. Then I open my desk drawer and see one of the reasons staring back at me. A card and picture from one of my dearest students. "To: Ms. Jackson/From: Dulce V./ you are the Best teacher/ i have ever knew./ And you are so/nice like you're own/Heart." That's Dulce, honest and unedited. Because she grew up in a jumbled world of English and Spanish, she doesn't have a strong linguistic foundation. But she's only in seventh grade and she has time. That's why I'm here.

FEB. 13: I was the chaperone at the Valentine's Day dance. I really didn't want to be there, but then I started to receive some of the perks of being the youngest teacher in the building, the "rookie." The students never seem to mind my being there and some even want me to join in the dancing (which I of course refuse because they already take advantage of every possible opportunity to see me as one of them). They don't even mind as much when I break up their bumping and grinding, as if, again, I somehow understand their raging hormones better because of my age. And I suppose I might. I sometimes have flashbacks of my own junior-high dances, which didn't look much different from theirs. When a girl is shaking her ass all over the floor and a little boy behind her just can't help but grab onto it, I simply pull him aside and say sternly, but with a smile, "You can look, but don't touch."

MAY 3: I have found reasons to love almost all of my students. Some of them for their kindness and insight, some because they make me laugh every day no matter how I try to hold it in and deny them the satisfaction, and some simply because they get up in the morning and come to school even though their home lives are more difficult than I can ever understand. As long as they surprise me, I will continue to love this job. Marlyn Payne, my first mentor and close friend, told me earlier this year that if she ever sits down and writes a book about teaching middle school she has the perfect title: "Dancing on the Edge." When I think about my first year of teaching, which has also been my first year in the "real world," I can't think of a more accurate image.

I'm sure many young teachers leave because they can't maintain the balance, or they never find it in the first place. Teachers leave because, in this country, the entire profession is underappreciated and misunderstood by everyone who has not done their time in the classroom. Time and time again, people who haven't spent a day in the classroom, let alone a week, are given the power to dictate our salary, our preteaching training, our standards, our curriculum and "requirements for recertification."

Despite these insulting truths, I think that I will probably stay. I work with outstanding people every day. I have models for keeping the balance and reinventing myself as a teacher when the time comes. My two teaching mentors will leave Nichols next year. One to lead the English department at the high school, and one to tackle new and different challenges at the elementary level. Although most of me wishes they would stay to see me through a few more years, I know that they need to make these changes for themselves. I also know they will continue to be models for me, when my time comes to reinvent myself.

As a child, Karen Terrell spent summers with her cousins and her grandmother in Florida. To keep busy, the kids played school and Terrell was always the teacher, a role she loved. But when she did well in math at her high school in Decatur, Ga., her own teachers told her to study engineering because she could make more money. Terrell majored in architecture at MIT and, after graduating in 1996, worked for a marketing firm. "The work was interesting," she says, "but I wasn't happy. In December 1999, I quit and took a few months off to clear my head." Soon afterward she saw an ad for the Massachusetts Institute for New Teachers, which pays a $20,000 signing bonus to career switchers (a promising source of new teachers). Terrell relied on her Christian faith to get her through what has been a grueling year. Someday she wants to go into publishing. But next fall, she'll be back at Jeremiah Burke High School in Dorchester, an inner-city school with a predominantly African-American and Hispanic student body. "I live just a few minutes away," Terrell says, "and I liked the idea of being able to affect my own community."


NOV. 8: Tomorrow is the last day of the term and I'm so glad! Not because I won't see my kids for three days--although that is a plus--but rather because Monday begins a new term and what to me feels like a new lease on life. My body has never been so tired from the mental and emotional strain. Every day I come home quoting Claire Huxtable from "The Cosby Show": "I have nothing left to give!" Then I get a bite to eat, hit the couch and as I begin to drift off to sleep, my mind kicks into automatic pilot. "I've got to be more organized. That R. reminds me so much of myself when I was his age. Lord, what can I do to reach A. tomorrow?" Before I know it, four hours have passed and I wake up with a whole set of ideas for the next day.

DEC. 14: Today I threw out half my algebra class for misbehaving or somehow disrupting the class. I have a roomful of ninth graders and one repeating 10th grader, and I'm finding day by day that there is a huge difference between the ninth- and 10th-grade maturity levels. I never would have suspected this until now. What's funny is that when I began looking for teaching jobs earlier this year, I really wanted ninth graders. I wanted the younger bunch because I wanted to get to them as early as possible to help mold them and shape them into responsible, dream-chasing young adults. Perhaps this is a bit too much to ask for when teaching any grade level, but it's still my ultimate goal.

DEC. 17: Today, a Sunday, was incredibly emotional for me. At church, Pastor Thompson began talking about falling short of the promises you make to people and to God. My mind began to wander, thinking about things I had promised people and the Lord, but before I could sit there and start feeling guilty, Pastor Thompson went to a Scripture in Revelation that said even though we mess up, God gives us time and space to repent. What really melted my heart was when he started talking about prayer. He talked about how we are all warriors. Something inside me began to stir. Then he went on about how we are supposed to be standing in the gap for others who cannot intercede for themselves. My mind went to the students I had been praying for--I said their names, and many more. Even for the day-to-day things, I pray for wisdom and guidance. It's because of Him that I'm going back to the Burke after a hellacious week that left me dreaming of not going back. All because of Him.

DEC. 21: School's out for Christmas and I can't believe I made it. When I got home and looked around, I became increasingly excited and I realized "I'm free!" What a relief to know that I can go to sleep tonight and not have to worry about lesson plans or how to deal with some difficult child tomorrow. A lot of teachers chose not to do too much or anything at all today but I chose to continue on with school pretty much as usual. As I told my fifth-period class, if the school system intended today to be a holiday, none of us would be here. But I also just wasn't in a party mode. My mind was on where I plan for my students to be by the week we return to school and by the end of the term, as well. It feels like time has just flown by, and once again, I haven't accomplished all the things I wanted to do.

JAN. 31: It's the third day of term three, and I've taken today as a sick day. It's not the flu; I'm just exhausted and occasionally I have to take a day for my mental health. For the last week or two, I've been incredibly tired. Sometimes I've felt as though my brain was going to explode. I was trying to make it to February break. But it's just too far away.

MAY 6: My students are always surprised when I tell them teaching is not the last stop for me. They say: "But you already have a career, Ms. Terrell." And I tell them it's just one dream of mine. I've got much more to do. They look at me half bewildered and half intrigued, but I'm so grateful to be in a position to tell and show them that you don't have to limit yourself to just one thing. Let your imagination soar! I'm pretty sure that most inner-city children don't hear that after kindergarten or first grade, and I know that they're surrounded by people who have been in the same, often dead-end, jobs since time began. I love being able to impart this message to them. Teaching is not just about academics, but also about ministering to kids. This means that we serve them, often help change them and propel them into their destinies. Most of my students have not been raised or taught to think this way. The thing to do is to go to school, graduate perhaps with good grades, go to college maybe, get a job, get married, have kids and die. But what about living? Experiencing? Experimenting? Inventing? Dreaming?

At Cornell University, Ben Klein studied child and adolescent psychology and worked part time at a nursery school. He'd also been a camp counselor for many years and admired the zeal that his mother, a teacher, had for her work. Although all these experiences were pushing him toward a career in education, he was still unsure of what he was going to do as graduation approached last year. Friends were heading off to law school or Wall Street and he briefly thought about joining them. Then an aunt who lives in San Francisco told him that many of the city's private schools hire teaching assistants to work in the lower grades. It seemed like a good fit. Klein liked Hamlin, an all-girls school, from the moment he entered the main building, a historic mansion in Pacific Heights. Still, there are times when he realizes that he has chosen a path many of his peers don't respect. "In September," he says, "I traveled down to Burlingame to visit a friend from Cornell who is a banker. We went out to dinner with a bunch of guys from his office. Since I was the outsider in the group, a guy from across the table asked what I did. When I told him, there was a moment of silence. Then he said, 'Oh, you teach. How nice of you. That must be amusing.' Amusing. What does that mean?"

SEPT. 7: Elizabeth Nalbandian, the head teacher, and I have been in school for days, setting up desks, hanging bulletin boards and planning lessons. I thought I was ready. But at 8 a.m., when the kids began to roll in with their parents, I didn't know what hit me. I tried to match names to faces from the old yearbook, but then all 21 girls rolled in wearing the same outfit. The parents came up to introduce themselves, and many seemed shocked that their daughters would have a male assistant teacher. They made jokes about what it would be like for me in such a female-dominated school. After the parents left and the class began to settle down, I relaxed. The rest of the day, I was constantly rehearsing the girls' names. At 3:15, I was exhausted.

OCT. 8: I've been listening to Bush and Gore talk about what's wrong with schools. Here's one answer: not enough money for teachers. At a staff meeting, Coreen Hester, the head of the school, talked about Hamlin's finances. We're a private school with more resources than most and we're committed to paying teachers well. But the reality is that no teacher in the current pay scale will ever make more than $85,000. The starting salary for a teaching assistant like me barely breaks $20,000. It makes me sad, and angry. Virtually every professional working at Hamlin has a degree from a top institution and many will never be able to afford their own homes. They have to work second jobs just to pay their rent.

JAN. 6: Because Elizabeth is on her honeymoon, I've had the class to myself for three days. I was prepared in terms of the lesson plans, but I wasn't sure whether the girls would accept me as the sole authority figure. As an assistant, I do a lot of one-on-one work with the girls, and I've tried to develop a friendly rapport. But as head of the class, even for a few days, I have to demonstrate that I mean business. They came back with a post-vacation buzz. In our morning meeting, I tried to make it clear that we had work to do. Although things went smoothly, I really appreciated the luxury of two teachers in the classroom. It was the little things: having someone to make an extra copy in the middle of a lesson or be there when I need a bathroom break. I could also see how difficult it is to give individualized help. The dynamic created by two teachers is unbeatable. You have one teacher leading the show, presenting the material, and another person, just as knowledgeable about the material, circulating around the room, helping each kid. It's a big advantage private schools have.

FEB. 16: Elizabeth has been both a safety net and a wonderful resource. She has given me a "guided tour" of how to run a classroom and she's shielded me from the behind-the-scenes politics of the classroom: parents calling on a daily basis with their concerns. This is a very real part of teaching, but unfortunately very distracting to teachers. What saddens me most about Elizabeth is that she has given up on teaching. She is exactly what this profession needs: a young, smart and energetic professional. But now that she's married, she's decided this will be her last year at Hamlin. She told me that if she's going to work this hard, she should be making more money. I can't blame her.

MARCH 2: At Hamlin, basketball is the sport to watch--like varsity football in some small Southern town. In September, when the athletic director sent out an S.O.S., I signed on to coach the J.V. squad. We've just clinched the championship spot in our league, and I look back on the experience with a lot of pride. When I first stepped out on the court, I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. The girls were so talkative, much more than boys of that age. But they really wanted to win. They just needed the right moves and that's what I gave them. The beauty of coaching is that the results are so visible. I can see right away whether they understand what I'm telling them. It's rarely this clear in the classroom.

APRIL 23: Friends of mine felt pressure to bring in a big paycheck, but I didn't. My mother is a teacher and she inspired me. She loves to talk about her past students. My other inspiration is Irwin Fleischner, a former teacher and for many years the director of Camp Scatico in Elizaville, N.Y., where I have been a camper or counselor every year since 1988. At orientation, Irwin tells counselors that they have the opportunity to change a child's life. That's what I want to do but I don't know if teaching will be the way. In a few years, I might apply to graduate school to get a degree in child psychology. But next fall, I'll be back in a third-grade classroom at Hamlin. Then, we'll see.

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