Today's question comes from Jennifer who has asked a tough question, but one that every teacher has an answer to no matter what content area they teach. I hope I can answer this question completely, yet delicately. Jennifer asked...
"What has been your most troublesome experience with teaching and how did you handle it?"
My story starts in my former district where we were in the process of transitioning out of traditional language instruction where our adopted textbook had originally driven the curriculum. My coordinator was working herself to death trying to provide all of us with the training and resources we needed to begin to move into a proficiency based classroom, and I got to serve on the curriculum writing team tasked to rewrite curriculum with this new focus. Being in that group, I had access to information and training that others didn't, so I really thought I was making great progress in changing my own paradigms about language teaching. For all practical purposes, I was ahead of a lot of other teachers there because I was willing to step into unfamiliar territory and change my methods. I was fired up, excited and passionate about all I was learning. I was a "go-to" person in the district, presenting frequently at our state and national conferences and was very successful doing what I was doing. My students liked my class, I had a great reputation on my campus and in the community and my boss really trusted me. Things were good!
One day, my husband came home and said that he wanted a career change in a new city, and since our daughter had just graduated from high school and nothing was holding us where we were, we moved to the Dallas area. I knew several teachers in the district I am in now, and I knew their program was cutting edge and like little else in our state. I knew that was where I wanted to be, so I put in my application and crossed my fingers for an interview. That was the easy part.
Next, I got my interview and got my job. I even got sort of settled in my new space, and things took a turn for the worse. When I started trying to plan my lessons, I opened up the new curriculum for my new district and it was completely Greek to me. I didn't understand a thing I was looking at. To add to the trouble, many of the people teaching around me were either new like me, or had only come the year before. So, at a campus level there were little resources to pull from to make sense of what was going on. I then learned that my students came from a variety of prior experiences, so their knowledge and skill levels differed from student to student. I cannot say why this was the case, but it was my reality everyday. As it happened, I also had a very challenging set of students who I later found out the administrative team said were some of the toughest students in the building. You wouldn't believe the stories I have to tell about some of the situations I dealt with in regards to that particular group of students, but those are stories for another day. Don't forget that I was in a new city, had a new schedule, and was completely out of my comfort zone in every other possible way.
To say the least, I was struggling and couldn't figure out why. It seemed like everything I did to find my footing in a new situation backfired on me. The crazy thing was that my first year of teaching ever wasn't even as hard as that first year in my new district. As you can imagine, this was all incredibly hard on my ego being that I had come from such success. One day, something happened that just broke my resolve. I received some bad news and had to report to the principal's office to be "talked to." I went and I answered his questions, but I was completely mortified that I was in that position. When I got back to my classroom I fell apart sobbing so hard I couldn't breathe. My team leader saw me and tried to get me to talk to him, but I couldn't put words together other than to say that I needed to go home, so he arranged to have my classes covered so I could go pull myself back together. When I got home I threw on my pajamas, buried myself in the bed and cried. When the tears finally dried up, I laid there feeling sorry for myself. Then, the phone rang. I could tell it was the principal by the number on my screen, and I thought, "Oh great... what now?" I answered and we had a short chat about how I was doing and why I might be taking things so hard. Truthfully, I think he was beside himself and didn't really know what to do with me, but he did recommend that I take that day, a Thursday, off and maybe even that Friday so that I would have time to really move past whatever was bothering me. Honestly, I got off the phone not feeling any better than I did before he called because I still didn't have any answers to help me find my way out of whatever pit I had fallen into. I was so hopeless and discouraged I thought my career was over.
I laid there the rest of the afternoon beating myself up and looking for a plan of escape when I heard a little voice in my head ask me this question: "What are you so mad at?" I know it may sound scary to hear me say that I was hearing voices, but it is true. I believe the voice was divine intervention. Others might say it was my subconscious, but either way there it was this huge question that demanded an answer. What do you do when you hear voices asking you that? You answer. So, I responded, "I'm not mad," but the little voice wasn't buying it and I heard it ask again, "What are you so mad at?" and again I said, "Nothing! I am not mad about anything!" That little voice backed me into a corner and said, "You are mad because you aren't a big shot here." She went on to say, "You are mad because you are a nobody here and what you are doing isn't working." OUCH... at that point I literally said out loud, "That SUUUUCCKKKKSSS!" I knew then the pity party was over and that I was the only thing in my way. I realized that while I believed I was a proficiency based teacher I actually knew nothing about HOW to teach that way. I realized that I had never really given the new curriculum a chance, so I was continually modifying it so that it fit with my old methods, and I knew that the only way to figure it out was to abandon my agenda and my ways of doing things and completely commit to the program here. The only thing left to do was decide whether or not I was going to scrape myself up from rock bottom and show my face at school the next day, and that I just what I did. I did not go back to prove anything to anyone else. I went back to prove something to myself.
What happened after that pitiful day was nothing but sheer positive forward movement. The strategy behind each page of the curriculum lept off the page and revealed itself to me as if it was just waiting until I was ready to see it. I had just spent too much time assuming I knew what was going on. I made it through the year and actually did my students enough good to give the new school another year. I found out that my struggles really disappointed some of my colleagues, but I was able to repair one or two peoples' perceptions of me only because I found enough humility to share that awful day of realizations with them. Sadly, others never saw me any differently and probably never will. What is more important than that is that I learned a really hard lesson that year. Sometimes what is really wrong has nothing to do with external problems, lack of support or resources, poor leadership, challenging students or a new program. Sometimes what is really wrong is that we get fossilized in our comfort zones and become unwilling to learn and grow, and the truth is that when we reach that point there are only two choices we can make: stay where we are and become irrelevant or drop our baggage and journey down a new path embracing the adventure ahead. In short, to continue growing we have to get out of our own way. Our value, our relevance, our voice and our influence are solidly founded in our willingness to continue to be learners, and that becomes impossible if we are too arrogant to believe there is something left for us to learn. Although we are educators and the perception of us is that we are the experts in the classroom, the reality is that we really only know enough to guide our students on a journey we ourselves are still on. Any sign that we lack humility tells them that we don't respect where they are in the journey. That lack of respect makes it impossible for us to design learning experiences for them because we can't imagine what it is like to be them in those situations. Could you learn from someone who didn't respect you and treated you as if they knew everything already? Me either.
So that's it. My worst teaching experience ever and how I dealt with it and continue to deal with it. Forgive me for a long post. Would you believe me if I told you this is the abbreviated version? I hope that you can find something in my story that helps you mentally prepare for entering the classroom. This long, hard lesson was probably the most important of my career, and I can tell you it has been the most rewarding lesson, too. All of my successes after that year I attribute to having to go through that low, low time in my teaching career.
A Challenge to My Readers
My challenge to any experienced world language classroom teacher who reads this post is either to post your own answer to Carrie in the form of a comment to my blog, or even better write your own blog post answering his question and publish it to the Twitter community using the #Teach2Teach hashtag. Help me start a movement of veteran teachers reaching out to teach future teachers so that our move towards proficiency based world language instruction is strengthened and soon becomes the standard practice rather than the vanguard.