New Teacher Blues

How I Survived My First Year

By Bill Bigelow

Every teacher’s nightmare: a sea of bored faces.
Credit Cleo

It was a Friday afternoon and the end of my sixth period freshman social studies class. As two of my students walked out the door, I overheard as one turned to the other and said, “Do you know what this class reminds me of? A local TV commercial.”

It was a crushing comment. I knew exactly what she meant. As hard as I was working, the class still felt ragged, amateurish — well-intended, but sloppy. Her metaphor, invoking the image of a salesman trying too hard, was perfect. As the last student filed out, the best I could do was remember the words of Lee Hays of The Weavers, “Like kidney stones and the Nixon presidency, this too will pass.”

At the 1994 National Coalition of Education Activists conference in Portland, Rethinking Schools editors invited interested readers to a lunch meeting to talk about the paper. During the gathering, one teacher educator said, “So many of your articles about teaching seem to presume that readers have taught for years, and would feel confident trying all kinds of innovative activities. Why don’t you write something aimed more at newer teachers and people studying to become teachers?” Of course, new teachers can also be innovative. In fact, urging a new teacher to be overly cautious is some of the worst advice one can give. But his comment and question prompted me to reflect on my first year as a teacher, 1978-79, and to wonder what I learned that year that might be useful to pass on.

The first couple of years in the classroom establish what could be called a teacher’s “professional trajectory.” We come out of college full of theory and hope. But then our lofty aims bump up against the (in most cases) conservative cultures of our new schools, and the students who have often been hardened by life and public schooling. How we respond to this clash of idealism versus cynicism begins to create patterns that help define the teachers we’ll become. Which is not to say that the mistakes we make early on are repeated over and over throughout our careers. I probably did more things wrong than right my first year, and I’d like to think that I’ve grown since then. Perhaps the best we can do is to insure that early in our teaching lives we create mechanisms of self-reflection that allow us to grow, allow us to continually rethink our curricula and classroom approaches.

Nurturing these critical mechanisms may be vital if we’re to maintain our hope in increasingly trying times.

First Jobs

Year number one was not easy, as can be gathered from the incident described above. Typical of the circumstances of most first year teachers, principals did not line up to compete for my services. I began on the substitute list, and was lucky to land that spot. I know there are people who enjoy subbing: no papers to correct, no lesson plans to fret over, frequent change of scenery, and so forth. But I hated it. I didn’t know the kids’ names; they often began in let’s-terrorize-the-sub mode; teachers invariably left awful lesson plans (“review chapter 20; have them study for the test”), but resented it if I didn’t follow them to the letter; and I rarely had an opportunity to practice my craft: teaching.

Finally, in late October I did get a job — at Grant High School in Portland, Ore., where I had completed my student teaching. It was a school with a diverse student body, about 30% African-American, with its European-American students drawn from both working class and “up on the ridge” neighborhoods. I had two preps: U.S. history, and something called “freshman social studies,” (and baseball coaching in the spring.) As I was to learn, I’d been hired to teach “overflow” classes, classes that had been formed because Grant’s enrollment was much higher than expected. Teachers chose the “surplus” students they would donate to these new classes. Then the administration hired a sub to baby-sit while they sought permission from higher-ups to offer a contract to a regular teacher. In the meantime, kids drove two subs to quit. I was hired during the tenure of sub number three. My position was officially designated “temporary.” In other words, I would automatically lose my job at the end of the year — unless another teacher fell ill, retired, died, quit, or had a baby.

My first meeting with the administrative team of principal, vice-principal and curriculum specialist was perfunctory. I was told that “freshman social studies” meant one semester career education, one semester world geography, and no, they weren’t sure which came first. Nor did they know which, or even if, textbooks were used. But I could pick up my two-ream allotment of ditto paper from the department chair. They gave me a key to Room 10 and sent me to review “my work station,” as the principal, an ex-Navy man, called it. Room 10 was a runt: a tiny basement classroom, crammed with 1950s-style student desks and a loud, hulking heating unit in the rear; but it was mine. It turns out students had been issued textbooks — for U.S. history, something like God BlessAmerica:We’reNumber One, and for world geography the cleverly titled World Geography.

Don’t Be a Lone Ranger

Before the students, came the questions: Should I use these textbooks? How do I grade? What kind of “discipline” policy should I have? How should I arrange the classroom? What do I teach on the first day? My answers to these and other typical first-year questions are less important than the process of answering them. And this is perhaps the most valuable lesson I drew from that first year: Don’t be a lone ranger. In September I had organized a study/ support group with several teachers, some brand new, others with a few years’ experience. We were united by a broad vision of creating lively and thoughtful classrooms, where we provoked students to question the roots of social problems, and encouraged them to believe that they could make a difference in the world. This group became my haven, offering comfort in times of stress — which was most of the time — and concrete advice to vexing questions. (I don’t mean to suggest that these support groups are only for the inexperienced; I’ve been in a study/action group, Portland Teachers Rethinking Schools, for the past seven years.)

We met weekly and usually divided our time between discussion of issues in education — tracking, discipline, teacher union politics, school funding, etc. — and classroom problems we encountered.

Sometimes we brainstormed ideas for particular units people were developing, for example, Native American history or the U.S. Constitution. It was to this group that I brought complaints of rowdy classes and recalcitrant students, practical concerns about leading discussions or structuring a major project, and questions of how curricularly adventurous I could be without incurring the wrath of an administrator. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it, but I was glad that the group was composed mostly of teachers from other schools. Because of the huge gulf between my classroom ideals and my day-to-day practice, I felt somewhat shameful, and was reluctant to share my stumbles and doubts with more experienced colleagues in the building.

There were only eight of us in the group but we taught in four different districts; two were Title One teachers and three worked in alternative programs. The diversity of work situations yanked me out of the isolation of my classroom cubicle and forced me to see a bigger educational picture. Sheryl Hirshon’s frequent despair with her Title One classes in a rural Oregon community may have been of a different sort than my frequent despair at urban Grant High School. But each of us could learn from how the other analyzed and confronted our difficult situations. Occasionally, our meetings turned into aimless whining sessions. But other times, a simple comment could remind us of our ideals and keep us on the path. I remember in a weak moment confessing that I was just too tired, scrambling to create my own curriculum from scratch, re-typing excerpts from assorted books in the days before we teachers were allowed access to a copy machine, and that I was going to start relying on the textbook. My friend, Peter Thacker, sympathetic yet disapproving, asked, “Bill, do you really want to do that?” OK, it may have bordered on guilt trip, but that’s all it took for me to remember that in fact I really didn’t want to do that. The group was simultaneously collective conscience and inspiration.

It’s not that all textbooks are so wretched, although, as I recall, mine were pretty awful. But as a beginning teacher I needed to see myself as a producer, not merely a consumer, of curriculum. It’s hard work to translate the world into engaging lesson plans, but unless we’re content to subordinate our classrooms to the priorities of the corporations that produce textbooks and other canned curricula, that’s exactly what we have to do everyday. It’s not that textbooks are a vast wasteland of corporate propaganda — I’ve borrowed lots of good ideas from textbook study guides — but they can easily narrow, distort and misdirect our efforts. To offer just one example, in Jim Loewen’s forthcoming critique of contemporary U.S. history textbooks [Lies MyTeacherTold Me, The New Press] he demonstrates that all major texts downplay or totally ignore the history of the struggle against racism in the United States. Especially as a beginning teacher, if I had relied on textbooks to shape the outlines of my U.S. history curriculum, I would have neglected crucial areas of inquiry — and may never have realized it.

In addition to the support group, my planning book was another confidant of sorts. In it I would describe the activities I intended to do each week, and then record in some detail what actually happened. This was especially useful the following summer, when I could sit on the porch and leisurely flip through the book looking for patterns in students’ responses to various lessons and teaching methods. As I read back over it today I’m reminded of how helpless I often felt. For November 28, 1978: “Things seem to be getting much rowdier in both my freshman classes. And I’m not sure exactly what to do.” I wrote frequently about their “groans.” But having the journal to look back on after that first year also allowed me to search out the causes of the rowdiness and groans. I saw that my failure to engage them was more pronounced when I tried to pound them with information. My observations after a lecture on the roots of the Civil War were blunt, and a trifle pathetic: “People were very bored. I guess I should find another way to present it — even though it’s interesting to me.”

What’s obvious to me now, was not so obvious at the time: when students experience social dynamics from the inside, with skits, stories, improvisations, they aren’t so rowdy and they aren’t so bored. There’s a direct relationship between curriculum and “classroom management” that isn’t always explicitly acknowledged in teaching methods courses. The following year, I designed a simulation to get at the pre-Civil War sectional conflicts and wrote a role play that showed students first-hand why Lincoln’s election led to Southern secession, and that also prompted students to think critically about the “Lincoln freed the slaves” myth. The point is simply that it was vital that I had some mechanisms to be self-reflective that first year. (A wonderful book I discovered that summer that helped me develop a more student-friendly, hands-on curriculum was Changing Learning, Changing Lives, by Barbara Gates, Susan Klaw, and Adria Steinberg, The Feminist Press, 1979, and sadly, now long out of print.)

Oral Sex and the Vice Principal

It began with a call that I was to report to the vice-principal’s office as soon as possible. The voice at the other end indicated that it was urgent. The call gave me the creeps. From the moment we met, I’d felt that Lloyd Dixon, curriculum V.P., could look deep into my soul — and that he didn’t like what he saw. When we passed in the hall he smiled thinly but with a glance that said, “I’ve got your number, Bigelow.”

Bill Bigelow is a Rethinking Schools editorial associate.