Welp, I’ve now been teaching longer than I’ve done anything else in my life since elementary school. And every time I start this post I write like a paragraph and then just stare at it because I don’t even know what I want to say.
What I feel most acutely at this point in my career is the dichotomy between feeling really good at certain parts of my job, and feeling like I still have no idea what I’m doing. Five years in and I can plan a lesson in half the time it took me my first year (or at least plan a much better lesson in the same amount of time). I know how to build relationships with most kids, and I know how to control most classrooms. This past year I’ve led workshops at Math for America and continued to do the morning session at Twitter Math Camp. I’m a Desmos certified presenter. I’ve been a grade team leader and I’m the new UFT chapter leader. I have Experience and Knowledge and maybe even some Authority on a few things.
*Insert clever “WTF?!” meme here that I couldn’t find in a cursory interwebs search*
It’s so weird when someone tweets “Oh, you should talk to @stoodle! He knows about that!” I’m not going to pretend that on some level it doesn’t feel good. It feels like my hard work has paid off. I’m incredibly insecure, and this feels validating. But then I also think about what my classroom is actually like on the day-to-day and it all feels…misplaced. I’m trying to avoid a full-on “imposter syndrome” post, because other people have done it better, but I am here to say it is real, and it is so stressful at times.
Because the key words above are that I can connect with most kids. I can control most classrooms. And even then, the words “at my school” need to be inserted. I’m exceptionally fortunate to work at a great school with great kids and great staff. But this year I’ve been thinking back a lot to my first year, in no small part because Math for America selected me to tell a story (embedded below) about what a god-awful experience it was. And when I think back to that year, I constantly wonder if I’m truly a Good Teacher, or if I’m just a good teacher for the kids that I have. If it’s the latter, it’s not nothing, but it is something I’m acutely aware of.
Even in my current environment I have lessons that bomb, and I have exchanges with students that haunt me for months afterward. I’m pretty good with the content I’m teaching (at least as long as no one asks too many questions about Stats), but I’m not pushing my content knowledge past high school. I’m not doing enough of the work for equity that I see many, many others doing online. I don’t connect with all my students, and some of my classroom policies aren’t as evolved as I want them to be. I’m terribly slow with grading and even worse with providing meaningful feedback and a space to reflect on what feedback I do give. There are dozens of other things I could add to this list. Teaching is just such a massive job it’s impossible to ever be great at all of it. But it’s really easy to be aware of what you’re not great at.
This last year was the hardest since my first. Three weeks into the school year, when I was home over a long weekend, my mom had a stroke, which she died from a week later. I missed two days of school because I was sitting in the ICU with her, and then two more days because we had her funeral. I don’t know if I will ever forget spending the night in an uncomfortable chair in the ICU grading papers. And even though she wasn’t a healthy person, it was all so unexpected and just…exhausting. I have a draft of a blog post I tried to write last November titled “Running on Empty”. I wasn’t my best self in the classroom, and I certainly wasn’t my best self in planning meetings. Teaching is exhausting on a good day, and I had a whole string of bad days. By January I came as close as I’ve been in a long time to saying “Fuck this” and looking for other work, but I knew a lot of it was just emotional trauma and I needed to stick with it. Well, and find a therapist, but who has time for that?
Then in late February one of my students died, which of course threw everything off kilter. I am not a good enough writer to describe what it’s like to be a teacher in a classroom and a school that has suffered such a loss. Exhausting and frustrating and awful and sad and confusing and weird. Especially when you’re a teacher that was already emotionally spent for the year.
But despite all of it were the workshops that got good reviews and the great relationships I was building with the kids. I got chosen to be faculty declaimer, which was an honor. And things slowly got better. I’m no longer thinking of quitting. Granted this next year has a bunch of challenges with our schools budget and overall morale, but I think I’m in a place to deal with it. And I’m constantly building my network to help me get there.
My current plan is to stay teaching in New York for at least another 5 years, so I can get that pension. After that we will see. Maybe back to school to get an Ed.D, maybe teach abroad. Maybe just keep on keeping on. But until then I’m going to keep growing and learning and fucking up and fixing. At least until I win that Powerball money.