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The Trap of the 2nd Year

February 4, 2013

There have been a lot of things going on in my 2nd year that have made it difficult for me to blog. Part of it is time and the type of things I’m doing, but most of it has been this nagging feeling that nothing I’ve done has been as successful as it could have been. I’ve been reluctant to blog about a lot of the things I’ve done since, well, I don’t feel like its ready for the world. I haven’t been satisfied with most of the things I’ve tried this year. I definitely feel like I’m in a valley in my teaching career, and I’ve spent a long time trying to figure out why that is. So, I guess what follows is me trying to hash it all out, as I tend to do on this blog of mine.

The biggest challenge for me has been to quantify this perceived feeling of failure that I’ve had for most of the year. It’s strange, because from an outside perspective, it seems like everything is going great. My failure rates are lower. My kids are doing higher-level problems than they did last year. More kids feel more successful at math than they did before. When I’ve been observed, I’ve gotten lots of positive feedback. Yet I still feel like things aren’t going as well as they should be – I’m still not convinced that my students are really learning the material. I’m not convinced that my SBG system is truly helping them be more reflective, proactive students. I’m not convinced that my use of exit tickets and bellwork is really giving students the feedback that they need. Things like meaningful assessment and feedback are still things that I think I’m not doing well on, but from an outside perspective it seems like my kids are performing exactly where they should be, if not better. My biggest fear is that I become that teacher who’s perception of his class is not the reality of his class, so he manipulates his assessments or grading scheme so everything seems to be going well. This means the opposing feedback – the external voices telling me I’m doing fine and the internal pressure telling me I need to seriously fix some things – have been making me insecure and paranoid all year long.

I’ve also been trying to figure out what’s made this year different from last year. I’ve had lessons and activities and classroom management catastrophes before, but they feel different in my second year. Last year, if a lesson bombed, I would think “Okay – next year, I need to fix these things that then it should be fine”. They would usually be things with my directions or adding more clarity and structure to the activity – the more structured and scaffolded an activity or assignment is, the more likely it is to be successful. If I tried an activity or a way of doing homework and it failed, I would think “Okay – I guess I’m not the type of teacher who does this”. I’m realizing that throughout my first year, I didn’t take a lot of things personally – I could brush it off as things I was trying to see if they were things to keep for my second year. By the end of my first year, I had a pretty good idea of what the ‘staples’ of my classroom were – things like exit tickets, group whiteboards, expert groups, and cumulative projects in each unit. I knew what a ‘typical lesson’ looked like. I was excited to reuse lessons and notetakers and lessons from last year now that I had a better idea of when they would be most effective.

This, however, has made my failures in my second year much harder to handle. I know what kind of teacher I am – I know what lessons and activities work in my classroom. I’ve adjusted lessons and projects so that they should be more effective this year. I’ve reused lessons that were great last year but felt mediocre this year. I know what kind of differentiation strategies I should be using and what my day to day management looks like. Which means when things do go wrong, I can’t say ‘That’s okay, I guess I’m just not the kind of teacher who does this’. I know what kind of teacher I am, and I know this is a definite part of my classroom, so when it fails I’m not sure what to blame other than myself. I think I’ve spent most of my second year holding myself to this ideal image of the kind of teacher I am – the one I developed all throughout my first year – which means when I fail to reach that standard, I take it personally. We’re past the point of working out structural bugs and logistical details – if something isn’t working, it probably has more to do with me and not the activity.

I don’t know if this makes sense. I guess its this feeling that I know what my classroom should look like and what my lessons should look like – I’ve been validated by my experiences last year and all of these external validations this year. So when they don’t go well or when I think they aren’t effective, it feels like I’m not living up to the potential that I know I have.

As a sidenote, before I get to the part of this post where things have gotten a little better, I think its worth mentioning that I’ve purposefully made decisions that I know will force me to be a better teacher. Choosing not to use a textbook forces me to carefully plan my lessons and how my students take notes and how they use them. Choosing to have a Wall of Problems forces me to make sure I’m assigning meaningful problems and questions in my homework assignments so they can later show up on this wall. Implementing Standards Based Grading forces me to plan a curriculum which is not discrete but continues to spiral back and remains connected; it forces me to think obsessively about my assessments, how I grade them, and how my students interpret and reflect on their work. Choosing to follow a Common Core sequence for my honors class forces me to begin thinking about activities and assignments that I will be able to use with all my classes once the Common Core hits. All of these are things I’ve tried to do this year, which means I’ve forced myself to set the bar incredibly high. Part of me is glad I’ve done it, but most of me wishes I had tried some of these things during my 3rd year instead of my 2nd.

Anyway – this sort of leads into a realization I had. It came from a conversation I had with another math teacher, who’s heard most of the things I’ve done in my class and how unsatisfied I’ve been when things don’t work. She told me: “Here’s what I’ve seen: You start by setting a very high bar for yourself. Then you  spend some time working towards it and getting closer. And right when you’re about to reach it, you stop and set the bar even higher. Then you work towards that, and right when you’re about to reach it, you set it higher again. So it seems like you haven’t gotten anywhere, but that’s because you keep raising your standards higher and higher.”

I was glad she said this, and it’s really the reason I finally feel comfortable blogging about this, because I realized she’s right. I think this is the reason that great lessons from my first year have felt mediocre or even ineffective this year – it’s because I keep raising or changing the bar, making these lessons seem subpar by my new, higher standard. It’s why I don’t think I’ve ever felt satisfied with my classroom management – when I fall back into my old habits in old lessons, I feel like students aren’t as focused or productive as they should be. This is the trap I’ve fallen into in my second year – raising my standards without realizing it, then being frustrated when I don’t feel as effective as I did last year.

So… that’s been a good realization, because it takes some of the pressure off. I guess its okay that some things aren’t working as well as I want them to because I raised my standards above and beyond what they were last year. I guess I just wish I had been more aware of it. It makes me want to be more careful about how I set my classroom goals so they’re easier for me to keep track of, rather than changing several things at once and not being sure how all of it will affect my classroom.

Well… that’s that.

Edit 2/12/13: This article about ‘The Ledge’ was a good read after writing this

Also, apparently I made a whole lot of people depressed over at Dan Meyer’s blog.

This post isn’t a cry for help, but I appreciate all the words of comfort and support in the comments. I’m not second-guessing my career – even though I’m a second year classroom teacher, I’ve been in some sort of teaching role for the last eight years. I had my flirtation with another profession when I was in college and almost dropped out of my credential program. But I didn’t. I’m still here. And I want to be here for another 10.

One thing that’s nice about keeping this blog so open and honest is I get to look back at myself. Shortly after writing this post, I reread some of my posts from last year, especially this one: Why I Teach…. It was really nice to read what my first-year self had to say about teaching:

Sometimes it’s hard for me to talk about teaching because parts of it are incredibly personal to me. When I do talk about it, I usually tell people that teaching is a continuum – there are moments of great highs and moments of tremendous lows. I like my low-income high school because I believe it has the widest continuums – when it’s bad, it’s bad – slip into a depressive coma bad, don’t want to go to work bad, question your self-worth bad. Talking to people, I get the impression that they think this is only what my school is.

This student used to call herself stupid and say nothing mattered because she’d never amount to anything. And now she doesn’t. And that’s worth it to me.

Oh – one last comment. Of the many things I do to pick myself up when I’m feeling down, reading the One Good Thing blog is one of them.

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16 Comments
  1. Daniel, you’re doing A LOT of things right. Your colleague nailed it with her analysis of your constant desire to be even better. It’s a true sign of a dedicated teacher.

    If I wrote a post for every lesson or practice that didn’t quite turn out they way I’d hoped, then I’d still be writing them. There are so damn many, Daniel.

    When I saw a new post from you in my Reader, my heart smiled. Thank you.

  2. I think your colleague hit the nail on the head there. As a second year teacher, people always ask me, “isn’t the second year easier than the first?” In my experience, second year isn’t any easier, and I work just as much as before, but things are just going better. Although my experience \may or may not be at all related to your experience, the first year I felt like I was spinning my wheels in the dirt and not getting anywhere. It was a pretty cruddy feeling working as hard as I humanly can at something and still feeling like a failure. At least this year I am doing it a little better.

    Now here is where things get weird. When I had my observations this year I had some strange mental freak-outs that I never had last year. In wondering why this year, a year which I believe is better than the previous, I was MORE anxious than last, I came to the following realization (which I think ties in to your setting of the bar). In my first year of teaching my goal was to survive, and survive I did. In my second year of teaching my goal was to be perfect at everything, and I am far from it. The truth is that a number of experienced teachers have told me that they can only change 2-3 major things a year and the rest fall on the back burner. It isn’t something I like, but it’s a solid explanation for why, after one year of teaching (or twenty years for that matter), we are not all masters at our craft.

  3. Jennifer Lawler permalink

    In my position as an instructional coach, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a number of new math teachers, some of whom were fantastic, others who were pretty good, and still others who were awful. Here’s what I noticed about a few of the great and even the pretty good ones – they had heard how great they were from day one and it went to their heads so they thought they had this teaching thing all figured out, when in fact, they still had a great deal to learn and many areas in which they could improve, or at least try to change things up. It was scary for me to see these young professionals already so “stuck”. I congratulate you on not becoming complacent, and continually striving to improve your craft. It’s very easy to be satisfied with being “good enough” or “better than everyone else”. Kudos to you for being committed to being the best teacher you can be. I hope you are able to maintain this committment throughout your career.

  4. Daniel – I don’t think I can add anything else to what Fawn, zshriner, and Jennifer said. I do want to add that I appreciate your sharing what you’re going through. I can see some of the same things in myself as I have evolved as a teacher, but I don’t think I had put some of the :why” together as you did. Maybe I’m doing some of the same thing. So, thanks for sharing – you’re helping me out too. :-)

    And I do want to second Fawn – when I saw that you tweeted you had a new post, not only did I smile, I had to head to GReader to read what you had to say. Hang in there.
    –Lisa

  5. Barry Mernin permalink

    Dan,

    Greetings from Hong Kong.

    I didn’t start thinking I was a competent teacher until year 3. You probably won’t either. As far as being fully satisfied with your performance,it is not gonna happen. This is all part of being a master teacher.

    You can always find some area of your career to refine. I am on year 23 and I haven’t had a perfect lesson, yet. Do not expect too, either.

    Best of luck and keep swinging for the fence,

    Barry

  6. Touzel Hansuvadha permalink

    Nice post. Brings back memories.

    Question: Are you *really* sure that the teacher that you are now–in your SECOND year of teaching–is the same teacher you might be in your twentieth year? Forgive me, but it reminds me of when I was 25, thinking that I was already the adult that I’d be the rest of my life (I’m 35 now, but I’ve already had two or three huge pivots on “the adult I’m going to be the rest of my life” in the last ten years).

    It sounds like you’re a good teacher. Stay in the profession. We need more people with high standards.

  7. Pat permalink

    Last year I was at an assessment conference, listening to keynote Dylan Wiliam. One thing he talked about, that I still think of often, is the fact that teaching is such a challenging profession that no one ever gets to say “I did everything right today” – never mind this week, or month or year. This is true whether you’re in your second year or your tenth year or your 30th year. He said if you can’t come to terms with this, you can’t survive as a teacher. It’s not about getting everything right, but rather about constantly working to improve your practice – to be a better teacher today than you were last year. I’m in my 34th year, and working hard to be a better teacher in my 35th. Somehow, I found that message incredibly comforting.

  8. The only thing that I have to add is in response to this line:

    I guess its this feeling that I know what my classroom should look like and what my lessons should look like…

    So much of this post resonated with me. My second year (and my current, third year) have both been as much work as the first. I’ve really know what you’re talking about with dissatisfaction with the mediocrity of my lessons, a dissatisfaction that (cruelly!) increases with the improved quality of my lessons.

    But I’ve interpreted those doubts as a problem not with my execution, but with my whole vision about what lessons or my classroom should look like. And I think that’s true. I’ve thrown out, like, three confident visions about what a lesson should be. (In case you’re wondering: (1) lecture then practice (2) group work (3) daily guided worksheets).

    Anyway, I’m only chiming in to commiserate and to hope that your dissatisfaction does turn into a new paradigm and vision for your lessons.

  9. Nat permalink

    Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I’m also teaching math in my second year, and I have had a similar experience. The first year, when a lesson went really poorly, even if it was painful, I could learn something from it, and chalk it up to being a beginner. Somehow it hits a little deeper and more personally this year.

    One piece of the puzzle that I’d like to add is that a new set of students sometimes react completely differently to the same lesson. I’ve re-used lessons from last year that I had great success with, only for them to fall somewhat flat this year. Last year’s group was so focused on progressing quickly through the textbook, that I needed to throw the book out in order for them to see math as existing outside of it. This year’s group arrived with the attitude of being active participants in math, and sometimes really benefit from the structure of using lessons from the book (though I still can only bring myself to use straight text book work about 1/4 of the time).

    Even when we show up prepared with well thought out and scaffolded lessons, with inspired delivery, and with fascinating content, we are only half of the equation.

  10. Thank you so much for your post. It’s my second year teaching my courses (3rd year overall) and I don’t have the same anxious pull to be perfect, so kudos to you for that drive first of all. I believe I find more drive from reading other’s blog posts (such as this one) and realizing how awesome they are, and that inspires me to work harder (as this one has!).

    However, your comment of “meeting the bar/raising the bar” made me think of the “Baby Unicorn” TED talk, which you should watch if you haven’t yet. It’s only 10 minutes and I’d say it’s definitely worth watching (I’ve shown it to my students this year). Here it is on youtube:

    Best of luck, and keep posting for the rest of us!

    • Oh wow, I didn’t realize that wordpress was going to insert the video there, sorry about that!

  11. Thanks for sharing this post and your reflections. I’m in my fifth year and I consistently question what I’m doing. I haven’t tried everything I’d like to try yet, even after five years and five different courses. I’m better than I was in my first year, but not as good as I want to be. One of the most memorable things my education professor in college told me was that it takes (in his opinion) seven years to truly become a teacher. Until then, you teach, but you are not a teacher. Don’t be discouraged if you’re still working on things two years in!

  12. You were fortunate to have a great first year. Just keep trying and you’ll get better. Your students will benefit from having you in the room. And for heavens sake, don’t let your students’ critique of you have too much of a role on how you perceive yourself. They don’t usually appreciate you until after they have left your classroom.

    For me, it was a good thing I was never evaluated during my first year and the school was dysfunctional. I would have been fired.

    Second year was great.

    Third year challenging.

    And from then on I’ve been continually improving.

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