The Trap of the 2nd Year
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.
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.