I’m Not Proud Of My First Year, But I’m Glad I Didn’t Quit

lindseyHi, I’m Lindsey Warden. This is #WhyITeach.

When people hear that I teach middle school, they usually think I’m crazy, and when they hear where I started my teaching career, they usually think I’m even crazier.

I started teaching in 2015 through a placement program and picked up my life to move to rural Mississippi, where I spent a few weeks in the summer preparing to welcome over a hundred seventh graders to my English classroom in the fall.

Sweltering in the unreal Mississippi summer heat, I threw myself into learning all I could in informational afternoon sessions while co-teaching in a summer school classroom each morning. I was not even remotely prepared for the challenges I would face in my own classroom, no matter how enthusiastic and confident I felt.

My classroom lovingly decorated, books for a classroom library carefully gathered, and lesson plans for the first weeks of school written, I quickly realized that I was an outsider in a tightly-knit community.

The compliant and respectful kids that were selected for my summer school class gave way to children who ran the full gamut behaviorally, emotionally and academically speaking. Less than twelve of my students that year were reading at or above grade level, and that wasn’t the worst news compared to test scores from their previous achievement assessment.

The school leadership, who cared deeply about their students but fought high-impact battles against apathy, funding difficulties, and alignment of teaching practices to the requirements of newly adopted Common Core State Standards, held me to high standards and were in and out of my classroom often to help me troubleshoot my problems. As I began coming to terms with exactly how difficult my first year in the classroom was about to be, my students were also realizing that I basically had no idea what I was doing. My classroom ran wild, my students disliked me, and I was filled with anxiety over my instructional and management failures. Many of my co-workers expected me to quit before Christmas.

I didn’t quit.

Whenever I felt like quitting, I thought of Desmond*, a tiny boy in my inclusion class who spent the first quarter failing every test. One day in November, he made a 70. Then, he made an 80. When he made his first 100 and jumped out of his seat dancing with joy, my heart swelled with pride for him and his success. I began to realize that even though my kids deserved a better teacher than me, I might be making a small difference in some way.

I also thought of the kids I couldn’t seem to reach, like Cory, a chronically absent boy who would miss school for weeks at a time. One time, when he finally did come back, he revealed that he had been living for months with an abscessed tooth that the family couldn’t or perhaps wouldn’t get treated. I thought of students I could see parts of my experiences in, like Kadir, a Yemeni refugee whose family had settled in north Mississippi and who I often imagined felt even more out-of-place than I did. I thought of students whose stories crushed me to my core, like Tamora, who seemed upset one day and divulged to me in the hallway that she was being abused by her step-father.

I continued to teach for the academic outcomes, like Desmond’s and worked hard to turn my students into readers and pull them to higher levels of achievement. But I also continued because I realized quitting would just be one more example of instability in the lives of children who craved adults who cared, and adults who wouldn’t give up or quit on them.

I’m not proud of my first year teaching.

I know I did poorly in the classroom, and I know my students deserved and needed a more experienced teacher. Or a teacher with ANY experience at all.

I’m in my fourth year of teaching now, and am nearing graduation with my M.Ed.

Pursuing my master’s degree in teaching has helped me fill in the gaps that I had from taking a nontraditional route into the profession, and my classroom runs more smoothly than ever. My students and I love learning together using a project-based approach and have done everything from tracing our family genealogies back to the 1800s and 1700s in American History to drafting United Nations resolutions and debating them in a mock UN session in English.

I genuinely love my work in the classroom and enjoy seeing my students excited to learn. While I have since moved to a different town and now teach students in a suburban setting, I carry the lessons learned with my first groups of kids with me daily and remember that children in any school need teachers who care. A few students from my first few groups have since reached out, now as high schoolers, and thanked me just for being there and for coming in every day.

This is why I teach.

Aside from helping students improve and meet academic and behavioral goals, I teach because I love the human connections this career has allowed me to form.

Knowing that I can make a small difference each day, just with my own kindness and tenacity, and knowing that I am modeling qualities like empathy, perseverance, and open-mindedness for the world’s future leaders and activists is so rewarding, and it keeps me coming back to the profession year after year.

When my time to serve students comes to an end, I know I will look back with love on my extended community of learners and look forward to the future with hope for all the extraordinary things they will do in this world. ❤️🍎✏️

Connect with me on KDP’s Educator Learning Network!

*student names have been changed

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