(Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Roxanna Elden)
Roxanna Elden is the author of See Me After Class: Advice for Teachers by Teachers. She is also the author of the Disillusionment Power Pack, a free, thirty-day email series that helps new teachers through their toughest days.
The following piece is an adapted excerpt from The Disillusionment Power Pack, a free, thirty-day email series that helps new teachers through their toughest days. Often, these days fall in the period between mid-October and Thanksgiving break, a time frame so hard on new teachers that the New Teacher Center calls it “The Disillusionment Phase.”
One of the many lessons I learned the hard way as a new teacher was this.
Sometimes moments that are objectively bad – like a fight in your classroom – are not the ones that make you feel the worst. In fact, if you feel you’ve handled a crisis correctly, it can even boost your confidence.
Other times, an event that would seem like no big deal to anyone else drags your faith through the mud in such an unexplainably horrible way that all you can do is stand there, blinking.
A lot depends on context.
Here is an example of a moment from my first year of teaching that was not dramatic but was still quite horrible.
The big, important state test was coming up. The students in my fourth-grade, English Language Learner class were nowhere near ready. We were doing test prep. So… much… test prep…
I knew that doing non-stop practice tests wasn’t good teaching. But I also wasn’t sure what else to do. The whole school was doing test prep, and if my kids didn’t pass the test they wouldn’t pass fourth grade. So I did it, too. But even with the soul-crushing repetition of test-taking strategies, and even after using every bribe and threat I could think of, it seemed like I just couldn’t get my students to pass the practice tests. Couldn’t get them to start essay paragraphs with anything besides firstly, secondly, and thirdly. Couldn’t tighten any of our screws any tighter.
At some point in the middle of one of these days, we took a bathroom break. This meant lining the class up and heading into the hallway, where we’d collectively wait for each kid to go into the bathroom, come out, use the hand sanitizer from the supply baskets, line up in the other direction, and then go back to class. I couldn’t stop pacing back and forth. Maybe because I was so nervous about the test. Maybe because I was on my second or third Red Bull of the day.
When got back into the classroom, there was suddenly a huge commotion. It turned out to be about whether one the boys had – get this – used the hand sanitizer from the girls’ bathroom supply basket.
I couldn’t believe the kids were getting hung up on this little detail. The test was so close. The test! So I said, in a voice that communicated my sense of urgency (also referred to as yelling): “IS THIS REAAAALLLLYYY THE MOST IMPORTANT THING WE HAVE TO WORRY ABOUT RIGHT NOW?!?!?!?!”
Every single one of the kids turned toward me and yelled back, with an equal sense of urgency: “YESSSSSS!!!!”
A quick side note here: I have told this story to other people they usually think it’s funny. At this point, I think it’s kind of funny, too. But at the time, this moment felt like proof that I had used up every single idea I could think of to motivate my students and they still didn’t care. What had ever made me think I would be good at this? It wasn’t the first time I had wondered.
Then, I looked over at the hand sanitizer bottles in bathroom supply baskets. The bottle in the boys’ basket was empty.
Which made me realize I hadn’t bought any new hand sanitizer for a very long time.
Which made me realize that both bottles should have been empty.
Which made me realize the only reason the girls’ hand sanitizer was full was because the girl in charge of carrying supplies had been refilling it with water from the bathroom sink.
In other words, on top of all my other failures as a teacher, every kid in my classroom had toilet germs all over their hands. They had been “sanitizing” with bathroom sink water for weeks.
The worst moments as a teacher aren’t always the most dramatic.
The good news?
The best moments aren’t, either.