Advice for living with/loving a first year high school teacher.
January 10, 2014 8:56 AM   Subscribe

My girlfriend, domestic partner and hopefully future spouse is a first year English teacher at a public high school in NYC. This is a tough job which takes a huge emotional and physical toll on her. She looks to me for support and sometimes I have a hard time knowing how to provide it to the point of feeling powerless to help her. Has anybody here been on either side of this? Any advice?

We've been together for five years. I have never worked in education and hold a stable, relatively stress free job.
Just writing this question has been helpful. Thank you for reading it.
posted by West of House to Human Relations (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
What does she say when you ask? "Since I don't have direct experience with these kinds of stresses, what kinds of things would you like me to do to support you?"
posted by colin_l at 9:00 AM on January 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Offering some general advice, more for the "feeling helpless because they're dealing with something really super-big and you feel like a powerless schmoe" side of your question. Sometimes when I don't know what to say, I sometimes just say that I don't know what to say, but really wish I did - "I wish I knew the absolutely most perfect thing to say that would help you the most". It still feels kind of like empty words to me, but they get the general message that "I am on their side", and that helps.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:00 AM on January 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

I'm not sure what would've helped me most when I was a first year teacher, but I know it really hurt me when my friends and family who weren't teachers would try to come up with solutions for me. I really just wanted to be able to express my frustrations or concerns without feeling like everyone around me could be a better teacher than I was.
posted by shesbookish at 9:02 AM on January 10, 2014 [24 favorites]

You won't go wrong by just listening and empathizing.
posted by mazola at 9:08 AM on January 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Foot rubs.
posted by Mistress at 9:09 AM on January 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

Is her stress more about the students, or the administration, or both? I think just offering to listen to what's wrong goes a long way (you probably do this already). You could also ask if she would like you to help with something more concrete like a lesson plan or what to say to a difficult administrator, but definitely be mindful of shesbookish's thoughts above.
posted by mlle valentine at 9:13 AM on January 10, 2014

I can realate to this! I've been there.

Teaching English in an inner-city high school was the toughest, most horrible job I've ever had in my life! It was NOTHING like I expected it to be.

I accomplished very little, was treated with disrespect by my students and my administration didn't ever back me up on anything.

I felt that the workload was grinding and I had NO time for anything.

There were a couple of things that really helped me during my two years as a teacher:

1. Automate as much as possible. I bought my own grading program. My school used old fashioned grade books and it was a nightmare. Having a computerized program helped a shit ton. If that's something you can help her set up and use, it will be a Godsend.

2. Ask if you can help grade. You might not be able to help with essays, but quizzes, and regular stuff like that might be up for grabs.

3. Assure her that if she wants to stay, that it will get better. There are hacks (Have her memail me, I'll share my wealth of awesome lesson plans, and ideas) that allow you to leave it all at work at the end of the day. After my first semester, I never took work home with me, and I didn't have a prep-period!

4. Assure her that if she wants to quit, that it's perfectly fine for her to do so. She may be disillusioned by her experience and questioning her place in the world. Most of us became educators because we wanted to make a difference, and although we gave it our best effort, in the case of my students, it was too little, too late. It was a bitter, bitter pill to swallow.

The job gets tougher every year. I'm almost of the opinion that it's not do-able in most public schools anymore, especially in places like Boston, NY, Miami, Chicago and don't even get me started with Atlanta.

The infrastructure is crumbling, the administration is jaded and between "no child left behind" and "Common Core" a teacher has to do 20 hours of administrative work for each week of regular classroom teaching.

You sound awesome and just being caring and willing to help means so much to someone under that much stress.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:14 AM on January 10, 2014 [15 favorites]

Came back to say that if you can pick up the slack anywhere in the running of the household, that would be awesome.

Pay for a maid or just do more of the housework. Shop and cook for meals. Be in charge of laundry or pay for fluff and fold.

Having a nice, clean home, with nice meals is so comforting and not having to be in charge of doing any of it is such a blessing.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:17 AM on January 10, 2014 [15 favorites]

Do your best to make life at home as stress-free as possible for her. Teaching's pretty much the worst job ever for a variety of reasons, and it saps your energy to do many of the things that would help you cope with stress (like cooking and eating healthy meals, or having an apartment that's clean enough that it doesn't make you itch to look at it when you get home from your awful job.)
posted by asperity at 9:18 AM on January 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

She is working long hours & burning all her 'free' time. Do as much as you can to relieve her of mundane tasks in your home, like shopping, cooking, laundry etc. Expect that her attention toward you will be necessarily diminished and don't berate her because of it (avoid ' we never do xxxxx any more'). Be super-patient. Surprise her with small gifts. And try to forge an agreement that at least once a week, for a few hours, she will leave her pile of essays to grade behind and you will do something fun together.

On preview, agree with Asperity and Bunny.
posted by TDIpod at 9:27 AM on January 10, 2014 [7 favorites]

My husband teaches history in a rough, urban school district. It's a job I could never do. I can't help much with the crap he puts up with, but I can help with:

=> Writing words/posters for his word wall
=> Packing his lunch so he's not stress-eating crap all day
=> NEVER giving him crap about all of the holidays he gets off. At this point he works enough nights that he's still working more than I do.
=> Never complaining of the household money we spend buying stuff for his students that their parents can't or won't buy themselves. Two weeks before Christmas, we bought a coat for one of his kids. I keep saying, 'it's for the greater good."
=> Doing the lion's share of the housework during the school year.
=> Listening. I can't solve his problems, his students' problems, his administrators' problems, or the wacky curriculum requirements. But I can listen.
posted by kimberussell at 9:31 AM on January 10, 2014 [12 favorites]

Excellent advice here already, so I guess I'd just underscore: be a good and patient listener. Do not try to tell her how to do her job, but DO offer to help her grade papers if it is possible for you to do so. In general, anything you can take off her plate will be greatly appreciated and will give her more bandwidth for you...eventually.

When I taught high school English (the worst five years of my working life), Sunday evenings were absolutely the worst night of the week for me, as I had to mentally steel myself for the grind of the coming week, not to mention grade all those papers I had been avoiding. So be extra sympathetic on Sunday evenings.
posted by mosk at 9:43 AM on January 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

This is a tough job which takes a huge emotional and physical toll on her. 

When she "looks to you for support," offer her a choice :

I will spend every available minute of my stress free living to find you a new job that does not send you to hell every day


Listen, cook,clean,vacation her ...
posted by Kruger5 at 9:44 AM on January 10, 2014

My wife taught for a couple years in an inner city school before quitting because the job was horrible and made her miserable. Things I did that I think helped were picking up as much housework slack as I could manage and trying to help with grading. That advice is really good. There's little stuff you can do to help, like sorting papers and running out at midnight to get supplies or whatever; I tried to do that when possible. I also tried as much as possible not to complain about the fact that her job was sucking away all of the time we could spend together, and a good portion of our bank account.

Also, as Ruthless Bunny said, if she starts to talk about quitting, make sure she knows its okay. Teaching is a rough, mostly thankless job, that is not a good fit for lots of people. Honestly, the way a lot of urban schools are I'd be hard pressed to call it a good fit for anyone, but I'm kind of bitter about my wife's experience. My wife's decision to quit probably actually saved her life, and I would have been wrong to oppose it.

Even if she doesn't want to quit, she's probably going to get a lot of shit from people at her school encouraging her to sacrifice herself to the job. Public schools in urban areas are often built on convincing bright eyed 22 year olds to martyr themselves for two years and then reloading. Do what you can to be the voice on the other side. Make sure she knows that she can't do the job unless she is physically and mentally well, and that she has to look out for her own well-being first, in a "put on your own mask before assisting others" kind of way.
posted by Bulgaroktonos at 9:48 AM on January 10, 2014 [6 favorites]

Let her know how much you care about her day and tell her to let you know when she needs to vent vs problem solve. I am a teacher and sometimes I just need somebody to validate that I am stressed and that I am doing the best that I can in the face of some really hard things, but I don't want advice unless I explicitly ask for it. Encourage your partner to be honest with you about what she needs in the moment and you two will become an incredible and strong team.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 9:49 AM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

Reiterating the above advice to not try to contribute ideas on how to fix stuff unless you hear the words "what do you think I should do" come out of her mouth. I am also just getting started full-time teaching, and have already had it with well-wishers (who are not in education) telling me I should "just try doing X," as if it were so simple and anyone could see that's what needs to be done. As a beginning teacher you already feel like you're screwing up constantly while trying to do everything right for your kids, so for me, hearing someone who doesn't even know about my job saying I should be doing something different is really discouraging and even insulting.

Also: I want to reiterate to let her talk about whatever she wants even if you can't follow it. Sometimes I need to just spew out thoughts on lessons or strategies or whatever just to hear them out loud.

Finally: Not just foot rubs. Back rubs. Neck rubs. All the enjoyable rubs.

And thank you for being supportive of your teacher S.O.! Fulfilling and happy personal/private life = easier to do a good job in any position, but it REALLY helps when your job is in the classroom where you and your moods/emotions/attitudes are a model for kids.
posted by Temeraria at 9:50 AM on January 10, 2014 [3 favorites]

As well as all the wonderful advice above, I would suggest doing random nice things for her "just because".

Buy her flowers at the weekend for example.
Send her a text telling her you love her for no reason other than you are thinking about her.

Give her something to smile about doing her rough day!
posted by JenThePro at 9:54 AM on January 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

A foot rub, an sms msg, a smile ...?

She is physically and emotionally gutted - those are two core parts of a human being. Even bootcamp is limited to weeks. Help her out of this job.
posted by Kruger5 at 10:01 AM on January 10, 2014

Omg brainwave! Does she know about this tumblr? If she has a sense of humor and would find it endearing, you could totally make some of these for your lady and personalize them just for her and put them in her lunch or text them to her at different points during the week.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 10:06 AM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

CLEAN THE HOUSE! Omg. When I was a first year, single teacher, there was nothing worse than coming home from a job at which I was overworked, underpaid and responsible for seemingly everything, to a house that looked like pigs were living there. It did not help me unwind and relax at the end of my day.

Cooking also. My sister lived with me in my 1 bedroom apartment for a summer. It was so cramped and cluttered, but when I came home, there was usually dinner already sorted. Soooooo nice.
posted by chainsofreedom at 10:06 AM on January 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

My ex taught in the South Bronx and on the south side of Chicago. It was grueling yet rewarding work. She would come home stressed. Besides the obvious of dong chores, cooking dinner and generally making her domestic life as easy as possible, I think the best thing you can do is ask about the kids. Learn about all the kids in her class. Ask how little Johnny is doing with his home life. Find out about the general issues her students face. Most of their obstacles to learning are not in the schools themselves, but in their outside environment. Cut out articles from the paper (bookmark nowadays) that are relevant. Show that you care about what she cares about. Actually, more than show, CARE.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 10:15 AM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

"Re-entry" is an especially hard time for teachers - the first few weeks of school, returning after vacations/breaks, even Mondays to some extent, because students are out of rhythm, they are behind on their planning/prep, etc. So for all of the excellent support strategies listed above, make sure to be aware of the these re-entry periods as a time to beef up your support/response mechanisms.
posted by misterbrandt at 10:18 AM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

She looks to me for support and sometimes I have a hard time knowing how to provide it

Couples can't be everything to each other. It sounds like what she needs are mentors and peers: people who have been through or are going through similar experiences. Knowing that you're not alone, having people to trade war stories with, and being able to get advice from others who have survived what you're going through can be a real emotional and spiritual salve.
posted by jingzuo at 11:21 AM on January 10, 2014

Give her her own metafilter membership if she doesn't have one already. There are a lot of current and former teachers on here who understand her situation.
posted by mareli at 11:24 AM on January 10, 2014

If a source of her stress comes through insane things she gets via email on off hours, offer to scan her email during the weekends/evenings and only pass on the truly urgent/personal/family things.
posted by lesbiassparrow at 11:34 AM on January 10, 2014

As a teacher, I really appreciate you asking this question. I met my now-husband during my first year of teaching, and we are married in part because he was so good at this. So my tips are based on this.

Emotional -
People have covered this above, but it can't be said enough. Be a good listener. Not a fixer, just an empathetic ear and a shoulder to cry on. Support her and remind her of how great she is.

Career Counseling -
Lots of people have emphasized how difficult this work is and have suggested that you point out to her that she doesn't have to do this. That's true, but there's nothing in your question to suggest that she's thinking about quitting. Every individual responds differently to the stress of teaching - don't assume that her response will be the same as others here. If she does express unhappiness where she's at, do point out to her that other teaching jobs (a lot of people forget this - there are easier teaching jobs out there, though) and careers are out there. Don't assume that if she's unhappy in a given month, that means she should quit.

Practical -
When things are tough, my husband gets up at 5 am to make me a warm breakfast, put coffee in a to-go cup, make my lunch and pack things up for me. We also have a deal in which he does all of the dishes during the school week, and most of the cooking. If I'm stressed, he no longer asks "what can I do to help?" because he now knows I can't figure out how to mitigate my stress when I'm really at the breaking point. Instead, he offers to do things - laundry, cleaning, rescheduling appointments for me - anything that might help lessen the burden.

It may help to think of first-year teaching as somewhat like medical residency. It is going to be really tough, for a couple of years. But it will get better. Good luck!
posted by leitmotif at 12:50 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

As an urban teacher, I love this question. Just chiming in to support points that have been made:

1) Don't offer suggestions. Allow venting to be met with nods, hugs, and affirmation of her feelings.

2) Reinforce the idea that quitting is an option. There's an unspoken feeling in education that if you quit, you care less about kids, or are being selfish for putting yourself first. This is not the case and no one should be guilted into doing a really difficult job if it's just not for them or if they are sacrificing their own mental and emotional stability.

3) Create a sense of calm at home and allow her to ditch out on weekday plans if she's just not up to it.

Most of this has been said, but it's worth repeating.
posted by brynna at 1:59 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

This is a question I'm pretty qualified to answer, I think.

I am in my 10th year of teaching (mostly English) at urban public schools (however, I teach in California). I made this comment about teaching a few years ago that may be relevant.

Here are some other things specifically answering your question:

1. Schools are broken. Accept that. I love what others have said about not fixing - that was by FAR my biggest pet peeve with my ex. I wanted to talk about what was going on without getting a million "Have you tried...?" suggestions. While I'm sure it came from a good place, it was really really overwhelming for me. You have so little power in most teaching jobs that even if you HAD the energy to try something different, you are stymied in so many ways that you're impotent to deal with even minor frustrations.

2. Know that most administrators are not great people. I have had a handful of great administrators and know a lot more on Twitter, but I have had reviews in consecutive years that you would think belong to completely different people. In one year, I apparently went from someone all my colleagues should emulate to someone not even fit for the profession. Her evaluations could be great, they could be horrible, or somewhere in between. But frankly, they have little relationship to her actual performance.

3. I cried almost every day of my first year. I was only teaching 60% for the first semester, and 80% for the second, but I worked a full day and probably 3-4 hours every night. I was still incredibly behind all the time. There are never enough hours in the day for first year teachers, especially English teachers.

4. She will NEVER think she's doing well enough. I still struggle with that, and I am a hell of a lot smarter and better than I was in my first year. Help her understand that she is NOT what she does. Teachers easily allow their jobs to define them. But they don't have to, and if you want to succeed in the field, you have to figure out a way to not let them. If teaching defines her, every set back will make her feel like less of a person, every disruptive student will feel like personal insult, and every negative evaluation will feel like a scolding.

5. Help her organise as much as possible. I use a different workflow now, but when I started, my workflow was basically called "making piles of shit" and sorting them out during the summer. It was bad. Now, everything is in Google Drive. Many schools have Google Apps integrated (that's ideal, really), but if I had just one tip, I'd say USE IT FOR EVERYTHING. It is amazing and life-changing for English teachers. I can happily explain that more in memail (or she can gmail me - my username at gmail dot com). I then post all the assignment documents for my students on my website. And when students make a document, it's through a form on my website that automatically titles it, puts on a heading, and emails the created document to the student. It makes my life SO good. If she's not super techie, you can help with this. I'm happy to help walk her through it, or you can use this walkthrough by my friend, the amazing Alice Keeler.

6. Help her get connected, and support her efforts to stay that way. My school is VERY isolating for teachers, and we're a small school with lots of collaboration time. So the people I have on Twitter are my lifelines. I moderate a chat (#flipclass on Monday nights at 8 EST) that is a great way to get connected, and right before it is #engchat (7 EST) where she could connect with TONS of other English teachers. Or have her follow me (my twitter name is the same as my mefi name) and I'll connect her to great people. Seriously, this seems trivial, but it's a matter of survival. Without my Twitter people, I would not be teaching anymore. I met my best friend through Twitter, and he and I are now co-teaching from across the country. Even if she thinks Twitter is stupid (like I did before I joined), it is THE place to be for teachers. The EduCommunity is amazing. I also know half a dozen teachers in NY, some of whom are English teachers. I'd love to connect her to them!

7. Book her a massage, facial, manicure, whatever she enjoys as many times as possible. At the very least, at the end of each semester. It'll give her something to look forward to as she's frantically giving feedback, writing lesson plans, or entering grades.

8. Help her be okay with the fact that some stuff just won't get done. It's just impossible. Encourage her to not work over breaks, as hard as that will be. If possible go somewhere for at least spring break, and ideally part of winter break. Getting away and relaxing is really important.

9. Classroom management will be the hardest thing. It's ALWAYS the hardest thing. There are tips and tricks (ClassDojo is something that made my life WAY easier earlier in my career) but most depend heavily on personality. There is the Harry Wong "Don't Smile Until Thanksgiving" approach, and there is the Freedom Writers "Care So Much It Almost Kills You" approach...and there are a million shades in between. One of those sides will probably appeal to her more based on personality, and that's where she will default. That's fine. There is no right or wrong, and no one can tell her what will work best for her.

10. Encourage her to make friends with some veteran teachers she trusts. I had three older mentors my first year, all of whom were wildly different in personality and teaching style. They let me try on their approaches without judging me when it failed. They brought me coffee, delivered free hugs, and even bought me a giant cake on my birthday. Those women made my life so much better, but it started with me deliberately seeking out their help and their friendship. And it required some humility, because I had to admit I didn't know what the hell I was doing. That's vulnerable as hell, especially for a first year teacher. But it was essential.

That ended up being a lot. Hope it's helpful. And again - I would welcome memail/gmail/twitter interactions with either of you. Being a teacher (and supporting new teachers) is tough, and I was blessed to have great support, so I've tried to pass that on as much as possible.

By asking this question, you're already in the top 1% of supportive significant others. Thank you.
posted by guster4lovers at 3:32 PM on January 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

One more thing - there's some research (somewhere) that states teachers make over 1500 decisions each school day. And we certainly feel it. When I come home, the last thing I want is for someone to ask what I want to do that evening, which restaurant we should choose, whether to drive or walk. I would have rather had someone tell me: Let's go to X restaurant at 7:00. Try to limit those types of decisions.
posted by brynna at 6:12 PM on January 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

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