Please help me to not quit teaching.
October 22, 2016 10:26 AM   Subscribe

This is my second year as a certified secondary classroom teacher (I have 4 years of experience including full-time substituting k-12 and paraprofessional work). I don't know where to begin. I live 3000 miles away from all of my family and friends. I teach in an urban school in Arizona, consistently ranked as the 1st or 2nd worst state for teachers. I'm depressed, frustrated with myself, and feel like I'm losing control of my class more and more as the year goes on. Soul-spilling rant inside.

The school is not the problem. I was hired this year at the best public school in the city. The administration or my colleagues are certainly not the problem. I've taught at many schools, and this is the best, most supportive team I've ever worked with. I know I'm the problem, and despite the near-worthless classroom management classes I aced during my masters program and all of the cheesy self-help teach like a pirate whatever books I've read, I can't get anything to fall into place. I'm a science teacher certified to teach multiple subjects. Last year I taught 6-12 general sciences and AP chemistry. This year I teach only 9th grade on-level biology. It's much easier than last year since I have only 1 class for which to prep and I only have to focus on one grade level. I also have a much more experienced and supportive administration/department.

My biggest struggle is that every period I teach the least motivated students, the students who mostly don't like school at all (never mind science). I think only people that have been in my position would know how disheartening it is to spend hours preparing lessons and enthusiastically lecturing on a subject that I've been passionate about since I was 8, only to realize when the unit exam comes along that only the students who care about their academic progress know any of the material. The rest could barely name the 4 DNA bases and have no notes despite 4 weeks on the subject.

I constantly receive praise from the staff at all of my schools for really knowing my subject matter. I constantly receive praise for my empathy and ability to work with all types of students. Despite trying not to be the "cool" teacher or whatever, wherever I teach kids really like me for some reason. I'm the teacher they always go to spill their guts about their problems in and out of school. They write me cards. They get me coffee in the morning. They ask me to come to their choir concerts and sports games. I've always had a good rapport with students, in part I think because I never condescend, and in part because I really do care about them.

I'm still in my 20s but I've turned down 6 figure healthcare consulting jobs to make $32,000 to teach. This isn't a fallback career for me. I'm passionate about education and I love the job and I love my students. Otherwise I have plenty of other career options that would involve a hell of a lot more money for a hell of a lot less work and stress. I feel like I really set classroom expectations from the beginning of the year. But I have kids leaving trash in the room, chasing each other with rulers in the middle of lessons. Nearly all of my students have 504s or IEPs that involve behavioral accommodations. I feel like an old man saying this, but my god, high school really has changed, and I graduated in 2008. It's school policy to allow students to have cellphones in class which blows my mind considering I can't think of 1 good damn reason for a 14 year old to have a smartphone at all, never mind for school.

I feel like I'm spending more time babysitting more than I'm teaching. I didn't exactly attend a prep school, but most of these kids more like 4th graders than 9th graders. They can't focus for more than 3 minutes on a single subject. Even when we watch a documentary related to the lesson they complain that it's too much work. I do miss the optimism of teaching elementary, but there are good and bad sides for every grade.

To wrap things up, it's almost soul-killing to teach 6 periods of the most basic biology to kids who don't give a crap. I know the statistics. over 50% of teachers quit by their 2nd year and I understand why. I feel like I'm on my way to be one of those statistics. I start off strong and feel like giving up by the end of each day. My family and friends all live in New England. I'm on my own and am depressed. But this state needs good teachers. Most teachers are retiring and schools have thousands of positions they can't fill. I want to help. It's the only job I've ever cared enough about to be actively proud of or to pour my heart into. I know that no 1st or 2nd year teacher is going to be great, but I feel like I'm on the verge of washing out. The only reason I go to work is for my students. How can I hang on? Or should I? I know my problems are my own, but the way teachers are treated both culturally and economically in the country is fucking shameful. We are literally the most powerful civilization in the history of humanity but treat public education as an afterthought. My mother has been a highly respected public teacher for 30 years now and even she didn't want me to become a teacher.
posted by WhitenoisE to Education (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Nearly all of my students have 504s or IEPs that involve behavioral accommodations.

OK, so you seem to have buried the lede here, because you aren't teaching on-level biology if most of your students need some sort of accommodations, right? What you're missing, IMHO, is a way to teach teenagers who have special needs and have no motivation to pay attention to you when they can (ridiculous) be paying attention to their phones
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:35 AM on October 22, 2016 [15 favorites]

I teach Freshmen, and I feel your pain. They are hard to manage and hard to convince that your subject is amazing and interesting. Freshmen are tough.

My advice:

We have a shortage of teachers throughout the entire country. It is not just your school district that is struggling to fill positions. You can make a difference wherever you go, so go somewhere that will make you happy. If you are not happy outside of work, it will be harder to bounce back from a tough day/week/year. You need a support system and a life beyond grading papers and planning lessons. You don't have to stay in a school/state that is a bad fit for you just because they need a teacher. Take care of yourself first, then you can take care of your students.

Classroom management is a tricky thing. You have to keep trying things and observing other teachers and trying again and changing it up and trying AGAIN over and over until you find something that works for you. And until something clicks, it's awful. This is my seventh year of teaching. It took me a couple of years to figure out some classroom management strategies that work for me. And now this year with these particular students it has all gone to heck and I'm back to square one. I keep trying to find good solutions for both them and me, but so far we're all still struggling. I'm going to figure it out eventually, but it definitely sucks right now.

I have more success with hands-on and active practice than I do with lecture and note taking (I teach math). Freshmen can't sit still for 8 hours and take notes. They have too much energy. They learn more when I let them move, talk, and be active. Try to mix up your classroom activities so that it's not always the same old same old.

And finally, don't take it personally when they don't learn something. You can plan the best lessons and be the most enthusiastic and they could love you, but at the end of the day they have to put in effort too. Sometimes they don't, and that's not your fault. Just give them the best teaching you know how to do, and then it's up to them.

You are not alone. Good luck.
posted by rakaidan at 11:21 AM on October 22, 2016 [6 favorites]

I taught English to unmotivated, school-hating 9th and 10th graders, most of whom had IEPs, for one year. It was terrible. Like you, I had kids chasing each other around and standing on desks and throwing things at me during classes.

My situation was different - I was straight out of college with no advanced training, no substantive help from the administration, and no clear idea that I wanted to teach anyway. (Turns out I don't!) It was just a job I could get at the time. So, for me, the solution was quitting. I haven't looked back.

For you though, since you love teaching, I don't think that has to be the answer. I like what rakaidan says about moving back closer to your family and friends if that's possible, since that will let you recharge and be happy outside of school. I think what roomthreeseventeen says about kids with IEPs being a whole different story than just normal 9th graders is also true.

If I woke up tomorrow and realized my true passion in life was teaching and I wanted to go back to it, here's what I'd do differently:

* Like rakaidan says, I'd make lessons a lot more interactive and a lot less listening to me lecture.

* I'd also set up my assignments (assuming I had that sort of flexibility) to be as little work for me to grade as possible. It sounded profoundly lazy and awful at the time to make students grade each others' quizzes or do multiple choice tests instead of short answers, but going home and grading for hours and hours did not help my situation, especially when the work turned in was often so depressing.

* I'd get help with IEPs, ideally from someone on the administration whose job was to set up the accommodations. I'd learn as much as I could about what I actually needed to do and what the kid was just scamming me on (sounds mean, but 9th graders can be sharks sometimes). I'd try to get the school to pay me/give me time off to go to seminars and workshops specifically on how to teach to people with dyslexia or ADHD or whatever I was seeing the most.

* I'd get help with classroom management, whether by going to seminars or watching the most experienced teachers on my prep period or (even better) asking them to come watch me on theirs and give me advice. I'd try really hard to learn all those tricks so that my job felt less like babysitting and more like actual teaching.

* I'd make sure the administration would back me up on classroom rules and disciplinary procedures I set up. In my case, my rule was that if you got sent to the Dean of Students for bad behavior during a test or a quiz, you failed that test or quiz too. I'd routinely have the administration come beg me to go back on my word and let the person retake the test so they wouldn't fail the class. I wouldn't give in on that anymore. In your case, if you set a no-phones-in-my-class rule (which seems unbelievably normal/right/fair), the administration should back you up on that, even if phones are allowed in other classes.

* I'd let kids fail. Even (maybe especially!) when I had a good personal relationship with them. As an older, wiser person, I really don't think it's teaching our children a good lesson that they can mess up and mess around and slack off and still scrape by with a D because the administration wants everyone to pass/go up a grade/keep the parents happy. Sorry, that's not really the way it works in life. I wouldn't try to be heartless, and I wouldn't ever refuse help, even if it took up my time outside of school, to a student who was actually trying, but for the ones who don't care, maybe a big fat F would actually jolt them out of their ennui. Or maybe not, but at least it wouldn't feel so slimy on my end.

* I'd do everything I could to make sure life was unstressful and happy outside of the classroom. I'd exercise regularly and see family/friends, even if that meant taking longer to get assignments back or showing an extra movie per semester or whatever. I'd skip whatever work events (faculty retreats, etc.) didn't seem like they'd actually help me/would just take up more of my time. I'd call in sick when I was really stressed and tired and disheartened, even if it meant teaching with a cold. I'd pat myself on the back and treat myself when I could, because, man, teachers are awesome.

Thanks for doing what you do, especially in the face of what you're up against. You should be proud of yourself. You're awesome.
posted by bananacabana at 12:30 PM on October 22, 2016 [5 favorites]

"Teacher, Teacher, do what you can
To teach your children all the knowledge of man
Teach them how to think and how to survive
A world that eats the soul and body alive."

The Six-Lesson Schoolteacher covers a lot of the problems in the US public school system.

You are passionate about your topic - which is why you chose to go to college for it, why you want to teach it to other people. Your students, OTOH, not only aren't particularly passionate about it, they consider all "education" to be a chore they have to endure for a few more years before they're released. This attitude starts in 1st grade or earlier, when a teacher says brightly, "we're going to learn to read some sentences today!" and then shows a book full of "THE CAT IS ON THE MAT" and "SEE THE CAT WITH THE RED HAT" and the student thinks, "I have no idea what these sentences things are, but they have nothing to do with how people talk."

By high school, students have neatly sorted themselves into two groups: those who love school and learning, even if only in a couple of areas, and those who believe school is a form of indentured servitude they have to put up with or they or their parents will be punished.

You have some choices. You can go through the motions, reach out to the handful of students who love school and want to learn and shove the rest through the approved curriculum and either fudge the testing so that the worst of them get D's, or else actually fail them with the hope that that serves as a wake-up call to someone. (It won't be the kid; they don't know what they're doing wrong, other than hating something that bores and annoys them.)

You can seek out innovative methods of teaching - more hands-on, more projects. (Be wary of lots of group projects. Introvert kids will not thank you for making "be sociable with these total strangers" part of their science grade.) Draw on the internet: look for YouTube presentations on relevant topics - you can even crowdsource that; ask your students to share their favorite videos about biology. (Tell 'em they can include alien biology from video games... it's a potential starting point to get them interested.) Scrounge up all the "humans from alien viewpoint" posts on tumblr and reddit; a surprisingly high number have delightful side commentary about aspects of human biology. (This one has a subthread about glycolen consumption and "runner's wall.")

You can't make them interested. If you're lucky, you can make them see that what school teaches does relate to both their "real life," as in, the family-job-etc stuff that they're expected to deal with, and their fun life - that understanding science, math, language communications can make for better understanding and enjoyment of movies, video games, and twitter flamewars.

The problem with the "innovative" approach is that your administration and school board may not like it, and it often only takes one parent to start screeching about indecency to shut down the whole thing. (For this reason, I recommend not using mpreg fanfic in your biology "what does and doesn't work" discussions. If students bring it up, pivot to seahorses. Quickly.)

Best approach I can think of: Convince the students that you will help them "trick" the system - that they won't be learning "boring science" but "how humans are awesome" and "how to make things go boom without a match" and "what animals are the strongest/fastest/weirdest."
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 1:36 PM on October 22, 2016 [2 favorites]

This resonates so much with me, and I'm currently teaching college freshmen in one of the best liberal arts colleges in the country. These are students who were the top 10% in their high schools and come from privileged, educated backgrounds. And yet, the lack of attention or engagement, the feeling that I'm babysitting rather than teaching, their interests being on anything other than getting an education -- yup. Add to that a fairly unsupportive administration that treats them like paying customers, so if you can't make the students like you enough to give you stellar evaluations, the chair will want to have a chat with you. I've only been teaching a few years, but I am convinced students are getting worse every year.

So, no advice because I haven't figured it out myself, but I'll be watching this thread.
posted by redlines at 1:53 PM on October 22, 2016

You have my permission to quit this job, move to New England, develop a support system of friends and family again, and maybe get another teaching job. Like another poster said, wherever you go, you will make a difference in the lives of children.
posted by ball00000ns at 3:28 PM on October 22, 2016 [8 favorites]

I work in a similar setting (except that my school couldn't be called the best in the city), and the book Why Don't Students Like School? provided tons of a-ha moments for me. I'm not a classroom teacher (I'm in special ed) but so much of it rang true, especially the chapters on structuring a lesson like a story, and piquing their interest right away in the lesson. I can't recommend it highly enough.
posted by christinetheslp at 5:07 PM on October 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

only to realize when the unit exam comes along that only the students who care about their academic progress know any of the material. The rest could barely name the 4 DNA bases and have no notes despite 4 weeks on the subject.

This jumped out at me, as you should be able to figure out if a large portion of your class is in the dark well before it comes time to take the test. I would have a look at:

- Your ability to monitor and adjust your instruction
- Your use of formative assessment
- The kinds of questions you're asking and how much of your time is spent in the higher levels of Bloom's taxonomy
- Your understanding of the affective domain, another one of Bloom's taxonomies.

That might be helpful, but on the other hand, the idea that classroom management problems are completely the result of lessons that aren't engaging is a myth, and you may be in over your head due to factors beyond your control.

Are you sure your administration is not contributing to the problem? Are there so many students with IEPs that you ought to have a second teacher or aide present? Do you suspect that your district may be using 504s as a way to avoid giving students IEPs, a practice that was recently found to be widespread in Texas?

I taught for eleven years, and had a class my last year similar to what you're describing. I'd internalized a lot of the blame for it, but the more closely I thought about it, the more I came to the realization that the students didn't suddenly start exhibiting these behaviors when they got to my class, and likely got to that point because the teachers that had previously taught them didn't have adequate resources/administrative support to address those behavior patterns when they first appeared in what was likely a much more minor form.
posted by alphanerd at 5:15 PM on October 22, 2016 [4 favorites]

PS: I could easily see how you'd be teaching 9th graders at a high school with a decent administration, but for those students to have come from a middle school that didn't really have its act together.
posted by alphanerd at 5:19 PM on October 22, 2016

First, I feel like this is the kind of thing that requires more details to figure out, so I would be happy to talk to you on Skype or a google hangout so there's more back and forth.

I am in my 13th year of teaching, and 10 of those were high school, and 1 was physics. So I've been in your shoes.

I think the cell phones can be a feature, not a bug. There are hundreds of ways to incorporate technology in a way that pullls kids in. I use Crash Course in my class in lieu of lecture. The kids I teach (very mixed level 7th graders - English and history) love those videos. Hell, they love all videos. YouTube is seriously your best resource - there are SO many science videos out there! I can give specific suggestions if you want.

Don't feel like you need to cover everything. Cover the things you can WELL. You have my permission to skip major content in order to get depth of learning. The year I taught physics, it was about 75% of the year on laws of motion. My kids were at 2nd to 3rd grade reading levels and really struggled with appropriate behaviour.

Speaking of behaviour: check out ClassCraft or Class Dojo and link those to permissions, like going to get water, to take a walk, to open a window, to turn in an assignment late, etc. It really works.

Stop giving homework. It doesn't work and it will only frustrate you.

Remember that attention span is at best 15 minutes so change activities as frequently as you possibly can. In two hours, my students do 6-8 different activities and get mini breaks in between. They need them.

If you want to talk more, let me know! I mentor teachers and do lots of PD for teachers and I know how you're feeling. You will make it though, because you have what is most important: you care and you want to do well. It will get better!
posted by guster4lovers at 6:38 PM on October 22, 2016 [7 favorites]

Oh, and for the improvement of content knowledge retrieval (or frankly, to teach them material for the first time) you need Kahoot ( There are 10.5 million quizzes already written, and a great number of those is from US teachers in high school subjects. You can search by the name of your textbook and the chapter number and you'll probably have a wealth of different versions to choose from.

I do kahoot every day and would do it more if my students had their way.

(Slight disclaimer: I do know the guys who started Kahoot but this tool literally changed my life. One of the kids I teach said yesterday that "kahoot is my life". He was serious.)
posted by guster4lovers at 8:34 PM on October 22, 2016 [3 favorites]

I'm sorry you are going through this. If it helps, know that you're not alone. I'm in California not Arizona but I've been teaching for the past 17 years and it does not get any easier. Particularly in classes where students have special needs, it can feel as if nothing we do is working. The reality is for the majority of our students school has not been a very pleasant, positive or productive experience. This can be really brutal for teachers to come to grips with. Especially because many of us are teachers because we had good teachers and enjoyed school for the most part.

One thing that really helps me is reminding myself that sometimes the lessons that we teach that are the most important have little to do with our content area. Even for students who are motivated and interested, I find that when they come back to visit or I see them out and about in the community they rarely mention the lessons or ideas from my class. But they do remember that I cared, that I showed up, and that I wanted them to succeed.

It can be tempting to think the grass is greener at another school and waste years transferring from school to school trying to find the perfect place to teach. But it is also true that I know some teachers who have been blissfully happy at another school who were miserable at the school where I have taught for the last 14 years. So finding the school where we can do the most good and still be able to live our lives and be content and proud of what we do can look different for every teacher.

There are good ideas in the previous answers to your question: try to plan 2 or 3 different stages to your lessons each day. Play to the strengths of your students and try not to let it feel personal if they don't like biology... I teach English and they hate grammar! I second the suggestion to try Kahoot if you can. I use it and my students 9-12 love it! If you can't, Bingo, Jeopardy style review, gallery walks, elbow buddy talks using sentence frames to guide them through are all things I've used successfully to get students involved. And never stop believing that your work matters. Our students need us like never before: you might be the only positive person who shows up consistently in their life, so don't forget to give yourself credit for modeling hard work, persistence, and a belief that they can and will do more and better!
posted by scairdy chicken at 7:27 PM on October 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

Skipped a lot of the thread, but just wanted to say: it's OK to leave teaching, and it doesn't have to be for some spiritually hollow high-paying dullsville job. After 3 years I realized classroom teaching wasn't for me, and transitioned into a career in museum education. It uses all of my skills and is never dull, always thrilling, always new, and I know I am having a very wide impact at powerful moments in the lives of learners. Don't think you must stay because this was the strongest idea you had about your role as an educator at age 20. The world of education is very wide, classroom teaching is a very narrow and constrained swath of it, and it's more than okay to explore other areas in the field. You aren't a failure if you leave teaching. If anything, teaching more often fails people like you.
posted by Miko at 8:07 PM on October 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

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