This is the story of a teaching job: searching, finding, and finally accepting. It is a story of adjusting, adapting, experimenting, spending, crying, and some regretting. There was a resignation and a change. There was also a lot of growing and a fair amount of laughter in this one remarkable year.
Once upon a time, I applied for an out-of-state teaching job. It was 1996, and my tools consisted mainly of the classified ads, a map, and lots and lots of stamps. Our computer was mainly a glorified word processor, used for updating cover letters and resumes; this was before the internet invaded our daily lives.
It was a depressing task; out of about 50 inquiries and applications, I’d had exactly one response. So I drove the 3.5 hours for a 20 minute screening interview. When they asked me back for a second interview in front of a panel of teachers, I dared to get my hopes up. I thought that interview went really well.
Until it didn’t, and they went with another candidate. Thanks, but no thanks, basically. Then it was August, and time was up. I’d resigned myself to working at the mall for gainful employment.
And then ten days before the start of the school year, which was also nine days from our moving day, I got a phone call. The position was available, was I still interested? I was so caught off guard I almost didn’t know what to say.
Yes. Yes. Yes. I managed to affirm that I was still available and yes, I’d love the job teaching 7th grade science. I was coming from a preschool classroom, but so what? I was adaptable.
We were moving from three states away, so I wouldn’t be able to attend any staff meetings or see my classroom until the day before school started. It was far from ideal, but at least it was a job in my career field. I later found out that the candidate they’d first hired had backed out last minute. I did wonder afterwards, how many other applicants had they called before they’d offered me the job? Was I desperately far down on the list? I decided not to pursue this line of inquiry, as any answer would probably bruise my ego and my confidence beyond repair.
My classroom was enormous. The building was constructed in 1920’s or 1930’s, the ceilings were about 15 feet high, the windows were most likely the original single paned glass and about 8 feet tall, and the old radiators that inefficiently cranked out heat were right in front of those windows.
The classroom was double the size of a normal room because half of it was the science lab; six lab tables with sinks, gas jets for Bunsen burners, and drawers in each filled with flasks and beakers and old mercury thermometers. Cabinets lined one wall by the lab tables; cabinets filled with textbooks that I wouldn’t be able to use because I’d been hired too late to receive the curriculum training in how to use them. At the very back of the lab was a “closet” that spanned the entire width of the classroom, with two swinging doors, one at each end. This storage space was huge- and completely filled with stuff. Some of it was absolutely unidentifiable. Other stuff- like the pig’s feet in a jar of formaldehyde, was neatly labeled.
I’d vaguely wondered why the classroom hadn’t been cleaned out when the last teacher left. Even the large demo table at the front of the classroom was jam-packed with stuff- every drawer filled to the top. It would take me years to go through all this stuff.
Shortly after the start of the year, I’d found out that the school’s beloved 7th grade science teacher of more than twenty years, had passed away unexpectedly halfway through the previous school year. And a string of unpopular and (I’m guessing) unhappy substitutes filled in for the remainder of the year.
Decorating this huge classroom was going to be the least of my problems. (Do not ask me how much of my meager teaching salary went to supplies and posters…)
I’d had zero experience with middle school students, or any teenagers, and I wasn’t even a parent at this point in my life. I didn’t know what to expect from teaching five periods of seventh grade lab science (earth and physical), but it’s safe to say that what little experience I’d had teaching up to this point, had left me woefully unprepared for dealing with 85 angsty and sometimes smelly teenagers.
In her novel Gentlemen and Players, Joanne Harris’ main character describes middle schoolers as follows: “At thirteen… there are sharp edges on everything, and all of them cut.” (2006, p. 223) What an excruciating truth this is. It was an eye-opening, enlightening year.
In a mid-year evaluation letter from my principal, she’d said I’d done well, despite the fact that I’d “smiled before Christmas.” I’d wished someone had shared that gem of advice with me earlier.
It’s very difficult to get seventh graders excited about science when they’re so uncomfortable in their own bodies. Their thoughts are consumed with a million internal questions: Do I smell? Does my hair look good? Should I have worn these jeans today? Did I just laugh too loudly? Who’s saving my seat at lunch? What if he/she doesn’t say hi? What if he/she does? Did the teacher just call on me? They couldn’t care less about how air molecules move in areas of high pressure and low pressure.
So when one of your students, who suffers from ADHD and Tourette’s, calls you a “bitch” in front of the class, you shouldn’t take it personally. Actually, you shouldn’t take anything they do personally. Ever.
You should also probably refrain from telling your biggest pain-in-the-butt student to stop “acting like a wise ass” because that will definitely not make you any fast friends.
I wish I was more comfortable laughing at myself back then. Because on the day I did the demonstration with the hardboiled egg and burning match in the flask, I would have laughed when one of my students tried to jokingly point out the “mustache” that had smeared on my upper lip from blowing into the flask. I was so concerned with maintaining control in my classroom that I’d even had nightmares about it. I couldn’t see the humor in the situation. I took myself way too seriously.
Middle school kids can be successfully bribed with candy. When it comes to classroom management for a first year, inexperienced teacher of teens, do not judge and do not underestimate the lengths we will go to in instituting a sense of decorum and control in our classrooms.
Middle school students are walking dichotomies of emotional maturation: they can surprise you with their sophistication and insight one minute, say, while discussing the impact of recycling and greenhouse gasses on the planet. In the next breath, one of them is disrupting the class because he brought his full size “Tickle-Me-Elmo” toy for show-and-tell.
My sense of sarcasm and its delivery have become more finely tuned after 18 years of parenting. I feel better equipped to deal with teenagers now than I ever have. But I still wouldn’t go back to teaching middle school.
If it weren’t for my amazing team of colleagues that year, I don’t think I would have made it until June. At least not with my sanity intact. My team had been teaching middle school kids for decades, and they were truly seasoned professionals. They had my respect from day one, and my admiration forever.
One day several months into the school year, I was feeling ambitious. I decided to go through some of the stuff in the drawers of the demo table and the closet. I found, among other things, several jars filled with a silvery liquid. Ooh, cool, I thought. This looks neat….oh. Wait. This is a jar full of mercury. And then I discovered, oh, this is another jar full of mercury. A little red flag went up… not unlike when one of the kids accidentally broke one of the old mercury thermometers the week prior.
“Um… please stop playing with the little balls of mercury on the lab table…” my voice had sounded anxious and slightly alarmed at the same time.
I showed the mercury to my colleagues who advised me to call the state environmental agency that dealt with disposing of hazardous materials. So I did.
And they showed up. In full Haz-Mat suits, masks and all. They told me to vacate the room so they could dispose of the mercury and search the room for anything else that might be hazardous. They also told me that if the mercury had spilled, protocol would have required them to quarantine the entire wing of the school for decontamination… for up to a week.
They removed almost three pounds of mercury from the classroom. Which, I’d later learned, is NO JOKE. Go ahead, I dare you to Google “hazards of exposure to liquid mercury.”
Another adventure in the lab that I recall fondly had to do with shallow pans of flour and dried beans. It was an experiment designed to simulate craters made on the surface of the moon by meteors or space junk hitting the surface at different angles.
Pro-tip: if you give a bunch of 13 year-olds shallow pans of flour and a handful of dried beans, the results are much the same as a sensory table in a preschool. The flour will end up EVERYWHERE.
Clean-up from each of five periods of this same experiment was less than efficient, and some (okay, a fair amount) of flour ended up going into the lab sinks.
Do you know what happens to flour that gets washed down, but not entirely washed down, lab sinks?
Until a few days later. I walked into the classroom, immediately hit by a stench like no other, and I’d wondered what had died in there.
Pro-tip: don’t let your students sweep flour into the lab sinks. It will ferment. There was fermented flour in all 6 of my lab sinks. It made concentrating on science even harder for the next few days, and not even four Yankee Candles could mask that worse-than-Smells-Like-Teen-Spirit stink.
You might think that all this excitement in the science lab would have kept me coming back for more. You would be wrong. I came home and cried almost every day for the first four months. “I can’t do this!” I’d cried to my husband. “These kids are miserable and they hate me and they are taller than me!”
I stuck it out for the year though, wallowing a lot in my own misery and pity until I resolved to take charge of the situation. I was no longer going to fill my daily commute to and from school by playing “I’d rather work THERE” for every business I’d pass. I would do something about it, because no one was going to do anything for me.
By the time spring had rolled around, I’d introduced myself to every elementary school principal in the district, leaving them with a cover letter and a resume, and what I’d hoped was a favorable impression of a very adaptable, energetic teacher. It paid off. I was able to transfer to a third grade classroom when someone retired. It was much more my speed.
I settled into this classroom and realized a commonality: teaching is equal parts training, improvisation, and performing. Whether it’s a preschool classroom, or seventh grade science, or third grade, you are the lead actor on the stage, and it’s your job to keep this audience engaged. You will “do voices” and move around the room, sometimes waving your arms maniacally. You might even climb on top of furniture. You’ll resort to bribery of some sort. But if you truly love this job, as I did, it will all be so worth it.