A few months ago, about half way through my adventure (penitential sentence?) of being a first year teacher, I realized that these days were numbered. Soon, I’d be shipping my lil 9th grade weirdos out the door for the last time and then the next time my door was darkened by kiddos, it would be a fresh bunch. No longer would I be doing this for the first time (thankfully, can I get an amen veteran teachers?). I would be learning from last year’s mistakes and successes. And while I’m sure there are infinite lessons to learn and I will continue to learn them (the hard way, because I know myself), this first year is special. I’ll always treasure it. So I jokingly sent an email to my co-worker with the titles of a book I said I was going to write on first year teaching. A book, probably not- but here is what I came up with. The memoirs of a first year teacher (so far):
High Schoolers are Weird
High schoolers are weird. This feels like something that doesn’t need to be said. The entire population, globally, knows this. It doesn’t matter where you are or who you’re talking to, if you tell someone you teach high school, the reaction is “why?” It’s like every human on earth is programmed to hear the words “high school,” and start nervous twitching and/or gagging. Half of the population really doesn’t even remember high school because it was so awful that their brain blocked it out as a coping mechanism.
Brain: I’m sorry, Suzy, the only way we can make it through college with even an ounce of self esteem is to pretend like the entirety of high school didn’t happen. *transforms into Gilderoy Lockhart* SAY GOOD-BYE TO YOUR MEMORIES!
It’s just not a fond time for most. Excuse the 2% of the population who peaked in high school. There have been books written about high schoolers, adolescents in general, hormones, development, blah, blah, blah. I know this because I had to read approximately one million of those books in my undergraduate studies to help me become a teacher. And to sum it up for you (express degree, you’re welcome), their frontal lobe is precisely nonexistent, they have more surging hormones than the Russian Olympians of 2018 (too soon?), and they want to be in control, but they are still infants. Trust me, these are all pure facts. I would know because I am a science teacher.
But seriously, they have very poor decision making skills with little ability to understand long term consequences. Puberty has turned them into a hormone cocktail, but like, one that’s not mixed well. One gulp is sweet and sugary, the next is straight bottom shelf vodka. Don’t act like you haven’t been there. And, as they’re moving towards freedom they so badly want to be in control of every aspect of their lives, but they’re just not quite ready for that yet. This combination of traits would make any human being at any age completely unreasonable. And that’s exactly what high schoolers are. Most of the time.
But they’re also awesome. To me, they are the perfect age group to work with. They’re old enough to get sarcasm and be funny and witty and learn abstract and complicated things, but they’re young enough that they’re still impressionable, still have room to grow, and when they’re being obnoxious you can literally tell them to stop doing what they’re doing because their existence in that particular expression destroys your soul. And that’s considered part of your job! There are not many other professions I know of where you can tell the people you spend all day with to knock it off because they’re annoying and be praised for it.
Teaching high schoolers is incredible. And after only one year with them, I’ll tell you some things I’ve learned that make them seem a lot less weird, and a lot more like us, sophisticated adults (she says at age 23, drinking a beer at 2pm).
1. High schoolers thrive under high expectations. I would very much like to get on my soapbox and tell you exactly why old people (sorry not sorry), looooooove to hate on young people, but I won’t. I’ll try to stay positive and leave the old people out of this mess and leave it with high schoolers need high expectations. My mom was a middle school teacher and she used to always say, (she’s Texan so please imagine this with the appropriate accent), “Kids rise to the expectations you set for them.” And that is so true! This year, my kids (read: 106 freshmen, when I say “my kids”) were known as the “good class.” They followed a really rowdy bunch and every teacher told them every year of their entire childhood that they were the good class. And they act like it. That’s their sticker and they’re proud to wear it. Similarly, the class above them, the aforementioned rowdy class was deemed the worst class ever. That’s their sticker and they’re proud to wear theirs, too. They rise, or fall, to the expectations set for them.
Kids need high expectations. High expectations tells them that you believe they are capable of more than they’re showing you, and you know they can do better. High expectations tells them that you’re invested in making them better and you’re not going to give up on them until they are better. My 8th hour first semester was orchestrated by Satan himself. All of them were excellent kids. Alone. Together, it was the embodiment of Lucifer. They talked incessantly, they were off task, they were apathetic and lazy. Also, it was the last hour of the day and I had 3 girls and 15 boys. 15 freshmen boys in the last hour of the day. Satan, away from me.
My first two months of school were riddled with terror knowing that 8th hour was coming. My other classes were usually so smooth with hardly any behavioral issues and I didn’t know how to handle my 8th hour. Finally, one day, I closed the door of the classroom and I said “Ladies and gentlemen, it’s a new day in 8th hour.” I gave them a seating chart with at least one desk on every side of every student empty, like a checkerboard. I told them they would not speak unless spoken to, and if they did, they would show me just how quiet they could be in lunch detention until the issue was resolved. I told them there would be no working together, no chit-chatting, no fun until they could show me they could learn. I reminded them that my first job as a teacher was to make sure they could learn science, my second job was to make sure they had fun doing it- and we wouldn’t worry about the second until they showed mastery of the first. I told them that I wasn’t doing this because I was mad at them or hated them or wanted to be mean and vindictive. I told them that they were my lowest performing hour and that they were capable of being the highest. I told them that they were smarter than their grades showed, they could do better, be better, and I expected better.
My life changed. It took about a month before the big changes started. Of course they hated me for that month. They literally called me a drill sergeant and dictator and said science was their least favorite class and I told them that just made me cry myself to sleep (read: I don’t care). About six weeks in, they were allowed to start working together. A week after that, they got a new, less isolating seating chart. As their understanding of content deepened, the conversations increased. They never made it to my highest performing class, but they did become my best behaved class. And they wore that badge with pride. It was never really about the grades. Is it really ever about the grades? It was about the expectations. I had to teach that class totally different from any other section. I had to become the bad guy. I had to become the dictator. I had to be hated for six whole weeks, and that’s hard. I had to set high expectations, give them the resources and supports they needed to reach them, tell them I believed in them, and had to sit back and let them do the work. They didn’t just rise to my expectations, they surpassed them.
2. It’s really not about the curriculum. You can fill in standards, learning targets, content, etc. here, but all teachers know that teaching isn’t about any of that. I tell my kids all the time that I don’t give a flying fart if they can balance a chemical equation, or calculate the kinetic energy of an object when they leave my room for the last time. I tell them that I care if they are kinder, more compassionate, better critical thinkers when they leave my room for the last time than they were when they walked in the first time. Some of you have probably broken into a mocking stanza of “Kumbaya,” but it’s true. We all have to believe this if we want to make it out as teachers. It’s hard for us because we basically get a dual degree in our content areas, and in teaching, but news flash: no one really gives a poop about the War of 1812, I’m not sorry for saying it- just like no one cares if they can recite the Kreb’s Cycle from memory. HAVE YOU HEARD OF THE INTERNET. Teaching isn’t about trivia anymore. It isn’t about memorizing things so that they’re not lost to future generations. That type of education should’ve ended when we invented writing. Teaching is about teaching character and life skills through content (shout out to my alma mater, UWEC, for that one). That’s what kids remember. I have been teaching for not even one whole year as I write this. In fact, it’s April as I sit here documenting my rambles. APRIL- barely even April. I gave my first semester final at the end of January. Already, I’m not kidding, a kid told me they really liked my final.
For their final, they had to solve my murder. To do it, they had to complete various chemistry tasks like balancing the chemical equation that killed me, drawing a lewis dot structure for one of the toxic elements, giving an element profile, etc., and received a clue in exchange. It was actual content on the final that hit every standard I had to teach and assess that semester. When this student told me they liked my final, I asked why. They said, and I quote, “It was fun. It was like a puzzle not like a test. We had to, like, put the pieces together and solve something. It was fun.” I should’ve stopped there. I should’ve taken the compliment and patted myself on the back. But then I asked, “did you think it was hard?” I KID YOU NOT, this was their response, “I don’t really remember what it was on.”
IT’S APRIL 3RD. That means barely more than two months have passed since they took the final and they ALREADY don’t remember what was on it- and that’s an entire semester of stuff they have already drained from their brains. February isn’t even a real month so basically only a month has passed and they cannot remember it. They don’t care about the content. They care about the experience. And even though that child wasn’t exactly eloquent, I’d like to believe that what they were saying was they had to think critically to do well on the final. Yes, they had menial tasks related to the content, but the last question was putting all the pieces together and solving my murder, making that claim, and supporting it with evidence they gathered. A trial run in critical thinking.
Kids don’t remember the content. Don’t get mad. Do you really remember the quadratic formula? Do you remember who the 11th president of the America was? None of us remember the content. We have to use the content to teach our kids how to survive and thrive outside of school. They appreciate and remember you teaching those skills. They remember you stopping class to address a current event, or an emotional event. They remember the experience. That’s what prepares them for life beyond high school. They remember you teaching to their souls, not to their brains. Kumbaya.
3. High schoolers are amplified adults. Everything you’ve ever felt, they feel on a scale magnified by one hundred million. They feel it stronger and harder and longer and deeper. This sounds scary because we all know our own emotional capacities and the thought of multiplying that is terrifying, but as a teacher, this is kind of comforting. It’s not like they have totally unreasonable emotions that are absolutely foreign to adults. They feel what we feel. They are people, too. Which means that we’ve all been there at some point. Which means they are going to make it through.
I have a teaching schedule that enables me to see some kids up to 3 times a day. And more often than not, they are 3 different people every time I see them. The emotional undertaking of high school is incomprehensible. And you slightly older people can roll your eyes at this or whatever, but they have probably 10 times more to deal with than any generation before them because of social media. They have a lot going on. And that coupled with their magnified emotions makes for a messy existence. The lucky thing in all of this is, if you know how to comfort an adult, you know how to comfort a teenager. I’m not saying they’re the same things, but they want the same things. They want someone to validate their emotions. They want someone who will just listen without telling them what to do. They want an outlet, not a therapist. They want someone to not judge them, but support them. It’s really not any different from what we want.
We’re not doing them any favors by telling them they’re being childish, to grow up, and then bark orders at them. Does anyone else see how contradictory that is? We tell them they’re being babies and to stop, but then we try to solve their problems and in doing so, end up treating them like babies. They need their own space to work this kind of stuff out- whether it is social, emotional, familial, or academic- they have got to have the opportunity to learn to work things out for themselves or they will flounder on their own. High school is a safe space for that. We are always there as a net to catch them, but we have to let them try on their own. Being that kind of support system for a teenager gets you in on their good side real fast. And I’m not saying you have to be on their good side to teach them, but it helps.
High schoolers are weird and messy and impossible to understand completely once you’ve passed through the threshold of puberty, but they’re wonderful. And whether or not you want to believe it, they are the future of our planet. So someone has to invest in them. And investing in them as their equally as weird, twice as sarcastic, embarrassing but fun teacher is the best way I can think of.
Things I Should Not Have to Say Out Loud (& Things I Should Not Have Said Out Loud)
Now that we’ve established that high schoolers are weird, I would like to take some time to embellish on that topic- provide evidence, if you will, of exactly how weird they can be. I’d like to attribute this to their underdeveloped frontal cortex. Teachers of all grades, I would assume, hear weird things day in and day out. It’s one of the perks of the job, I think. Below is a list of the weirdest things I’ve had to say out loud in the less than one year that I’ve been teaching- please remember that I teach 14 and 15 year old kids:
“Do not put that in your mouth.”
“This is an independent activity. Which means that you will be completing it without talking. Because you will be doing it independently. By yourself. Without other people there, talking to you. You will be alone. Because you’re doing this independently. Which means that you are not doing it with others because you’re doing it by yourself. Are there questions about these expectations?”
“It is not appropriate to talk about my pants size, right now.”
“Yes, children, as your teacher who graduated college and who is married, I am legally allowed to consume alcohol. You are not. Do your work.”
“Stop braiding her hair while I’m teaching you about double replacement reactions.”
“No, you may not snort the hydrochloric acid to see if your nose burns.”
“Yes, this test is graded.”
“Ladies, wipe the drool from your chins and look up here.”
Things I should not have said out loud:
Because it’s my first year teaching and I want to keep my job, I’ll leave this up to your imagination. If you want to grab coffee and have me tell you stories verbally wherein I can later deny all of it, I’d be happy to.
Pop Culture References and How They Backfire
If you ever plan on making a pop culture reference, just don’t. Children know more about celebrities/songs/movies/games/etc. than you do, and if you admit to listening to Lil Pump* in front of your students, soon they will be begging you to play Gucci Gang before class, and of course you will say that’s inappropriate and then you will accidentally sing it to yourself while you’re monitoring their work time and then they will judge you forever. This will also likely lead to conversations about how you feel about legalization of marijuana and when you had alcohol for the first time. Do. Not. Engage.
*Insert any morally questionable celebrity here. Results will not vary.
Laughing at Your Own Jokes (and being the only one)
I regret nothing.
When you have the same taste in music as adolescents
See “Pop Culture References and How They Backfire”
Curriculum of Sarcasm
Does anyone else have a grandparent who went to a school run by nuns? Shoot, I’m not trying to out your age, but maybe you went to a school run by nuns. I’m not here to judge.
My grandpa went to such a Catholic school and he tells stories of these unbearably terrifying nuns who would smack the children with rulers if they were naughty. He talks about how well behaved the children were because they lived in fear of the wrath of these ladies.
I literally cannot possibly imagine a classroom more polarized from mine. And I’m not saying that’s a good thing, I’m just saying it because it’s true.
To give you a glimpse into my room, I’d like to start with the pizza garland I have decorating my whiteboard. The whiteboard usually has some type of lame science joke relevant to what the kids are learning on it, and their due dates. The desks are arranged in a double-horseshoe facing my Smartboard, and inside the smallest horseshoe is a coffee table on a children’s space rug that children can sit at during work time. Adorning my walls are, of course, periodic tables and a poster of Einstein, because hello, science, and also inspirational, encouraging signs I found on Pinterest. And those inspirational, encouraging signs are the alpha and omega of the “nice” things said in my classroom.
My kids have dubbed me the “funny” teacher, but also the “sarcastic” teacher. My colleagues have been known to tell children, “enough with the sarcasm, if you want to banter, go see Mrs. Haling.”
Now, I know that sarcasm is textbook wrong. Every education class tells you that sarcasm is detrimental in the classroom. And they are probably right. But it feels so good.
Sarcasm truly can be detrimental in the classroom. It all depends on who you use it with and how you use it. There are some kids who love sarcasm. They banter right back with you and it’s fun. There are some kids who definitely cannot handle it. And that’s where knowing your kids comes in. You have to know each and every one of your students. This can be a difficult task considering that you probably have 130 children and you see them for 42 minutes a day and you have to cram 7 chapters worth of your content into their brains. But you have to know them.
There are some children out there who have dark, twisted souls like me who love sarcasm. It’s their way of expressing humor and affection and it’s the little flare they add to their lives. And then there are some children who need a lot of encouragement. They need real affectionate and uplifting words and take every word you say at face value. Those kids crumble under a sarcastic remark.
I have one kid who has a hilarious sense of humor. He’s always ready to banter back and forth and will give you a run for your money is sarcasm. I was telling him once to stop doing whatever obnoxious thing he was doing at the time and he said, “Mrs. Haling, stop hating me just because I’m Mexican.” I responded instantly with, “I don’t hate you because you’re Mexican, I hate you because of your personality.”
I can hear some of you nice and sweet people gasping, cringing even. You said that to a child? That’s a little too far. What a great opportunity to talk about racial injustice and the strife for equality in our schools and you missed it!
Yeah, yeah, yeah. He was kidding, guys. He was kidding and I was kidding and we both laughed and you know what, he stopped being obnoxious.
If I didn’t have that relationship with him, there is no way that I could’ve, would’ve, or should’ve said that. But I knew not only that he could take it, but that he would laugh and appreciate it. The sarcasm worked. And because of our relationship, that comment was all he needed to stop being annoying. It was an unspoken way of saying, “I still like you” after I yelled at him, without actually having to say those sickly nice words.
That. Would. Not. Have. Worked. For. Every. Student.
Let me regale you with a story of misjudging my relationship with a kid.
I was wandering the room and assessing where kids were at while they had work time and my desk phone rang. One of my spunkier kids said, “can I answer it?” Without thinking my dark and twisted instinct took over and I said, “Who would want to talk to you?”
Guys, I was kidding. Hold your tomatoes! I’m sorry!
The kid instantly started crying.
Holy yikes. Not an easy situation to remedy.
Clearly my sarcasm struck a nerve- I hit on something that he was insecure about. I hurt his feelings when I was trying to do the opposite.
Of course I talked to the kid in the hall and I apologized one hundred thousand times and everything was eventually okay.
But dang. It was an eye opener to me. You can’t be flippantly sarcastic with every kid, all the time, about everything. There is a time and a place and a strategic audience. Sarcasm should only be used to enhance relationships, not hurt them.
I have to work really hard not to be sarcastic
when I’m in a bad mood. It’s too easy to let your true feelings come through in hurtful ways that only make everything worse.
For me, my curriculum of sarcasm is used is used intentionally to bring humor to a situation, to relate to a kid, to lighten the mood. Never to embarrass or hurt a kid.
Knowing your students is so important. Knowing what they need to lift them up and knowing what will tear them down are equally as important. Not every kid has the same personality as you do. As a teacher, you have to be able to relate to all of them- the nice kids and the naughty ones.
As for me, I typically prefer the naughty ones.
When teenagers are still mean and make you cry as an adult
Have you ever talked to a hormonal teenage girl who is insecure because the senior boy she likes talked to you and she is a child so she is jealous of you (forgets that you’re 23, married, and physically/mentally/emotionally/spiritually repulsed by all male gendered individuals who are not your husband) and then she says really mean things and you have to keep your cool and deal out consequences and talk about how damaging rumors can be and then give the “I’m disappointed in you” talk, then you cry about it on your lunch break?
Me neither…..asking for a friend…..
The actual purpose of tests and quizzes
- To make children be quiet all hour
- To threaten children into paying attention when your super engaging lesson that you took one hundred years to plan fails and they are being rotten
- I suppose to assess learning or whatever
Essential Oils in the Classroom A.K.A. Vape Machines
First, self care in the classroom is important. Keep a snack drawer filled with chocolate, hide the good coffee from the children, keep your diffuser on so you can snort lavender when they make you insane, take deep breaths before responding, call your colleague who has prep to come watch your class then take long romantic walks alone to the bathroom.
Second, kids find a way to ruin everything (read: calling my essential oil diffuser a vape machine and trying to smoke it)
(I still love them)
Trying to Reach All Learners in 42 Minutes and Other Impossible Things
I simply do not have time to tell you about everything that goes into teaching.
See what I did there?
When Everything is Impossible but it’s All Worth It
I have no idea if I’m doing any of this right. I’m sure there is plenty I will learn down the road that I have done wrong. But I’m learning. And I love my job you guys. I love all of it, always and forever, amen.