The First Lesson I Really Learned as a First-Year Public School Teacher,
Though the Moral does not strike me for almost Thirty Years.
(subtitled, The Seven Simple Words: How having been labeled “INEFFECTIVE” as a young teacher would have stilled the ripples unfolding that will reverberate for generations.)
Recently, the New York State United Teachers did a couple features on my work in the classroom. If you have any friends or acquaintances who would like to pass some of my musings on to some the younger teachers of the world, even the pre-service students, feel free. It’s time to let them know that it’s a journey, after all. The following post is an excerpt from a draft of my second book, which will be published someday after my first book is actually published. (See more at the bottom.) Sigh.
Gotta teach, after all.
I got to ride the special bus.
Pulsing red and blue lights ricochet off the subterranean tunnel walls from which our bus is emerging, announcing to the citizens of our nation’s capital that our convoy of VIPs is arriving, like conquering heroes of old returning home after a great victory. And in a real sense, that is what we are. But Wow.
What the hell is a TEACHER doing here on this bus?
Washington traffic in all directions grinds to a dead halt as our convoy glides through intersections and sails down boulevards with a full Capitol police escort, every single crossroads blocked by police cars. We are on our way to the national ceremony at the United States Capitol Rotunda, and it won’t do for us to be late. The motorcade slows as it approaches Capitol Hill, and the three buses slowly maneuver and dock like lumbering giants at the sidewalk entrance. The pistons blast and the buses drop gently. The engines are cut. The doors open.
We have arrived. Springtime in Washington.
It is a beautiful morning, and the Capitol Police dismount from their escort motorcycles and walk over, motioning and instructing for occupants to disembark and follow the guides. Emerging slowly into the warm April sunlight are the guests of honor, many of whom step down gingerly, clutching canes or holding the arm of a relative or friendly government escort. Nearly all sport caps festooned with pins and patches. Here, now, nearly sixty-five years after the last battle was fought, the liberators of the concentration camps are returning, many for the first time since World War II ended.
One hundred twenty one old soldiers, eyes sparkling as they pose for photographs, are escorted slowly through the entryway of the grand building. A single teacher follows the veterans on this beautiful spring day. And as far as I know, I am the only high school teacher in the country this year to be invited, specifically, to be with them. I know some of them, and several of the survivors of the Holocaust here today, on a very personal basis.
You see, we are walking into the Capitol Rotunda for the annual Days of Remembrance Ceremony, commemorating those lost in the Holocaust and today especially honoring the liberators who put a stop to it. I am here because I teach the subject of history to teenagers; I am here because in my lessons and projects with students, we have been making the difference to defeat the legacy of Hitler in the classroom. And we honor what these men did as teenagers, and more. We have made our own mark and changed hundreds of lives in literally reuniting the survivors with the men who actually saved them. Six decades later.
Passing through security and now inside the Rotunda, I am amazed at its beauty but also at the intimacy that emanates from under the hallowed dome as the veterans and survivors, politicians and officials process in. Scaffolding with TV crews and narrow towers with klieg lights illuminate the area, and as the ceremony begins, I am one hundred feet from General David Petraeus, who is about to address these old soldiers. The haunting sound of the Marine Corps violinist serenades the gathering, carrying our thoughts to the victims of the Holocaust whom we remember today. The names of the liberating Army units are called out from the dais as each division is formally recognized, their unit colors hoisted aloft on cue and paraded in.
Yes I am here, amid the pomp and ceremony, to commemorate the victims, the survivors and today, these soldiers:
Me, a high school teacher who began his career hoping for a pink slip, an easy way out so that he could simply walk away from this profession.
“What’s your policy on homework, Mr. Anders?”
I’m leaning over the kid’s desk, hands placed firmly on either side. In suitcoat and tie, I’m trying to make myself into an imposing presence for my first high school history class. I’d just attempted to collect a handful of written assignments from 25 non-committed sixteen year olds, and now I’m wondering in desperation how to deal with the poor showing in my very first week of public school teaching. I am the third teacher that these kids have had this year, having just started last week, two days before the Thanksgiving break.
Should I assign the group of them to detention after school? Or choose one to make an example out of him? I decide on the latter.
Lenny Anders, a tall long-haired ‘disengaged’ student with a black motorcycle jacket, lifts his head up long enough to answer coolly:
“Not to do it.”
Clunk. Lenny’s head returns to the desktop.
The class laughs, points, and hoots! Eyes roll, heads shake. Lenny does not even move in response to all the commotion-he’s still face down. And I’m left flapping in the breeze with my rookie mistake; how in the world would I make it until June? A very real question.
I’m 26, and I am on my own, but living back at home. A dual irony, really, as not only had I proclaimed defiantly (upon graduation from high school) to my [teacher] father that I would be leaving Hudson Falls FOR GOOD , but when queried about life after high school, I also puffed out my chest and exclaimed “I don’t know, but I certainly won’t be a teacher!” The desired effect was achieved by the angry teen; the wound was deep, and the twist of the knife distinct. I smugly went off to college, having no game plan or clue.
Okay, so what I told my father did not turn out to be the words to live by. Here I am, eight years after high school, on the other side of the desk, teaching the same subject as the old man. Living out of his garage, no less.
It’s my first few weeks back in my old high school, and I’m pushing what feels like a shopping cart through the crowded hallways, with lesson props, books, and marked-up papers to turn back, all akinder. I’m shuffling from classroom to classroom, like an itinerant peddler of obscure vials of “wisdom’ and ‘knowledge’ that nobody seems to want, and I don’t dare turn my back to the chalkboard. I have discovered that a new teacher is also a magician, and can, with this act, make pens, paperballs, and sometimes books fly and illustrate Newton’s Laws of Motion of their own accord. Maybe it’s me, but when I walk into the classroom, these students seem to rub their hands together in hormonal homicidal glee. To many of them, I am next on the hit parade, hopefully out by Christmas.
That’s power, and they have it. How I am hating these immature young savages. How they delight in torturing me.
But enough is enough. I make up my mind to do something about it. I hit on another idea. I’ll tell Johnny/Suzie in my gruffest voice, before the entire class, ‘I NEED TO SPEAK TO YOU AFTER THE LESSON‘- that should settle them all down! I’ll make an example out of one, so the kids will look at one other with a mixture of terror and relief that it was not them summoned after class! I open my mouth to commence the New Regime, but even before the bell rings, they rise noisily and obliviously to my impending reign of terror and move as a herd for the door. And the teacher-owner of the classroom comes in anyway, clanking his briefcase and fishing for his keys to unlock his closet, as he does EVERY SINGLE DAY to interrupt the end of my lesson. I give up. I have to be off to another classroom myself anyway, to begin the torture anew. And when I do drop the hammer later, I have my life threatened in front of the class by an older student. The office suggests strongly that I go to the police station to ‘swear out a complaint’. A what?
For the first time in my life I’m sitting in a police station, in the first month of my public teaching career, trying to balance in a wobbly chair with stainless steel ankle-shackles affixed to the legs, listening to the officer clack out his report on a typewriter .
This is why I became a teacher?
I feel SO alone.
Sitting on the bed, I’m chain-smoking four cigarettes in a row in the twenty minutes before school in the room off my parents’ garage before heading off to work-to a place that, you will recall, in a previous existence, I swore an oath I would never return to.
So let’s review, shall we? The position I had filled a quarter-way through the year had had this history. Would more blood flow? Does everyone in the school expect it to be mine? Another professional acquaintance comments, only half-jokingly I think, “We want to see if you suck and how long YOU will last.” (A feel-good fuzzy memory, looking back.)
In desperation, I am living day-by-day. I’m banging out lesson plans, notes, and tests nightly after dinner on the typewriter for hours at a stretch. I try calling parents, but there is no privacy at my house and surely it is a sign of weakness- after all, the old man doesn’t have to call parents.
As I struggle to survive in my first year, a tight budget year when layoffs are being presented as a distinct possibility, I secretly pray that a pink slip in my mailbox will end my misery and I will have an excuse to move on to another occupation- I have been trained in the restaurant business, after all, and people always have to eat. How I remember the anguish of a colleague in another department- I shared an “office” with her in the bowels of the building- when she got her pink slip and burst into tears and pointed at me and wailed aloud that “it should have been you, you don’t even want to be here”.. and I kept my silence, because I knew she was right. She got the slip, and I did not. I did not realize that my private anguish showed so much; I was afraid to talk to people about the troubles I faced each day in the classroom. And now I could add GUILT to the top of the heap.
What the hell am I doing here? I did not know it then, but I was DROWNING.
On schedule, the principal did his classroom observation for my official evaluation later that year, and a charitable description of the event would be ‘the great train wreck’. The ninth graders were flirting with each other, joking, and throwing stuff as I tried to bring order and conduct the lesson. At our post-observation conference, the boss leaned in and said, “You really did not have control, did you?” Eyes beginning to well, I slowly shook my head. He paused, looked me in the eye, smiled, and crumpled up the report he had written for my file and threw it in the waste can in front of me. He settled back in his chair, laced his fingers behind his head, and said seven words: When you are ready, let me know. A soul-crushing weight suddenly lifted. And looking back now, I see that those words had consequences.
Maybe this man saw something in me that I obviously could not see in myself. Nearly 30 years later, it’s clear to me that I was suffering from what I’ll call ‘first-year public teacher shell-shock tunnel vision’.
The pink slip eluded me that year, and I was too gutless to resign and end my misery. So imagine my dread as the new school year approached. I saw my roster and every shred of my being constricted and tightened. The same torturers were to be in my classes. AGAIN.
Then, a funny thing happened. The kids were a ‘summer away’ older. And they were genuinely glad to see me. I had survived, and as the year went on, we all grew together. The one thing I had going for me in the classroom was that I was a good storyteller, and I actually knew a lot about the history that I was supposed to be teaching students. I was enthusiastic, I was passionate. They started to listen. Over time, I became their class adviser, orchestrated their prom, took them on their senior trip. We survived together. They went on, some even to become teachers, and others today make many times my salary. I even had their kids in class (much better behaved, actually). We built a foundation and ventured forth on to great things.
Back home, in the same high school where I secretly prayed for that layoff slip years before, kids are in the auditorium tuning into the live broadcast and looking for their teacher in the gathering in the Capitol Rotunda as it is broadcast live to the nation. In Washington, after the ceremony, there is a text message from my Congressman’s aide. The Congressman would like to meet me in his office, NOW, if possible. He is well aware of my invitation to Washington-that a small town high school history project has has altered thousands of lives throughout the world.
So, the Moral of the First Lesson comes to me nearly thirty years after the occurrence:
I nearly left the teaching profession. With seven simple words, my principal threw me a lifeline. Where I would be today if, all those dark days ago, someone had slapped an INEFFECTIVE label on me to fulfill a political objective (‘Too many effective teachers, here, in New York State. Baloney! Find me some ineffective teachers. PRONTO!’) But today, given the proposals in New York State and elsewhere, it’s game on for the witchhunt of the people who devote their waking hours with the youth of our nation.
What if I had been labeled a failure before I even got out of the gate? “INEFFECTIVE, Year One” would have been all the push that I would have needed to exit the classroom forever- that simple push, over the cliff.
I KNOW I would have left the profession.
Maybe I’d have more money than I do now.
But I would not have more wealth.
Because NONE of this wonderful stuff in my life, or my impact on other people’s lives would have ever, ever happened.
Maybe it’s time to nurture and cherish our young teachers, rather than tossing them under that next bus.
Matthew Rozell teaches history at his alma mater in Hudson Falls, New York. His first book, The Twilight of Living Memory: Reflections of the World War II Generation from Hometown, USA is due out this spring. His second book, in the works, is on the power of listening, teaching, and remembering the Holocaust.