My life as a first-year…Teacher

June 29, 2007, 8:00 PM UTC

The second installment of our first-year stories, this time from a young woman who spent the first full-time year of her teaching career in an urban charter school. I knew her years ago, when we were both starry-eyed students, so it’s a big (but wonderful) leap to think of her with students of her own. Names have been changed, of course, but it’s a story worth reading if you’ve ever thought about this particular calling. And even if you haven’t. Have a great weekend, and keep these coming.


I got my first full-time teaching job in November, which should have been the first warning sign. I figured the mid-semester opening meant that the Fates approved of my sudden departure from graduate school. It didn’t occur to me to ask what had happened to the presumably minor character who had taught those classes in September and October.

The actual first warning sign was the multi-page printout taped to the wall of the main hallway. It listed every student’s name followed by a series of numbers — 3, 8, 11, 32. Merits and demerits, weekly and cumulative. The principal explained, with real pride, that discipline in his school was organized. In each classroom, he had posted a detailed inventory of possible behaviors and their point values, positive or negative; teachers received a tally sheet for keeping score during each period, like baseball statisticians. Too many demerits meant detention, a call home, or suspension. Even worse penalties — a second or third year in the seventh grade — awaited those who didn’t pass a series of monthly skills tests.

The idea was that if the kids knew the consequences of their actions, they’d naturally act more wisely — which, according to the behavior list, mostly meant be quiet, do the work, pass the tests. And if my kids could have done those things, they would have. But more than half of the seventh graders in my remedial math class had learning disabilities or emotional disorders or both, plus more than their fair share of family problems, plus seven years in some of the most chaotic and ineffective classrooms in this country, plus two months of doing more or less nothing during the periods that were now mine. Plus me, and in those early months, all I knew how to do was keep score.

My kids knew math the way a Guantanamo detainee might know English: in odd chunks and fragments, largely misunderstood, deployed for mere survival. (Two weeks into a unit on multiplying fractions: “Wait… 2 1/2, that’s two times a half, that’s one, right?”) From their perspective, passing the tests was impossible; avoiding suspensions seemed less necessary than avoiding the humiliation of doing math they didn’t understand and the boredom of watching other people do math they didn’t understand. They put their heads down and slept; they slid out of their chairs to crawl on the floor; they banged softly on their desks, in rhythm with one another, a not-half-bad improvised percussion section. I was thrilled, in December, when a sometimes-belligerent young man suddenly sat tall in his chair, looked me in the eye, and stretched up his hand, just like in the teacher-recruitment posters. Finally, something had clicked for him, and he gestured eagerly when I called his name: “Miss, your boobs are HUGE!”

I gave him three demerits.

The turning point came when the special-education teacher, Miss Ruby, started working with me. I’d been warned about her by the other faculty members: She was abrasive and demanding. She always took the kids’ side. She dumbed down the lessons rather than maintaining high standards. All of these accusations were true. Miss Ruby fought like hell for every kid’s right to come to class and learn whatever he or she didn’t know. For my students, how to sit still, how to read the directions, how to learn their times tables. It was true, she wasn’t teaching the seventh-grade standards — but at least she was teaching them something, not just hanging around documenting their continued failure to learn.

Her classroom, down the hall from my own, hummed along peacefully, punctuated with tiny, specific successes and corrections: Mary started the assignment right away, by herself, without being asked. Way to go! Aaron forgot himself and banged on the table; Miss Ruby asked him what he could do instead. He suggested squeezing a soft toy, and Miss Ruby beamed. Keisha showed all her work on a long-division problem. Could she help her partner do the same?

I shouldn’t have been shocked, but I was. When they had really learned what to do and how to do it — they did it. The merits and demerits could make a tangible record of their progress, but they were beside the point. Like people everywhere, like their teacher, like me, the kids just did the best they could. And their test scores inched upward — tiny, specific gains, but consistent.

Miss Ruby forced me to plan for actual instruction. What did I want the students to be able to do at the end of the unit? What could they do now? What could they learn each day? How would I know whether they’d learned it or not? If they hadn’t, what else could I try? Half the goals had to do with math; the rest were just about being in school. Each merited its own lesson, discussion, review. At the end of our coolest unit together, our students ran their own restaurant in class, with a menu the kitchen staff had helped them assemble. We’d practiced using decimals to calculate total, tax, tip, and change; also speaking respectfully, correcting one another’s mistakes gently, asking for clarification if necessary. Over my desk hangs the group shot of all the kids grinning in their silly chefs’ hats. Two of the boys are pointing to themselves: Check out what we did!

Miss Ruby still teaches at that school, but I left. I spent the next three years at the sort of elite, prestigious private school whose high standards we were meant to emulate; ironically, the spirit of that beautiful and exclusive campus was much more like Miss Ruby’s, focused first of all on letting each child grow at her own pace. This year, I’m going back to a free charter school, open by lottery to any kid in town. I like to think I’m a better teacher now than I was in that first year out of college. I know it’s a better school. And I feel hopeful. Whatever they don’t know or can’t do or mess up — that’s not a problem, that’s my job.

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