Monday, August 20, 2012

An Education in Education - Part II - Waving the White Flag

Mrs. Kniskern's Class - Fall/Winter 2006
Fourteen years after earning a B.A. in Elementary Education and reconsidering my career choices, I was given a second chance. Maybe I would end up using my college degree after all! Over the years, I had listened (all to often) to my parents saying, "It's such a shame that you decided not to be a teacher." I really needed a job too! The previous fall, Rob and I had finally bought a house on the water, never dreaming that the real estate market was about to crash and burn, and we were carrying two houses. So, I spent the summer of 2006 getting my credentials up-to-date, taking Professional Development courses, and preparing myself to teach Kindergarten. I'll admit, the thought of teaching Kindergarten did not thrill me - I had already learned from spending time in my family's preschool that little kids didn't seem to think they had to listen to me. Again, it may have been a size thing, but I preferred to (optimistically) think that once I was the teacher, everything would be different. Maybe being older, wiser, AND a mom would serve me well and help me to be a better teacher.

The week before school started that year, I had my classroom all set up, I had my first week of lessons planned, and I felt "ready as I'll ever be" to teach Kindergarten. Then, on Thursday of that week, the principal got word that she'd have to surplus a teacher due to low enrollment. I was the low (wo)man on the totem pole, so I would be the one to go. But, a new 1st Grade teacher, who lived far from the school, volunteered to take the surplus, agreeing to be moved to a school closer to her home. So, I still had a job, but not the job that I had spent all summer preparing for. Since there were more first graders than Kindergarteners enrolled for the number of teachers, I would now be teaching 1st Grade, not Kindergarten. Anyone who knows me well knows that I'm not a fan of change, but I knew that I'd better learn to be flexible if I was going to be a teacher. So, in two days, I set up my new classroom, scrambled to write new lesson plans (thanks to my awesome fellow teachers), and got ready to meet my new first graders. I have to say, I had an INCREDIBLE support system at Norcrest. The teachers there were phenomenal and they helped me with EVERYTHING. I couldn't have done it without them.

We had just returned from a Kniskern family reunion in Hawaii, so my classroom theme was "The Spirit of Aloha" (a theme that has stuck with me and has become the basis for my blog). I wanted my classroom to be a place where everyone felt welcome, loved and respected. I really had a great group of students, whose parents were supportive and active in their children's education. I borrowed great ideas (that I had appreciated as a parent) from my fellow teachers who had taught my own children. Every Friday, each student went home with a weekly report including test scores, behavior, whether or not homework had been turned in, and comments from me. Parents loved it.

Thanksgiving Feast
As you can see - I had a lot of great parents!
I wanted everything to be perfect (this was probably my number one flaw as a teacher). I worked from the time I woke up in the morning to the time I went to bed. I'm sure plenty of teachers out there can relate. The first few weeks (especially) were tough. My anxiety definitely kicked in and self-doubt ruled.  With a lot of support from my fellow teachers and my mentor, Karen, by November, I finally found my groove and started to relax a little and enjoy teaching. The Spirit of Aloha permeated my classroom and most students seemed genuinely happy to be there. It was a blessing to see even my "lowest" students (some of whom barely spoke English) show progress and feel pride in themselves. Maybe teaching was right for me after all. 

As luck would have it, right about the time I started feeling comfortable in my role as a First Grade Teacher, fate stepped in. Norcrest Elementary's enrollment was too low to justify the number of teachers. There was nobody lower on the totem pole than me, so just before Winter Break, I would be surplused. They suggested that we wait until my last day to inform my students (and their parents). Dr. Nicholas (Norcrest's Guidance Counselor whose compassion really helped me through some of my darkest days) came into my classroom and told my students that I wouldn't be their teacher after Winter Break. I hadn't expected the reaction. Several students broke down and cried (some I wouldn't have suspected it from). I was very touched and felt so sad to leave them. I knew they would be in good hands with their new teacher, but many had come so far with me, it was hard to leave them. I promised that they would still see me around school, and I kept that promise by continuing my volunteer work throughout that year. 
My class LOVED to dance!
As the end of the school year rolled around, the principal approached me again, letting me know that my spot in first grade would be open again in the fall. Was I interested? Well, I still hadn't found a job. My house in Lighthouse Point was STILL for sale (nearly two years after we put it on the market), and we were planning to add on to our new house (if we ever sold our other one). Again, I said, "Why not?" 

In August of 2007, I moved back into my former classroom. A lot of my "stuff" was still there from the previous year, as I had left it for the teacher (who had moved down from 5th grade) to use. This year should be world's easier, right? I've done this before, I can do it again. I felt relatively prepared. Then, I got my student roster and all that confidence changed. I knew before school even started that I had a "challenging" class. By that I mean, several of my students had known behavioral issues. That, in itself, made me nervous and set my anxiety in motion. I tried to tell myself that maybe it wouldn't be so bad. They were, after all, Kindergarteners last year, and they may have grown up a little over the summer. 

My Classroom Library
Fall 2007
The first day of school came and from that day, I knew that (mentally and emotionally), I was in trouble. Don't get me wrong, I had some wonderful students in my class who were respectful and eager to learn, but I had a few who (it seemed obvious to me) didn't care and were happy disrupting the rest of the class. Classroom Management not being my forte, I felt like I had absolutely no control over my class. I had one student who constantly disrupted my class. He would  (literally) crawl on the floor from his desk to the pencil sharpener (keep in mind, this was a six-year-old) and once he got there, sharpened his pencil for a good three minutes. The same student broke every one of the crayons I had provided for him within the first two days of school. I gave him a second set, and he did the same thing. When I refused to give him a third set, he sat at his desk and wailed, "My crayooooooooooooooooons. My crayoooooooooooooooooons...." over and over for a good 15 minutes while I was trying to teach Math. I started documenting everything this child did in my classroom (like I had all the time in the world). Whenever somebody would come to observe him in my class, he behaved like a normal child. It was truly unbelievable. In addition to that student, I had another who I had to send to the assistant principal because the older brother of one of my students told me that the student had been cursing at his sister in the hall. When I told the child I was sending him to the assistant principal, his response was "Noooooo, Kniskern (that's what he called me!)! I promised my mom I wouldn't say those words again!" (Again, this was a FIRST grader!). Then, there was the student who arrived on the second or third day of school who would show up fifteen minutes late every day, who would sit in group time, curl up in a ball and cry randomly. Now, I'm as compassionate as they come, but how on EARTH was I supposed to teach a class? It wasn't fair for the children who actually wanted to learn. 

As I did the previous year, I had been focusing all of my attention on teaching, working from sunrise to sunset. I was exhausted and my nerves were completely fried. I felt like I had zero control of my class and I felt like a complete failure. I was barely sleeping and my anxiety had gotten so bad by the second week of school (yes, the SECOND week of school) that I was barely eating either. I was a MESS. Honestly, I felt like the living dead. I felt worse than I had ever remembered feeling when my anxiety was at it's high point. I was TERRIFIED that I would have a panic attack in front of my students. I decided to make an appointment with my family doctor, Dr. Cheatham.

How I felt by late August 2007
Now, I love Dr. Cheatham. He is not only a great doctor, but a great listener. He has always taken time to listen to exactly what's bothering me, be it physically or mentally. When I went to see him and he examined me and listened to what I had been going through, he told me that I seriously needed to consider changing careers - forever. He told me that stress is the worst thing possible for a person's health and that I was basically killing myself. I really hadn't expected to hear that. I went home and talked to Rob (who had seen what I'd been going through and the impact it had on my life). He agreed wholeheartedly with Dr. Cheatham. Although, we needed the money, he felt that it wasn't worth the stress that I was putting myself through. So, three weeks in to the new school year, I made the decision to quit teaching for good. I offered to stay until the principal found somebody to replace me, but it was decided that it would be best if I stepped out as soon as possible. She had me notify the parents that week at Open House that I would be leaving. That was probably one of the most humbling, humiliating things I've ever had to do, but I did it...and never looked back. 

Am I proud of quitting? No, I most certainly am not. I know that my decision to leave affected a lot of people - my students, their parents, my fellow teachers, the was HARD! It was probably the most selfish decision I've ever made, but I cannot say (honestly) that I regret it. Do I regret letting people down? Absolutely! But, did I make the right decision for myself? I most certainly did. To this day, Rob tells me that he truly believes that if I had continued teaching, I wouldn't be around today. He is probably right.

VocabularySpellingCityI didn't hate teaching. I actually loved teaching itself - the planning, the creativity, etc. I hated classroom management. I felt completely out of control in front of a group of little kids. Rob thought that maybe I would enjoy (and be good at) directing his family's preschool. Again, I tried it...I didn't love it (and didn't think I was very good at it). It all came back to managing others. I know that I can depend on myself to do things and do them right - I am not comfortable putting that into the hands of others. It's just who I am. While working at the preschool, I had applied for a job as a Content Manager for a company that had created a cool website called Now this job had potential! I could put my education, research and organizational skills to good use, and I wouldn't be in charge of a classroom! Unfortunately, I did not get the job, but a few weeks later, I received a call from the company asking if I would be interested in a contract editing position, writing sentences and definitions for the site. I accepted the job (knowing it was only temporary), and loved it. I was able to combine education (the parts I was good at) with editing (which I loved). It was like a perfect job for me!

Meeting teachers while representing VocabularySpellingCity
at national conventions is one of the best parts of my job!
After a few months, the project was coming to an end. I had shown enough initiative that the company offered to take me on as a regular full-time employee, if I was willing to take a customer support position. Customer support? I had little experience in that, but I do like helping people, so I agreed to give it a try. Turns out, I loved it! It was fun learning the ins and outs of and actually being able to help teachers make their lives a little easier! I gradually transitioned more into social media (which I love) and marketing (which I love less) with VocabularySpellingCity (as it's now known). I've had the opportunity to attend many conventions and conferences around the country. Of course I love visiting new places, but I especially love meeting and interacting with teachers who love the site and who share success stories of how the site has helped their students. It makes the teacher in me smile. 

To this day, I run into parents of my former students who tell me that I was their child's favorite teacher. It really is bittersweet. Just looking at pictures of my class that first year back brought back very happy memories. Even seeing photos of the class that I left (and I'm pretty sure this is the first time in five years I've let myself look at the photos) reminded me that I had some wonderful kids that year too! There is a little regret in knowing that I was never able to live up to my true potential as a teacher because my anxiety and self-doubt held me back. But just knowing that I touched even a few lives in a special way means the world to me. 

I know that I'm not alone in my struggles as a teacher. I have friends who graduated college with me who changed careers and are as happy as can be. I also know a lot of phenomenal teachers who are not only great at what they do, they truly love their profession. God bless them! They deserve all the respect and admiration in the world, and they've certainly got it from me! 

With Love and Aloha ~ Nancy

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