My first year of teaching
I was about 4 years older than my oldest students
. In the beginning I loved my subject matter and enjoyed a certain amount of success
with my students. My teaching situation was tolerable, and I was relatively happy
. I didn’t know then that before school
released, I would realize the lowest depths of the worst year of my life.
It didn’t even take until October for me to start noticing things about myself that really bothered me. I think it started with the dread that filled my body on Sunday evenings. I knew that I would have to get up in the morning and go to school, and that idea physically and emotionally affected me in a way I had never experienced before. It was like a worry that invaded my entire body and caused my muscles to stiffen. Worse, the self-consciousness of the worry disturbed me even more. I have always had exceptionally high standards for myself, and I was disappointed in myself that I felt this way. I started to slide slowly down a slope on which I couldn’t find traction.
My apartment got messy. I left papers all over the place, and though I never drank too much all at once, empty beer bottles collected on every flat surface. I stopped ironing my clothes, and stopped cooking for myself. At school, I never prepared for class. I left class prep until the last moment, then delayed it until class started, or didn’t prepare at all. I became skilled at giving class spontaneously.
A dark cloud started following me around. I frowned almost constantly and was unpleasant to people. I was impatient and frustrated by minutiae. I started seeking out things to be unhappy about. I sought out the opportunity to detest simple tasks that otherwise could have been pleasant. I despised daily repetitive tasks, so my discontent became habit.
I found myself avoiding my responsibilities as a teacher. Some classes I just stopped teaching altogether, and the ones that I could manage to not attend, I skipped. I stopped doing paperwork, and anything required of me by the administration I ignored.
Sarcasm was my friend. I would guess that I used sarcastic language about twice as much as I used supportive language; with high school students, that was terminal. Of course, my classroom discipline suffered tremendously. I clashed with individual students, was held in contempt by others, and was just pitied by some. I discovered that no matter how much I loved my subject matter, discipline is the first and most important thing. Once I lost that, nothing else mattered.
Then it started to get really dreadful. The pervasive anxiety that had been reserved for Sundays pushed back to Saturdays, and then even Friday nights. I started using profanity in front of my students, and in a couple cases I used it toward them. I made an unacceptably rude gesture at a student. I started to let myself begin thinking genuinely violent thoughts. I’m shocked and embarrassed to remember that I fantasized illness on members of my own family. I hoped for anything that would allow me to leave my teaching commitment unfulfilled. I even considered doing harm to myself.
I stopped eating, and didn’t sleep without seemingly continuous dreams about school all night. I worried about school before bed, dreamt about school all night, and woke up thinking about and dreading going to school. The mania devoured my life.
Instead of blaming everyone and everything for my unhappiness, I blamed myself. I thought there was nothing that was happening to me that wasn’t my fault. The constant self-reproach made me even more and more despondent. My life was a huge snowball of irritation, unhappiness, and self-loathing.
Then, I think, I began to see the end of the tunnel. I had some help from a family that recognized the trouble I was in, and their love probably saved my life. I resolved to quit my job at the end of the school year, and that decision helped me be slightly more at peace. I was still a bad teacher, still ignored personal grooming, and still hated the idea of doing anything more than the minimum possible to avoid getting fired. The “bare minimum” in public education is extraordinarily trivial, so I wasn’t doing much. Publicly my students did well, but the disparity between public success and authentic success made me even more miserable.
In the end, I limped through the last few months of school, trying not to upset anybody so much that they would confront me. The only people that even bothered to challenge me were some of my students. I’m embarrassed about how relieved I was to get to the end of the year, and I was happier in the last week of school than even the most jaded of my students.
There are things here that I’ve never been able to tell anyone, and this is the closest I’ve ever come to describing what “went wrong” in that year. Sometimes people encourage me to tell them everything, but to my ear it just sounds like complaining. I hope it didn’t here, because that wasn’t my intention.
The postscript to my story is that, after several years out of education, I decided to give it another try. I’m now in my third year of my return, and have been very successful and happy.