I started teaching in January 2000. My first position was in a catholic school teaching 6th-8th grade English Language Arts. I had a great mentor that guided me every step of the way. It was a great experience, but it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. I knew this wasn’t my niche. In fact, it was through this experience that I realized that the middle school grades and I were NOT a good match at all. I ended up leaving at the end of the year for a full-time position in the Cleveland Municipal School District.
I started in a third grade classroom. I can remember being excited about having my own classroom, but also being timid and unsure. Now that I have my own classroom, what do I do? Everything I had learned in my education courses had begun to run together. What’s the curriculum? What about lesson plan writing? And, wait! What about a behavior management plan? Oh my goodness. What in the world have I gotten myself into?
Thankfully, the principal under whom I was hired was incredibly supportive and encouraging. She gave me sound advice about how to get started and paired me with a veteran teacher who was very knowledgeable, down to earth, and didn’t present herself as intimidating in any way. Suddenly, my anxiety lessened. This veteran teacher mentored me the entire year. She was always willing to help me work out my lessons and to make them more fun and exciting. I felt comfortable that this was it. This was where I was supposed to be. That is, until my principal was replaced halfway through the year. What little comfort I had, had now been taken away. To this day, I am still unsure of the reason(s) behind her replacement. What I knew, for certain, was that things would be changing for me and soon. Little did I know how drastically.
Luckily, I made it through the first year and was now beginning my second full year teaching. This time, I was placed in a fourth grade classroom. I had a new team, a new curriculum, and now, a new principal to learn as well. She was a strong woman, not a flaw by any means. She communicated to the students that there would be no ruckus tolerated. She instituted the “zero tolerance” plan from day one. She was straightforward with parents, although her approach was often times rough around the edges. Likewise, my team consisted of two knowledgeable and very creative teachers. In fact, I remember sharing with them wishing I had inherited a creative, artistic gene, but, my plain Jane ways would have to suffice. They appeared to be willing to help me learn the new curriculum and helped me obtain materials that I would need to complete my lessons effectively. I thought things might work out after all. Yep. That’s what I thought. Unfortunately, things became very bad for me very quickly.
I must admit that I have suppressed many of my memories of this time because those years ultimately became hell on earth, but I will share as accurately as my memory allows. My first hint that these years would become a tormenting thorn in my side was during one of our first staff meetings. I remember the principal coming in and acknowledging that our school was in a state of academic emergency, but stating something to the effect of, “…whatever happens, I’m NOT going down with this ship! That you can be certain of!” What the…! Did she really just say that? Maybe my hearing is failing me, I thought to myself. She couldn’t have made that statement. I could have settled for my failed hearing at that moment, only she made it a point to repeatedly declare this frequently and with unyielding conviction.
Over the next two years, she continuously challenged everything I did and every move I made. Even worse, the anxieties and insecurities regarding my knowledge base, instructional practices, and delivery, which I thought I was sharing in confidence among my team, I later found was being shared with my principal. I knew confidentiality had been broken because my principal would reiterate things I shared with my team [in private] in conversation, sarcastically and humiliatingly, directly and indirectly. She would exclude me from professional development inservices meant for the entire fourth and fifth grade teams. Even more than that, would talk about how ineffective I was behind my back, allowing the other teachers (Yes! My TEAM!) to share these unwarranted conversations with me upon their return.
I couldn’t understand what I had done to deserve this treatment. I just wanted to learn what good teaching was all about. I wanted to be the best teacher I could be. That’s all. There are so many other things I could note, but that would then make this post a griping session and thus, counterproductive to my purpose. I will share, however, this one last memory with you. During what was probably my last evaluation with her, I shared with her my aspirations of one day becoming an administrator and wanting opportunities to learn as much as I could in order to reach that goal. Her response was very cold but not surprising. “You barely make an effective teacher, let alone making a good administrator.” Nice, huh? She added that the only reason she challenged me and pushed me so hard was because she was trying to encourage me to become a “shining star”. She was trying to help me. Really? She said this to me all the time, although she would never share with me any suggestions of how to become this bright star she desired me to be. The only thing she offered was that it was my job to figure out how to do that.
For the next two years, I went to work with a headache, left work with a headache, and worked at home hour after hour with a headache, trying to “figure it out”; how to shine with no intelligible feedback received from anyone. I was in a downward spiral, moving quickly, until the best thing that could happen to me, did happen to me. I received my pink slip in November 2002. I was being laid off at the end of the year and had decided I was done with this. I was leaving education. My principal, this educational leader (for lack of a better word….or maybe I should say, alternative to a more appropriate word), had abused me mentally, verbally, and emotionally to my breaking point. My hopes and dreams, successfully crushed, broken into a million pieces. The insecurities and lack of confidence I started teaching with now multiplied ten times over. Maybe she was right. Maybe teaching wasn’t my thing after all.
Thank goodness for family! My mother, a retired teacher, and my wonderful husband discouraged me from leaving teaching. They know more than anyone how much I adore children and how much I could enjoy teaching. I hesitantly adhered to their counsel. Soon thereafter, I attended a minority job fair. Interestingly enough, the longest line in the place was for job openings in the Cleveland Municipal School District. Imagine that! Well, I certainly did NOT intend to go back there, so…I went to the shortest line in the place, Painesville City Local School District, where I have been teaching now for 10 years.
Yep! I stuck with teaching. I was hired as a fourth grade teacher, the second fourth grade teacher in the school. My mentor teacher was AWESOME! We are close friends even to this day. She helped me more than I had ever been helped in the past. Not only did she help me learn the curriculum and the procedural processes of the school and district, she also taught me time management and stress management. Someone cared about my well being? What the heck??? And my principal, this time a man, checked in on me often. Very often. He reminded me a lot of my dad. He encouraged me to interact and ask my coworkers questions regarding instructional practices and procedures before coming to him. I could respect that. He wanted us to be responsible and accountable for our own growth. Very similar to the expectations we hold our students to, right? The difference here, was that if I did have a question or concern no one else could answer…he could and would provide instructional direction so that I would learn and grow professionally. Year after year, I experienced the same thing. Every administrator and most every teacher I interacted with was willing to help me and wanted to see me grow, succeed, and acquire my ultimate goal. Rest assured being a principal it is NOT (thanks to my earlier experience in teaching) and I’m absolutely okay with that. My passion is still in administration, however, my focus is now on teacher leadership and professional development.
Painesville City helped me rebuild myself into a confident, secure teacher and now, teacher leader. I started by simply regaining my confidence. Then, I began slowly allowing myself to experience leadership roles in committees and also decided to pursue my doctoral degree at the same time in, of all things, Teacher Leadership. This teaching thing has me feeling pretty darn good now. I received a new position as a School Improvement Coach, which gave me a great deal of leadership responsibilities. I really enjoyed that position because it was during my time in this position that I realized, without any uncertainty, that being a school principal was not for me. I wanted to work with teachers. I wanted to teach teachers about best practices in education and school improvement. I wanted to motivate and support teachers in their growth. I wanted to provide teachers with everything I didn’t receive in those first three years of my teaching career. Eliminated after only two and a half years, the loss of that position has not deterred me from continuing to pursue leadership roles for my school and district, as well as starting my own business (symbolically named “Transitions”) as an Educational Consultant as of the first of this year. I am no longer broken. I have been rebuilt.
I assert to you that true educators absolutely know that teaching is their passion. I also submit that there are those few that are in the field for three paid breaks a year, to include summers off. You know that’s true and you’re probably thinking about that coworker right now. I’ve always known that teaching is where I was supposed to be. If you know, without a doubt that you are working within the realm of your passion, don’t ever allow anyone, teacher or administrator, berate you, your practice, or your intentions. There will be times when something occurs during your day to day routine that will make you feel as if you have reached your breaking point, which is the reason I am writing this particular post. Something during my recent post evaluation conference triggered memories from my first three years of teaching. It was nothing my current principal said during the conference. Everything she saw and rated, I agreed with. While it’s been difficult to pinpoint, I believe it may have been triggered by my lack of knowledge in a newer process. I felt I had failed as a teacher leader and it broke me down into that insecure, timid first year teacher I thought I had left behind.
I assure you, my fellow educators that it IS possible to rebuild a broken, beaten down spirit. This by no means suggests that we will not become unsure, unstable, and fall. We will. It is the nature of our ever-changing field. We are always changing, learning, and growing. What it does mean, and what I have learned through my traumatizing experience, is that we are resilient professionals. We have the great ability to bounce back and become stronger than ever when provided with adequate support and resources. Realize that the implications of that may have altering affects on our students thinking and willingness to become successful individuals. We tell them never to give up, to keep trying, and to redefine their future. Let us lead by example, knowing that when we have been broken into millions of pieces…we can pick up those pieces. Protect them from being crushed or tampered with any further. Reorganize them in order to create a stronger foundation. Be confident about what you know and what you continue to learn. Redefine them in order to identify your true purpose in your classroom, in your school, and in this field. You’re here for a reason. This job is not for everyone. Reevaluate the way you think about teaching and learning. Changing your thinking can affect your students thinking as well. Remember, there is power in positive thinking! After you’ve done all of that, then, rebuild a stronger, more defined and effective you! I promise you, YOU are worth the fight!
Dr. Kelly Bullock Daugherty
No longer broken. Rebuilt and getting stronger!