You’ll hear people say you have to learn from your mistakes as a teacher.
It all sounds very encouraging.
And yet, when you ask fellow teachers for stories about mistakes they’ve made, something changes.
The details flatten into generalizations.
A teacher might confide something like, “I relied too much on the textbook early in my career,” or, “I wasn’t student-centered enough in my questioning.” (Whatever that means.)
Even then, they’re quick to add that they’ve since learned to “incorporate the unique perspective each student is bringing to the table as an asset rather than a deficit and understand that students in this generation are digital natives, so . . .”
Buried somewhere deep in that confession, perhaps, is an actual, specific memory of a cell-phone incident handled badly. We’ll never really know.
This is understandable: there are kids involved. If you’re going public with a mistake story, there are good reasons to play it safe.
Unfortunately, the worst moments as a teacher don’t fit into the really-just-a-learning-experience story line.
As a result, a teacher’s worst moments as a teacher can make them feel alone and ashamed—especially new teachers.
Because people will share the bad days they’ve had as teachers, but very few people will tell you about the days they were bad teachers.
But I am going to.
The worst day of my first year teaching happened near the end of October.
At the time, I didn’t know I was right on schedule: Ellen Moir’s well-known study of the phases of a teacher’s first year calls October and November the “Disillusionment Phase.” This is a time when new teachers are exhausted and questioning themselves. It’s too early to start counting down to the end of the year. But it’s too late for a do-over of the beginning. And new teachers are experiencing the fallout of their earliest rookie mistakes.
By October of my own first year, I had made plenty of rookie mistakes.
For one thing, I had fallen way behind on grading and didn’t realize it until the first report card grades were almost due. There were also about five loud kids whose behavior dominated all my attention, and there were other kids who needed my attention badly and weren’t getting enough of it. I was so tired that on Friday afternoons, I would fall asleep on the couch and wake up Saturday morning with my shoes still on. When I was with the kids, I couldn’t be the teacher they needed me to be; my own emotional rubber band was always stretched to its breaking point.
And then came this day near the end of October: I was even more exhausted than usual. My students were even more hyper than usual. And they just would. Not. Be. Quiet.
And—I can’t emphasize this enough—I really needed them to be quiet.
But the only way I could get them to stop talking for even five minutes was to add more math problems to their homework.
I know what you might be thinking here, so let me assure you: I knew I was not supposed to do this.
I had already learned in training that you should never give homework as punishment, because it makes kids hate learning.
So I knew I was making my students hate learning. I also knew that the kids who were misbehaving the most weren’t even going to do the punishment homework. So really, I was only making my best-behaved students hate learning.
But I was just out of ideas. I was desperate. And to be completely honest, I was also angry. WHY COULDN’T THEY JUST STAY QUIET?!
At the end of the day, I sent these fourth-graders home with about 70 long-division problems. Then, on my way back to my classroom, I ran into another teacher in the hallway.
She was carrying a plastic pumpkin.
Full of candy.
And I realized, for the first time that day, that it was Halloween.
On top of all my other failures as a teacher, I had ruined Halloween for a class full of nine-year-olds.
In my car on the way home, I started crying so hard I couldn’t see the road.
I pulled into a Burger King parking lot and sat there for two hours, crying and wondering how these kids got stuck with a teacher like me.
It was a really bad day.
If I could go back to that day, in 2002, and talk to that first-year-teacher version of myself, here’s what I would say: “Young Ms. Elden. . . you don’t know this yet, but one day there’s going to be this thing called Facebook.” And about ten years from now, when your fourth graders are almost twenty, half of the class is suddenly going to find you on Facebook and send you friend requests. You’ll be surprised to find that they seem to have good memories of this year. In fact, several of them will tell you things they remember about your class… and not one of them will mention this moment.
Even if they did, you’d probably be able to keep some perspective on the situation, because at that point you will have been teaching for ten years.
And most days, you’ll be pretty good at it.
You’ll still get reminders that you’re not perfect, and some days you’ll still be exhausted. But you’ll be able to look back on this moment and recognize it as one bad day from early in your career, not a sign that you’re failing as a teacher.
This is what I couldn’t have possibly known back then, and what this year’s beginners may need to hear now: The Disillusionment Phase is no fun, but it can help to think of it as a rite of passage.
Most of the teachers you admire went through a version of the Disillusionment Phase. The teachers who come after you will go through it, too. And, if nobody’s sharing their stories, that’s partly because true worst-day stories can be hard to share.
It was this stretch of my own career—and the shame and secrecy that surrounded it—that eventually inspired me to create the Disillusionment Power Pack. The Power Pack is a free, thirty-day series of emails meant to help new teachers through the toughest month of the year. This automated series, updated each year with feedback from readers, is the closest I can ever get to traveling back in time to reassure that first-year-teacher version of myself.
Then again, if I could really time travel, maybe I’d aim for a few days before this whole story happened and just yell, “HEY, DON’T FORGET! IT’S ALMOST HALLOWEEN!”