They cry in their cars. They live in fear of cellphone videos. They haven’t given up on teaching, but they wonder just how bad things will get, what new laws will affect their work, how thin their ranks will become.
For 45 minutes on a recent afternoon, four novice educators shared their thoughts with an audience of teaching interns at a Hillsborough County training session. The topics ranged from parents who are in denial about their children’s work habits to safeguarding their limited free time.
The interns heard from Michelle Both, a social studies teacher at Tampa’s Wharton High; Ashanti Foresyth, an English teacher at Wharton; Caroline Schanck, a second grade teacher at Shore Elementary in Tampa; and Roberta Smallwood-Nazario, a special education teacher at Davidsen Middle School in Westchase.
Here is some of what they said:
What do you wish you had learned in college that would have helped you as a new teacher?
Schanck: “I went into my first year of teaching feeling like I had to have it 100% down. How to collect data, how to sort through it, how to group students, how to run centers, how to make an impact, and it was incredibly overwhelming. You’re not supposed to know it all. Lean on the people around you.”
Foresyth: “I wish I knew that I could reach out to others about the more personal things that students tend to ask. You’re kind of shocked at some of the things that they say or reveal to you.” She now consults with guidance counselors.
Both: “I have close to 200 kids and there are more than enough days when they come in and I say, ‘You know what? We just need to talk about what’s going on in your life.’ Because we’re not only content teachers. We are there to help the kids mold into what they’re going to be in the future. Not every day is going to be a full, 10-page lesson.”
How do you maintain a work-life balance?
Both: “At first, I almost killed myself doing all this stuff. I had to make multiple preps a day, multiple lessons. And I looked at the veterans in my department and wondered, ‘Wow, they don’t do any of this stuff.’ You learn how to use your planning time. I use an interactive notebook so I don’t have to collect papers a lot. It’s important to have a social life, even if you’re hanging out with people from your department. Because if you don’t, you lose a little bit of your humanity.”
Foresyth: She started teaching dance to the step team and majorettes. “I made what I like to do part of my career. When I go home, I’m in front of a mirror dancing. I’ll go, ‘Oh, my girls can do that.‘ Gravitating towards the things I was already interested in helped me with that balance. It doesn’t really feel like work.”
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Schanck: “You have to set that boundary and you have to stick to it. I do not work past 6:30 on weekdays. I don’t mind putting in a couple of hours on a Saturday morning (when her children are with their father). If I have plans with my friends one night — and I do try to make plans with friends at least once a week — that’s my free time. Use your planning time wisely so you don’t have to bring it home with you. Because that’s when work becomes a headache and you start to kind of hate what you’re doing.”
Smallwood-Nazario: “When I’m planning a lesson, I might find three or four other things that I can pull together to have for next Friday or next Tuesday, or if one of my students doesn’t want to enter the room and is in the hallway on the floor. I also lean on veteran teachers. You don’t know everything, and that’s OK. I don’t know everything. I have four children (at home) and I still don’t know everything. Have a cutoff. I leave by 5:30. I go home, I have dinner, put my kids to bed, go for a walk. Then I might log back in at night, but it’s on my time.”
When you are discouraged or overwhelmed, how do you re-center yourself?
Both: “Cry. Seriously, you always have to have a teacher buddy because it happens all the time. If you bottle up those emotions, you might portray it out in a way you don’t mean. You just have to figure out what works best for you. Mine is going over to my teacher bestie and just ranting.”
Foresyth: “Definitely teacher besties. I had two ‘teacher moms.’ I went to them for everything and sometimes they would come to me. It’s scary how they get to know when you’re overworked and overwhelmed. And then transparency. I say (to students), ‘Hey guys, I’ve had a very rough week. I need to sit in silence.’ Or ‘We need to have a mental health day. Let’s go play kickball, let’s take a walk, it’s an easy lesson today.’ They really appreciate that and I’ve noticed the behavior changes as well.”
Schanck: “I told my class one day, ‘I’m sorry, but you have to keep the noise level down a little bit, I have a headache.’ When they came back from lunch, one of the students had a banana. He said, ‘I know that potassium helps with headaches.’”
Nazario: “For me, it’s other teachers in my department that I can lean on, and it’s also telling myself this will be here when I get back tomorrow. So I won’t take my computer home. I find it best to know my limits. We don’t have to be perfect. We don’t have to have it all together, we just have to appear that we do.”
How are things different since the pandemic?
Nazario: “Kids are not as connected. They’re very detached. So I find a lot of group work. Getting them to work together and getting them to talk and to collaborate is important in my room. It helps build a team and then that spills out to the hallway. They might talk more with their peers at lunch or in PE or music so they’re not all closed in.”
Schanck: “There is a lot more fear in the young ones I teach, which makes sense because they were basically told that the world is ending and you’re going to die if you get this virus, stay away from people. A lot more separation anxiety. I’ve noticed a lot of crying and not really typical second grade behavior. We just have to love them a little more, remind them that we won’t let anything bad happen to them — even if we don’t know if we can. It’s nice to hear when you’re seven.”
Foresyth: “For me it would be the quality of work, that was a big change. The kids who were online got really creative with what they could do with technology and not all the time was the work they submitted actually theirs. A lot of times it was easy for kids to submit mediocre work and still come out with a 100% A. And now you come back and what was an A in COVID times is now a C or a low B in present times and they’re upset with that.”
Both: “What Ashanti said. You get a lot of kids that did expect those grades because teachers just said, ‘You submitted it, let me give you an A.’ Since I teach higher-level classes, I have a lot of kids that shouldn’t really be in there because they didn’t deserve that A last year, or two years ago. We’re seeing the trickling down effect. I start wondering: Are the kids not doing well because it’s me? Or are they not taking notes or are they not studying because they never had to?”
Education is a hot button issue politically. What are you optimistic about and what are you concerned about?
Both: “I am excited for the future kids coming in because every year they always teach me something. I guess one thing I’m scared of, especially teaching social studies, is that I say the wrong thing. There are so many times that people that are in charge are changing laws or banning stuff that I don’t want to say the wrong thing and either upset a kid, or I will get my picture posted online saying I’m racist or something, and I’m just trying to teach the stuff. So I try to keep my voice out of political (positions) in the classroom. But I teach social studies. My kids always try to guess.”
Foresyth: “With each year, each group of kids that come in, there’s always these new bright ideas. Big personalities, new programs. What scares me is similar as well, just this digital age. The kids are very quick to pull out a phone, they are very quick to twist your words, and you just have to be cautious with what you say.’’
Nazario: “The shortages are a factor — not only with teachers, but also with paraprofessionals. We rely on paraprofessionals (in special education), and it is very challenging to get them in the door. That is scary because we have to make sure our students are safe. Another thing that scares me is social media. There’s a lot of garbage out there.”
Schanck: “I’m excited to finish my first year of teaching. What’s scary is the number of teachers leaving the profession. I don’t know what that looks like for our career. All I can do is keep showing up and doing my job. I try not to think too much about things like that because it’s what I chose to do and I love it.”