Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Crying Game

Sometimes the adventure gets a little rough (with apologies to MGM).

I wrote this piece a month ago as a private reflection - at the time I was hesitant to share it more widely because it is a little emotional and I didn't want to take the chance my students would see it while I was feeling this way. However the response from the people I showed it to at the time suggests it might be helpful to other new teachers - even if just to realise how normal this sort of reaction is. And I think it's important for balance to show some of the low points as well as the high points of first term of teaching.

One week in March 2011
A shocker of a week - an absolute shocker of a week - the low point: finding myself crying uncontrollably - fortunately alone in my classroom at recess with the door shut. It was the end of a dreadful period with my "challenging class" - their rejection of my attempts to engage with them and the aggressive rudeness of some students finally got to me. I was angry and upset - upset with them, and then upset with myself that I was so upset - what sort of crappy teacher was I? Is this what I gave up a career in IT for? What I studied so hard for two years without pay for? I'm kind of laughing now - at the irrationality and intensity of it ... but it really did feel that way. I just bawled and bawled like a baby for a five minutes. I couldn't go into the faculty staff room - I didn't want anyone to see how low I had gone - or see my red eyes.

The day before, I had another dent in my confidence when the school executive decided not to support an initiative I thought I had their support for. Looking back I can see I didn't take the smart approach of getting genuinely solid support for the idea before it went to the meeting - I had forgotten my skills from the corporate world how to play that game. The combined effect of what felt like a rejection from both the school and the students with weeks' of sleep deprivation meant that by Wednesday night I really was feeling it was "Game Over" for me.

Fortunately I've got some great support in my faculty. After I confessed to my pathetic crying session to two colleagues, they shared their own stories of when they had their "crying time" and gave me support and many practical ideas how to deal with the challenges. As one put it to me : "All teachers go through this stage - and then you can go one of several ways: some teachers face it and work out how to deal with it and go on to be good teachers, others leave the profession, and the worst option, some never deal with it, but stay in the profession". I felt very sorry for myself - but decided I wanted to be in the first category of teachers: work it out.

Two days later I faced the test again: and a tougher test - a double period with the challenging class. Different teaching strategies, I stayed very calm, and ... amazingly .... the students (mostly) worked and (some) learned new material. Two students actually apologised to me for the previous period (they must have seen the start of my breakdown!), and the student who had been the most aggressive was polite and civil to me (one of my colleagues said that was their way of apologising). It went to so well, I actually let the students continue doing maths exercises rather than bring out some games I had planned - save that one for another day! Maybe we can start from this base, and slowly introduce some of those more engaging and deeper learning activities I perhaps foolishly tried on Day One. So the week ended on a high.

So why the uncontrollable flood of tears? Apart from just fear of failure, and the ego hit of being rejected, I really have been resisting the pressure to conform and follow more traditional approaches to the "teacher-student-role" - I didn't want to be the adult who dominates the classroom, who uses well-tried techniques to achieve command and control - techniques that I believe often create barriers and inhibit learning. In a way, those tears were for the loss of that of idealism, tears that I might have been terribly mistaken - and that to survive I would have to become what I don't want to be. What I've learnt though is it's not quite that black-and-white: students and the system itself are not always as open and welcoming to your idealism (naiveté?) as you may hope. So you do have to toughen up - this isn't a game for the weak. Now the challenge is to learn how to be strong and resilient, and carefully use those command-and-control techniques, and "play the system"- without losing the idealism, hope and commitment that are the reasons I want to be a teacher.

It's Saturday morning now - a great night's sleep - and the comfort of knowing I survived my first really challenging week. I'm so grateful for the support and friendship of colleagues. And also a little embarrassed to think of my reaction given I only have one class out of five that is challenging - I can only imagine what it's like for teachers who have maybe four out of five challenging classes - period after period, every day of the week.

I don't think I'll be crying again.

One month later: Looking back on this, part of me is chuckling at how sensitive I was at the time - but another part of me sees the importance of going through the experience.  I will be sharing some of the teacher responses to this story in the next post.


  1. Thank you for sharing this experience in the honest and open way you have. I found it really moving and very positive. It can only serve to help those that are going through the same thing and I'm sure many are. If any students read it they too might learn something and take a moment to reflect... bb

  2. I am really grateful that you posted this experience. It helps to know that I am not the only one who cries after a difficult class and have doubts about being a teacher. I also found it very helpful to go back to what I wrote in my application to MTeach to remind myself why I chose this profession in the first place :) It boosts my spirit up a little.

  3. Give it some time - you really will be laughing when you think back to it!

  4. This is a really interesting page and you are the best teacher i have ever had but even if im a student i still do sort of care and i would have helped you no matter what anyone says dont feel bad you are an AWSOME teacher because you cried brought your teddy bear to school don't own a car and are different from most teachers ...and just some advice post less math facts and more about your feelings and teaching experience i hope you read this and i think you know who i am...