How to Survive Teaching, When You’re Down and Out, But Not Ready to Quit Just Yet!

This idea came to me many years ago while I was still teaching. I did write some things down but I never did much with it. This is just some of the things I remember.

The teaching profession for me was a “calling” and I wanted to be a teacher from an early age. I remember that as a young child, I used to teach my brother and a neighbor in the back yard. They were some of my early “victims.”

When I was in high school I became interested in working with disabled children. A friend of my sister asked me to volunteer in a play group for children with brain injury. This is before LD (Learning Disability) was created. I not only got hooked but took over from my sister’s friend when she went to college in finding other volunteers to work with the children. I taught swimming and developed an activity involving movement and poetry.

I also went to Pinsly Day Camp in Tarrytown and as a teen I became a counselor. Of course, I did my fair share of babysitting “back when.” I started at 50 cents an hour. As the late Erma Bomback, stated women who did a lot of babysitting didn’t end up having children. This was the same with me. I knew what to expect and it was not something I planned for or could afford.

And, so I became a Special Ed. Teacher but instead of working in an elementary school, I spent most of my career working with teenagers and lots of them were very challenging. Teaching is a “thankless job.” Schools are not only blamed for what is wrong with our society but are expected to do something about it. When news about child abuse came out in a vengeance, schools then were required to report any evidence of this. Teachers now have to take courses on bullying. I actually kept a folder with the letters and cards I received over the years thanking me for helping children.

My biggest challenge was the teens who said they were going to kill themselves and then there were the pregnant teens who wanted my advice. I was fortunate I never saw any evidence of child abuse because I know some one who reported a child to the authorities and got a negative response from the mother of the child and the administration. The child was abusing himself by burning cigarettes into his own skin. I even had a student who turned her own parents into the authorities. We found out when the girl refused to take her finals (wanting to fail). She was being beaten when her grades went from A’s to B’s. Another teacher and I had been sending weekly reports home about how our students were doing to keep parents informed and to partner with us in helping the students improve. The other teacher and I were horrified to find this out. We had to reexamine the sending of weekly reports home which for most of our students were very helpful.

Being a teacher, one walks a difficult line and now after keeping my mouth shut for over 30 years, I am finding this all very therapeutic. Teachers do not have “freedom of speech” and one has to watch one’s behavior that can be considered “unbecoming of a teacher” under Education Law and one can get fired for something said in and out of the classroom. This was also the case in my personal life and living in the same community where I taught in had its challenges. Some students outside of school, were quite frightening when I happened to “bump into them” on the streets. I had one student scream my name and curse me out on the streets and one even made threatening comments. I was cursed at and called lots of horrible things but luckily I was never physically harmed. My life, home and even car was threaten by numerous students. Believe me, they knew where I lived and knew my car. Three teachers at WPHS had holes put in all four of their tires so they all went flat at about the same time. One teacher said they went flat on highway in NYC. There were always the threat of weapons including guns, knives and even a stick with nails coming out of it. I even had a student tell me he took a contract out on me. Students would ask me what I would do if they held a gun to my head or even shot me. These kids were not kidding either. We were “the enemy.” My students did not come to school to learn. They came for lunch, socializing with friends, sports and to have a good time. Where as a teacher, was I to fit into this world.

The kids at Yonkers Learning Center (which closed because a grant was not renewed) rioted back in 1977. This was scary with one kid busting the window in my door (one inch thick with wire in it) with his hand. My students ended up diving under the tables. It was really scary and the whole thing was instigated by a girl who came to the program instead of going to jail (stole a car) and was living in a group home next to the school. I taught Science and everything I tried to get for experiments went missing so I had to lock every up. One kid put marihauana seeds in the girl who stole a car’s peas she was growing for a biology project. She took the seedlings home during vacation and brought back the potted plants with marijuana growing better than the peas. She had “weeds” and the kid who planted the seeds was found out and his parents were called in and the director gave them the plants in a milk container filled with soil. The marijuana student also told me about how his neighbor would come home every Friday nightand leave the keys in the trunk of the car so he would go out driving with the car. I learned how to steal a car as well that year.

SO why would you still want to be as teacher after reading this? I really don’t know but there is having to work only 185 days a year, a good salary (in Westchester) and a pension. And, like I said, I had a “calling” and happen to have the skills. I was good at motivating and teaching students to go beyond the “disability” and succeed. Of course, I could not and no one can help every student. I figured if I could touch one student enough to make a change each year, it was worth it.

Some of the things I learned that were very helpful are  the following:

1. Behavior Modification for class room control is difficult. I received training in college for this. The only one you can control is yourself, so if you change your own behavior you can change the behavior of others. Point and raise your finger and others will  look in that direction. Ignoring someone is one of the greatest techniques but one has to expect the behavior you are targeting will get worse before it stops. Elementary kids are easier and when I was student teaching in Stamford Ct back in 1974, I used plastic chips to enforce good behavior. The children could then trade them in for little things they may want. I never used food but things like a ball or small toy. After a while just the  clink of chip in cup would get a positive response.

2. Control of classroom (behavior) is important but one thing I learned in College: If what you are doing isn’t working, “Stop.” You need to access how you run your classroom and do something .It could be as simple as rearranging furniture, but if one shares a room with another teacher, this might not be possible. My students usually me a “honeymoon period,” a short time at the start of the year when they were cooperative and/or attentive but then would completely change. Be prepared to adjust.

3. Observe other teachers and ask them for advice. Ask others you trust to observe and make comments after. Listen.

4 . Less is more. Talk less. Project but do not shout. Soft calm talk gives you more control. Students have to be quiet to hear you. They need to do the work. Be an active listener.

Don’t react to a crazed student. Zip your mouth, walk to desk and record what is said.  If the behavior doesn’t look like it is ending, call for help. Know your limits.

5. Act happy and enthusiastic. You will feel happier and motivate your students to succeed.

6. Never promise or threaten what you can’t do. “If you don’t stop, I’ll kick you out,” statements only work if you do this. So try, “If you don’t stop, I will.”

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