Community Service

Now that I'm tenured, I've been thinking about why I feel so good about staying at this particular job (given my record of working two years, then moving on). And I've been wondering what makes Randomville High School a place I'd feel comfortable working at in the future.

When I first graduated from college, full of enthusiasm and bright ideas, I got a job at Randomville High. It was the same school I'd graduated from, four years earlier. I was twenty-two years old and in for the shock of my life.

I was hired at RHS to teach English I. My room was a trailer behind the school, disconnected from the main building both literally and figuratively. My trailer-mate was also a new teacher, a fifty-something Spanish teacher who'd come in from a Catholic school in the Metropolis.

I was dropped into my classroom with a teacher's edition of the textbook and good wishes. Nothing else. To put it quite bluntly, I was screwed.

The demands of my schedule and the isolation of my trailer made it next to impossible to consult other teachers about things I'd never learned in college. Important things, like classroom management and when to go to the bathroom. During faculty meetings, I'd sit with the English department, but they'd all taught together for fifty-seven years, and they weren't all that welcoming. To be honest, I was shy about butting in, and a little in awe of their expertise.

Around January, I went to the principal to talk to him about two particularly horrible students. They were both in the same class, and they were both absolutely uncontrollable. They made it next to impossible for me to teach, and they made my classroom their playground. The principal's solution was to move them to another teacher's class. Now, this was not my suggestion, but I was happy with the outcome.

During the next English department meeting, the chair, who was (I thought) a hateful woman with a big mouth, went on a rampage about "another teacher who asked for her students to be moved and now they are ruining my classes. This teacher obviously didn't follow procedure and when I talked to [the principal] he just smiled and told me to handle it." I sat in the room, my face growing redder, my eyes growing wetter, and tried to turn myself invisible. It would have been obvious to everyone in the room who she was talking about. First, I didn't know anything about procedure, because NO ONE EVER EXPLAINED IT TO ME, and second, it wasn't even my idea.

I decided right then that I wasn't coming back the next year.

Around February, when we had to make our intent known to the school, I talked to my parents about quitting. They talked me out of it; my dad, also a teacher, said, "The first year is always the hardest," and I decided I'd stick it out for another year.

During my second year, I taught English I, English II, and Theater Arts. I was still in the trailer, but this time I had a new trailer-mate, another new Spanish teacher. I was still just as disconnected from the rest of the faculty, and I was still having a horrible time with the basics of classroom management and school procedures.

This time, I didn't consult anyone about quitting; I just did it. I turned in my resignation letter with relish and started thinking about getting a mindless job where I didn't have to talk to anybody. I thought it through very carefully and decided that I just wanted to sit by myself in a room all day and type. Just type. I didn't want to be responsible for anyone's well-being but my own, I didn't want to babysit or hold hands or grade papers or think. The kids and the teachers and the job itself had undermined my confidence, made me doubt my own abilities, and tore my spirit right in two. I didn't want to think about that; I just wanted to type.

I worked as a secretary for a little over two years. Toward the end of those two years, I was asked to teach a class in Business English for an upcoming conference. As I prepared my lesson, I began to feel small twinges of longing, the awakening of my dormant desire to teach. I couldn't believe it at first--hadn't I sworn, Scarlett -style that as God is my witness, I'd never teach high school again?

But it was there, that little part of me that wanted to dissect sentences and talk about Thoreau and do more than schedule meetings and answer phones.

I began to look for openings in area schools, but the legislature had recently cut funding for education, and there was a state-wide hiring freeze. It was then that I decided upon another option I'd sworn never to consider: I'd go back to Missouri.

I'd gone to college in Missouri, and I'd been ecstatic to leave it behind. I called it the Crappy State and got a bad attitude every time I crossed the border. My graduation cap bore the slogan "NO MO' MO," which was extremely clever, in my opinion, and also a mission statement, of sorts.

But I'd run out of options in my home state, and Missouri has an amazing job search website; I just couldn't see that I had any other choice.

I got a job at a small school in a very small town that was out in the middle of nowhere. I moved my stuff in the weekend I turned 28, but I never, for a moment, considered living in Missouri on a long-term basis.

While I encountered some of the same problems at this school that I did at RHS, the difference in how I coped with them was remarkable. I give credit for this to one thing: at the small school, I felt like I was part of a community.

The first day I went to the school, the principal (who was a year younger than I, how much does that stink?) welcomed me and introduced me to the other English teachers. They were both new too; one was a recent college grad, and the other was a newlywed with several years of teaching experience. We three made up the entire English department. For grades 7-12.

It's not often that you meet one person, let alone two, and hit it off immediately. I mean, in a matter of seconds, we were friends. It was magical, there's no other way to describe it.

We talked to each other every day, and we discussed our students and our classes, and it was really like we were having a GREAT professional development meeting every single day over lunch. We talked about strategies and management techniques and critical thinking activities--all the things you really want to do during an in-service, but instead you have to spend an hour defining what a flip-flop is or isn't.

Throughout my two years in Missouri, I had a lot of ups and downs. That second year, there were LOTS of downs. Yet I was able to handle it much better than I had during my second year at RHS. Maybe it was because I was more mature, but I do think it was more because I had that support system, those two women who had become my closest friends, who knew me and knew my struggles and who listened and advised and comforted. Because of them, I left the school, NOT the profession. Because of them, I was able to have faith in myself, to know that I AM a good teacher, but I just wasn't at the right school.

I left Missouri, this time--hopefully!--for good, and came home to Randomville. Towards the middle of July, I accepted a job at Randomville High School, with some trepidation and (let's face it) more than a little desperation. I worried about the classes I'd teach, and how I'd fit in with the faculty, if at all, and of course I couldn't help but remember my first go-round and how that had ended.

As it turned out, I had nothing to fear. Once again, on the first day, I met two amazing women and we three had an immediate connection. We'd eat lunch together and discuss our classes and our students and, once again, it was like the best in-service EVER. Also, there'd been quite a bit of turnover in the faculty and the administration, so there were very few of the "old guard" left.

On top of that, the school had set up a teacher mentoring program, so that all new teachers--whether experienced or not--had someone whose job it was to answer questions. There were mentors in specialty areas, like technology or evaluations, and then we each were assigned to two OTHER teachers--one in our department and one who was just close by--that we could run to when we needed help on curriculum or how to turn on the air conditioner. Then we had monthly meetings to ask questions or talk about strategies or management or anything else we were having trouble with. People were always stopping by to ask if we needed help or to see if we were doing all right; that kind of constant concern really helped all of us new teachers to feel as though we were valued members of a COMMUNITY, and that really made a difference in my attitude toward the school.

I know that my school is not perfect, but I wouldn't want to teach anywhere else, and that's because I feel like I BELONG here, like my presence would be missed if I were gone. I lay that all down to the faculty, because they ARE so warm and welcoming and helpful, and they really don't have to be. When you walk down the halls before school or after dismissal, you'll see teachers chatting or laughing, because we LIKE each other.

I'm not the only one who's noticed that other schools in our district cannot say the same. Down the highway at Mecca High School (so-called because we are often made to feel as though we should pray to them eight times a day), there is NO sense of community. When I have to go to meetings there, I feel like none of their faculty even KNOWS each other, like they're all strangers who've been thrown into this room together for the first time ever. And goodness knows you can't admit you need help with something; "you're on your own" is definitely their motto.

I can't help but compare them to my own faculty, with our daily lunches in the science room, or our chats over the copier, or our making fools of ourselves line-dancing in the talent show. There's a feeling of general cameraderie that really makes our environment more pleasant.

There are lots of reasons for me to stay at RHS. The kids, the classes, the paycheck ... but I could get all of those at any school. One thing that can't be found in every school is our faculty's spirit of community, and for that alone I'd stay here forever.

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