I wasn’t terribly worried about finding a job in St. Louis – teachers were in short supply and they have a huge school system, so I knew I’d be able to do what I loved after we moved. I just didn’t realize what a vast difference there’d be between my first and second year of teaching.
My first year teaching was both challenging and demanding…a veritable dunking booth that abruptly dropped me into real world teaching where it was sink or swim, baby. But it was also rewarding, invigorating, and uplifting. Even on my hardest days I was glad to be where I was.
Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I’d harbor serious concerns about teaching only 365 days later.
St. Louis uses an unusual system – Special Education is its own district there, responsible for hiring and assigning teachers to the St. Louis public schools. Like many other organizations, though, last man in got some of the hardest assignments, which is how I ended up teaching special education in an inner city middle school as a newbie.
I shared a small lower level classroom with the high school special ed teacher. They were rebuilding the high school that year, so those students had been smushed into the middle school with what can only be kindly called mixed results. Our classroom used to be the janitor’s space and had no direct line of communication to the office, a detail that didn’t cause me concern at the beginning of the school year. I didn’t know enough to realize there might be times when response time would be critical.
I was certified to teach LD/BD (learning disabilities and behavior disorders) for K-12, but for reasons surpassing understanding there was also an MR (mental retardation) student in my class. Putting aside the fact that I wasn’t trained properly in that specialty, I was already wary of combining teenagers with learning and behavior problems in such a small space. These populations have very different needs. Add in the pressure cooker of middle school, high school students in the building, hormonal issues, and often difficult home environments…well, talk about the perfect storm.
The first sign that we weren’t in Kansas anymore came when a student threatened to key my car. Saying it out loud doesn’t sound quite as scary now, but to a fresh faced 25-year-old girl with only a year under her teaching belt in a rural school? Truth be told, it kind of freaked me out. It didn’t help that the kid described my Miata to a T and we had to park on city streets surrounding the school. I never quite relaxed walking to my car after work again.
There were a lot of day to day stressors I seem to have blocked (though I bet BrightSide could give you an earful). I remember experiencing a lot of anxiety that year, and a growing uneasiness with teaching that made it harder to go to work with each passing day. Then there was the time a student punched a teacher in the chest on the school’s front steps. The assault would have been bad enough, but it was one of those one-in-a-million strikes that caused his heart to stop. The teacher died.
Things became increasingly dicey in my classroom, and the school system structure complicated things. Technically my supervisor wasn’t on site, and technically my students were served by the Special School District. This made things trickier than they should have been with the principal’s office. I didn’t really feel like I had backup in the building; then again, I also think I was too young (and maybe, dare I say it, timid) to shout until I got what I needed.
The final straw was when one of my male students went into a rage, picked up a desk, and hurled it at me. That was the day I realized there was no way to call for help from my room, and if anything bad happened no one would find me until the high school teacher arrived to use the space.
Somehow I managed to finish out the school year, but my time there left a mark.
My supervisor transferred me to an elementary school for the following year, but by Christmas break I realized I couldn’t teach any more. I took a medical leave, hoping some time off would mean I could finish the year, but eventually I had to admit that returning to school just wasn’t something I could do. I took a receptionist position for the remainder of our time in St. Louis.
I thought that was the end of my teaching career, but life has a way of surprising you.