Teaching full of good, bad and amazing
Published 6:00 am Sunday, May 28, 2017
By Amanda Schnugg
As the last school bell rings, I walk down the halls with my handful of students, wishing them happy summers and reminding them to read. As they run smiling out the doors to the buses, I release the breath I didn’t realize I was holding in.
I look around and see empty hallways, only occupied by the exhausted and frazzled teachers, who give tired smiles to those they pass.
I have survived my first year of teaching — sore and tired — but I made it.
I walked back to my room and glanced at the empty walls, once filled with posters and student work, and the containers packed with the contents of my shelves. It looks nothing like the room I basically lived in all year. It was back to how I first entered it in August, bare and just waiting for me and my students to make it seem alive.
As a first-year teacher, it has been by no means easy and there has been the occasional time I’ve considered walking away, but I always had one huge reason to stay — my kids. Which is a joke referenced by my coffee mug I received as a gift, which states, “World’s Best Mom.” I never call them “my students,” always “my kids.” I love them all, but just like any parent, there were days I wanted to hide away.
I began my journey in teaching overseas in Ethiopia. After graduating from Ole Miss with my degree in English, I realized that my career goals (book publishing) were no longer a path I wanted to pursue. I didn’t want to sit behind a desk (don’t worry, the irony isn’t lost on me either), but what I wanted to do, I had no idea.
I applied for the Peace Corps, something I felt would go nowhere as I felt inadequate.
Somehow I was selected to join and flew out to serve. It was there I was introduced to teaching.
I had crash courses on how to teach English as a foreign language, as well as medical lessons, culture and language lessons.
When I gave my first lesson to a group of students who understood little English, I realized that I had found my calling. If I remember correctly, it was about “Who, Whose and Whom.” I loved every minute of it there and was ready to call it home for years to come.
However, a severe staff infection ultimately sent me home for care, where I was medically separated from the program. I was crushed and took a job where I was working the office desk job I had sought to avoid.
A friend of my mother’s told us about the Mississippi Teacher Corps, a program through Ole Miss that is an alternative route to teaching. Those accepted agreed to teach at high-need schools for two years while working on a master’s degree.
I applied, but I was sure it wasn’t going to happen. Somehow, I beat the odds again and within a few weeks of applying, I was accepted into the program.
This has been the most stressed I’ve ever been, but the most rewarding. I started my career in a classroom in Holly Springs for summer school training. I was put in a classroom with eighth graders for English. Summer school is a blur of late nights, lesson planning, coffee and role-plays — which at the time were the bane of my existence. New teachers would give mock lessons with a room full of experienced teachers who mimicked behaviors of students. It was awful but a blessing later on.
In August of 2016, I entered my own classroom. I was assigned to teach English 1, which meant ninth graders. I spent weeks in my room cleaning it, and making and hanging bright colored posters. I now realize I did this to try to elevate the panic and anxiety, which did not work.
My year in my room has flown by. I honestly could not tell you how specific lessons went unless it was terrible or amazing. I live with two other members of the program (all first-year teachers in various subjects) and so many nights were spent laughing or crying about the day.
I spent countless hours trying to read through grammar books and lesson planning. Taking home countless folders of grading and trying to spend at least a few hours on the weekends, not consumed by graduate classes, for me.
On paper, I failed. Despite my students reading levels going from fifth-grade to an average of a 7.4 reading level, most are still behind on ninth-grade benchmarks. I’ve made mistakes and overextended myself on multiple occasions. I failed to have full confidence in my students and often held their hand until too late.
However, to my students, I succeeded. I made English as fun as I could, integrating other subjects and giving them tons of projects. We discussed and debated civil rights and had political debates. We convicted Christopher Columbus for his crimes and created beautiful sonnets. We acted out plays while reading and had discussions almost every week based on whatever book we were reading at the time.
I pushed them and they often complained about the workload, but they kept up. I saw each of them grow and flourish in their own ways. Their writing improved and their reading scores rose.
They enjoyed coming to class for the most part.
As the year came to a close, the students wrote letters to any teacher of their choosing during Teacher Appreciation Week. I will admit some made me cry. I got letters from students who I swore learned nothing, thanking me for teaching them something. I got letters from students who made me laugh by complaining about the workload but thanking me for caring.
I made amazing bonds with my kids and as I watched them leave, I looked around the empty hallways and began to tear up. They will always be my kids, but next year, I will have new kids and the work will begin again. I will give up all of my spare time, as I did this year, to attend every school function. I will stay hours after school to tutor students, sometimes not even in my subject. I will grow more gray hairs dealing with the trouble students, who I will be determined to get interested in their education. I will cry when I feel overwhelmed or when I have to accept I will not be able to help every student. I will get angry when I see a talented student throw away their education. I will feel frustrated when administration begins to make decisions I disagree with.
But I will also smile when I see my kids enjoy a lesson. I will celebrate when a student learns something and laugh when they joke around. I will create new memories and bonds with my new students. I will harass my old kids in the hallways and cheer them on from the stands and from the hallways.
I will also have my desk but will stare longingly at it wishing for a chance to actually sit behind it.
Amanda Schnugg is an Ole Miss graduate and an English I teacher at Byhalia High School. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.