I realized early in my adult life that there is a big difference between the career I envisioned and the job I actually had.
I wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember. I would set my dolls around my stand up chalk board and teach them the alphabet. By the time I was in high school, I knew I wanted to go to college for a degree in teaching. My love of reading, combined with my interest in creative writing, made English education the right choice. Keeseville Central had a day every spring called Student Teacher’s Day. Those of us who were interested and considered responsible were allowed to take over the classes of the teachers for the entire day. In both my junior and senior years, I had the opportunity to take over for two of my English teachers. I spent hours preparing lessons on Greek and Roman mythology, The Outsiders by S. J. Hinton, and vocabulary. I absolutely loved this opportunity to play “teacher for a day,” and it confirmed my career path.
For my first two years at Albany State, I fulfilled several credits taking required courses, including American and English literature survey courses as well as biology, French, and music. By my junior year, however, I was taking classes that allowed me to learn and participate in the classroom. My methods course required our putting together a unit plan on a specific topic, and my submission on the theme of War and Youth, not only received an A but also was used as a model for several years in the English education department. In my senior year, I finally had a chance to actually teach through my student teaching assignment in a high school in Schenectady, New York.
I thrived in front of a class, and I flourished putting together the lesson plans, the quizzes, the tests. I spent hours planning and producing the necessary paperwork, but it was worth every minute to implement it. I was rewarded in the end with a five plus out of five score for my student teaching, with my advisor writing in his evaluation that I was a born teacher who was a natural in front of the classroom.
As the graduation date grew near, I started applying for a teaching position. It was a tough time to get a job; there were not very many openings, and despite excellent evaluation, I couldn’t even get an interview. In late June, however, a month after graduation, a break came through. A high school English teacher had handed in his resignation the last day of school as he had decided to start a master’s program, and the principal wanted to fill the position before he left for his summer vacation. I interviewed for the job and was hired on the spot.
There was only one difficulty: the teacher I was replacing taught very unusual classes. Along with a standard tenth grade English class, he also taught numerous electives on such topics of supernatural fiction, science fiction, the police state in literature, and the American cinema. Because students had already chosen their courses that spring, I would be responsible for developing and implementing the curricula for the classes. Over that summer, I read the novels and started creating plans.
The tenth grade students I greeted that first day took the change in teachers in stride, but the juniors and seniors who had signed up for the electives were disappointed to find that their anticipated teacher was gone and instead had a new, young teacher with high ideals and higher expectations.
This challenge was even made more difficult by what I learned from the students. My predecessor had held seances during the supernatural classes, and the students in the cinema had spent time making movies. The initial comments from many entering my classroom were “Who are you? And what happened to the fun guy?”
I was at a complete loss in the Police State in Literature course: The books ordered for the class included Brave New World, 1984, and Night. Meanwhile, many of the students were reading two or three years below grade level, certainly way below the level of the novels attached to the course. Especially problematic for me was teaching about the Holocaust. I was one of two Jewish teachers in the entire district in a school district with no Jewish students.
The result was an absolute disaster. Despite a supportive principal and and supportive faculty, I was in over my head. I spent every minute out of class working on lesson plans, projects, quizzes, including most weekends, but the plans that had served me so well in Methods and student teaching fell flat. In addition to my difficulty with the implementation, I also was challenged by maintaining discipline. I was twenty-two years old, highly idealistic, and totally out of tune with those students who lacked motivation and any interest in what I was trying to do. Although the majority of the students were good, a small group made it a point to see if they could disrupt my class. They talked, they threw spitballs, they refused to participate. It was a horrible year. After spending years dreaming about being a teacher, I realized that nothing I had done in college had ever prepared me to handle a real class, a real job.
By June, I was exhausted, stressed, and seriously wondering if I could learn enough from my first year to handle a second year in the classroom. But the worst moment of that first year was yet to come. About three weeks before graduation, yearbooks came in, and students were passing around their own copies for signatures from classmates and from teachers. Two seniors, the children of highly respected members of the community, came up to me with their yearbooks. With big smiles on their faces, asked me to autograph my picture. When they handed them to me, I was shocked and stunned to see that they had both drawn swastikas around my picture. I slammed the books shut, refusing to sign and making some comment about how some day they would look back on their yearbooks with shame. I told the principal, who called them in, but I don’t remember the outcome of that discussion.
I did return in September. I was more confident, more organized, more prepared, but I found teaching high school an uphill battle, a completely different experience than what I had dreamed. I left in January, eighteen months after I started, enrolled in University of Albany’s master program in reading, and subsequently got a job teaching adult education. It was in that scenario that I found my niche; classes were small and individualized, low-key, and I found it easy to relate to adult students, many of them highly motivated and focused in their wish to improve their reading and writing skills and obtain their General Equivalency Diploma (GED).
It has been almost fifty years since I walked out of my first teaching position. I still think back to that experience and wonder if I could have done more to find a way to hold on until I gained enough experience and maturity to handle the real high school classroom. I also wonder what happened to those two students who got so much pleasure that day from seeing my face when I saw those hated Nazi symbols next to my picture. Did they forget about it as soon as they graduated? Did their yearbooks land up on a dusty shelf, never to be looked at again? Or do they occasionally pull out that book like I have done with my own high school yearbook, reminisce over pictures of their friends and their club shots. Or do they come across my picture and felt regret, embarrassment, and shame?
A version of this article originally appeared in the Jewish World News, a bi-weekly subscription-based newspaper in upstate New York, in the February 27, 2014, issue.