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Heartbreaking Story

975584_broken_heartA reader wrote in with the following story. I don’t even know how to begin to respond to it, but I’ll add some thoughts at the end. Hopefully this reader’s experience will serve some of you somehow in the future.

When I interviewed at my school, it appeared to be everything I wanted in a job. I interviewed for one prep. I addressed my classroom procedures, consequences I employed, rewards I employed, my teaching style, asked about administrative involvement… and basically heard everything I wanted to hear. I fortunately came to that school with very kind references and evaluations.

What I found on my first day were five preps across three grade levels. When I questioned it, I was told that everyone had to make sacrifices.  So I did. I also found myself under an assistant principal who was a child advocate – to a point where the children were always right. I was, at different times, told to change a grade or I would not make it through the probationary period; told to take late work – up to 9 weeks late – and grade it for full value (in direct opposition to my stated rules that late work must follow the district guidelines); told to call the assistant principal before I could call out sick so she could determine if I was truly unable to make it to work; told to change my focus from getting the kids to explore and learn to “making” them learn… and on and on. My students quickly came to realize that if they didn’t like my rules (basic stay in your seat, don’t throw things, don’t cheat, etc), they could go and complain to her… and I would be forced to allow the behavior to continue (because we all know kids don’t cheat). I essentially lost all control of my classes.

I also was told to spend less time on my appearance and more time on my classes. I look very young, Joel – I could pass as one of the kids. I dress professionally – tailored pants and knee-length skirts, button-down blouses – but I had a 10 minute hair/makeup routine in the mornings.

Did I mentioned she only observed me teach once during the year?

Additionally, I found myself the focus of several rumors – notably, that I missed three days of school because I had done too many drugs over the weekend to come to work. When I brought this to her attention (damage control – I have no desire to be on the news), I was told that students don’t lie, and that I must have done these things or something to make them think I engaged in this type of behavior. I quickly offered to leave right that minute and go take a drug test and was told it was unnecessary, but I needed to change my lifestyle (???!!!) I was also told I shouldn’t drink in public – not even a beer with my dinner. But it was ok for the rest of the school to go out to happy hours on Fridays.

I did set up a meeting between me, my principal, and the assistant principal to try to resolve some of the issues. I left that meeting feeling that the rest of the year would get better – I would have control in my classes again, but offer more chances to correct the behavior; the students would be forced to adhere to the district work guidelines; rumors would be disciplined; and I would plan better for my classes.

I then was called to the AP’s office and told never to embarrass her again or my evaluation would suffer.

I was burnt out trying to keep up with five preps – up until 1AM grading and planning, then back up at 5 to get ready for work at 6:30. I didn’t eat, drank too much coffee, smoked too many cigarettes, and never truly relaxed. My job became my life. And I left it.

Out of all the administrators I’ve worked with, I adored the majority of them. They offered constructive criticism when needed, praised lavishly when they felt I deserved it, worked with me to help students, and responded to my “higher authority” disciplinary needs. But then I think back on these two and wonder… why me? What did I do wrong?

I have been out of the classroom for awhile now. I spent a few months resting, relaxing, and getting my sanity back. I spent a few months blaming everyone and everything but myself… until I realized there were some things I should have done differently. I have spent months researching, planning, reading, and taking classes before I take the plunge back into the classroom. I know I was a good teacher, and I know I can become a great teacher. I want to know more and provide my students with the best possible learning environment and tools for learning. And I think this time off will have strengthened my ability to teach.

I love what she says at the end about accepting some of the responsibility. The thing we teach kids so often is that they are responsible for their own success or failure.

See also  Survival Kit For Teachers Looking To Relocate

Was it an antagonistic work environment she was in? Clearly it was! But her response was to step back, get out of the situation for a while, and do some self-introspection. This led her to continuing the journey. I’m so proud of her!

Feel free to comment, but understand that any comments about administrators in general, or even a long diatribe about one specific administrator you have had are likely to be deleted.

Joel Wagner (@sywtt) began teaching band in 2002. Though he had a lot of information, his classes were out of control. He found himself tired, frustrated, disrespected by students, lonely, and on the brink of quitting. He had had enough. He resigned from his school district right before spring break of his second year and made it his personal mission to learn to be a great teacher. So You Want To Teach? is the ongoing story of that quest for educational excellence.

Joel Wagner
Joel Wagner (<strong><a href="">@sywtt</a></strong>) began teaching band in 2002. Though he had a lot of information, his classes were out of control. He found himself tired, frustrated, disrespected by students, lonely, and on the brink of quitting. He had had enough. He resigned from his school district right before spring break of his second year and made it his personal mission to learn to be a great teacher. <strong><a href="">So You Want To Teach?</a></strong> is the ongoing story of that quest for educational excellence.

11 thoughts on “Heartbreaking Story

  1. I quickly read her story and then had to sit back and read it again. At first glance it sounded like I could have written it, with a few details rearranged. I am amazed at the mature, well thought out, and intelligent conclusion she was able to come to after everything she endured. Maybe this could have helped me if I had read it “back when” and then I could have thought to be the bigger person. It takes a very special person not only to teach but just to work in a school environment. It is not like the “real world” and is usually only understood by those in it. I just wanted to give a pat on the back to someone who obviously deserves it. WOW!

  2. Kudos to this teacher for not letting a terrible administrator derail her enthusiasm for working with children. I had a bad experience with administrators several years ago, but was fortunate enough to find my current position, where the admin team is very supportive and collaborative. My hope is that this teacher will have similar good luck with her next position!

    I read her “one prep at the interview, five preps in real life” detail with a shudder! Five preps really is daunting, no matter how experienced or talented you are. Early in my career, I was saddled with an unfair number of preps one year–more than either of my grade-level colleagues in English–and my classes were also mostly composed of the lowest-performing students in the grade. I was lucky enough in those days to have a wonderful mentor, Bob, a retired veteran teacher who was working as a coach for the county office of education. I griped to Bob about my situation, which I had concluded was the greatest injustice of the century, and he made a comment that has stuck with me: that difficult assignments sharpen your skills, and that I would learn a ton from the experience. That changed my perspective on my course schedule, and perhaps not coincidentally, the work I did with my 3rd/4th period block–the writing they did with me, especially–was probably the best work I did as a middle school teacher.

    Interview surprises can also be a wonderful blessing in disguise. I had to move from Los Angeles to San Diego several years ago, and I interviewed for an English position at a middle school. In the middle of the interview, the principal (with whom I’d spoken for about an hour on the phone before the interview) suddenly remembered my predecessor taught Yearbook, and would I like to teach Yearbook? Though I was thinking, “God no!” I smiled and said yes, I love learning new things. It was difficult, but I loved teaching Yearbook, and now I teach Journalism, which I love even more. I might never have discovered the joy of advising student publications if that principal hadn’t ambushed me!

  3. Michael, I think the whole concept of having five preps is pretty standard for most band teachers anyway. I’m assuming by preps, you mean five different courses to prepare.

    In my current assignment, I only have four, with two of them being woodwinds and brass in the same band. So really, I have three: Concert band winds, percussion, and beginner band. When I was at the 6th grade, I actually had 6 since all of the beginning classes learn and progress at a different pace.

    For a while last year, I actually was singlehandedly teaching 8 classes in 7 periods. That got to be a bit of a challenge to say the least.

  4. Ouch. 5 preps across three grade levels. I’ve always imagined the best place for a single subject teacher to be is about 3-4 preps, with some of your classes overlapping: two 9th grade english courses, or two German I courses. Keeps things interesting, but not difficult. 5 preps could have been handled without too much trouble I assume, provided the teacher was given proper support. However, as an unexpected surprise, I can easily imagine that it wasn’t a pleasant experience.

    Joel can wear his 8 preps with pride, I’ve witnessed the experience of music teachers stuck with a different ensemble course every period. It can be a bit harrowing, but it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that there are a few things that are more forgiving about music education. Most importantly, there’s significantly less paperwork to grade, and a rehearsal gives a platform for teaching that is much more flexible than the standard lesson plan requires. There’s increased work though, landing venues for concerts, planning festivals, arranging numerous field trips- and splitting your work between schools in a district. I work with a teacher who mumbles a litany when asked where he’s off to next: “I teach 7 sections of 6 classes in 5 classrooms. I have 4 bosses at 3 schools, and I commute 2 hours a day for 1 job.”

    Back to the point: I couldn’t imagine trying to handle an increased workload with administrators who are “child advocates” to the point where they strip all classroom discipline and control away from the teacher. It’s a miracle that this person is still teaching.

  5. What a sad story! My heart goes out to this teacher and others who have been in this situation. I have had some wonderful administrators and some really bad ones too so I know they are out there. I’m glad this teacher and stepped away to reeenergize and give it another try because not all of the admins are bad out there and obviously there are some students who need this teacher. Of course, after many years of experience, I would have rescheduled another meeting with the principal and asst. principal after the last threat and put it in writing. I don’t threaten well at all and I figure I would have nothing to lose. The only way to stop a bully is to stand up to one and this person sounds just like a typical neighborhood bully. I hope this teacher ends up in a good situation to push away these dark memories. Thanks for sharing!

  6. Joel, your comment puts my experiences in greater perspective!

    Actually, I suppose I have four preps now, since I teach two sections of journalism (beginning and advanced) in the same period, as well as a remedial course for upperclassmen and my “main” prep of “regular” 9th-grade English. However, because I love teaching journalism so much–and because the advanced students work closely with the beginning students, which sort of multiplies my power to shape learning–it doesn’t seem onerous.
    This goes back to my thinking that a teacher’s approach or attitude to a situation can make a huge difference–though sympathetic administrators don’t hurt, either!
    (John’s observation about teaching music–“there’s significantly less paperwork to grade, and a rehearsal gives a platform for teaching that is much more flexible than the standard lesson plan requires”–applies to journalism as well.)

    By the way, I Tweeted this post (, but it says on the blog that there are no tweetbacks. Did I do it wrong? I’m sort of Web 1.5 in some areas. :)

  7. Not a problem on your end, Michael. I am still trying to figure out how to get this thing to work. I know there have been at least 3 tweets on it, so I’m just not sure if TweetSuite is working right or what. It’s a new concept, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt…

  8. Actually it is for this very reason I fear ever leaving my current position, though I know it is inevitable. I have an amazing administration who supports us teachers 100%. They will never undermine us to a parent/student even if they think we are wrong; should that be the case, they will confer with us in private. There are imperfections in the school, but on the whole, this is what I value.

    I hear stories such as hers (although that is probably the most extreme I’ve ever encountered) and fear ever moving to another school. How can you know in just an interview if the school management is in place? I can’t ask a principal to his face “Do you back up your teachers? Does your school enforce discipline?” Of course I’m not going to get the real answer! I am new to the teaching gig; maybe there’s a way you could ask these things or get the real answer you need. But as for now, I just pray that’s never me. I admire her fortitude and self-evaluation.

  9. What encouraged me about this post is that this teacher has decided to come back to the classroom. She saw she made some mistakes and she’s working to correct them. However, what bothers me about this whole discussion is that EVERYONE seems to be focused on her mistakes. Joel, I know you blog is all about support and very little criticism and venting. But I have a PROBLEM with this . . .why has no one addressed possible solutions for handling these types of antagonistic behaviors by administrators for all of the newbie teachers. Yes, I’m all about reflection and seeing where we made mistakes, but this is happening to teachers ALL over the country. What are some practical solutions besides leaving and taking a break? She’s much more of a saint than I am, now, share with me how others can be combat this in their first years of teaching without being too militant or insubordinate. Or am I the only one who is militant and possibly insubordinate?

  10. Miss Teacha: You raise some good points. Sometimes, rolling over and being beat up by people isn’t the best solution. What would I suggest some possible courses of action might be?

    Here is how I would handle a similar situation if I felt it necessitated more than simply minding my own business.

    1) Talk directly to the assistant principal and find out what her disagreement with me is. Try to come to a win-win situation; a solution where we both get some benefit and can grow. This would initially start out as face-to-face, and then move to email if necessary.

    2) If that fails, addressing the situation to the principal would be the next step. I would simply ask to have a meeting with both of them. Printed copies of the email exchange could be brought to the meeting as backup.

    3) If that fails, then you move up the administrative hierarchy with similar steps.

    The problem here is that these steps (except for the initial one of actually talking to the offender) seem pretty unnecessary for someone who actually intends to teach at some later date in their life. There comes a point where it’s necessary to burn bridges, but I don’t think that should be anything short of a last step. And since resignation and relocation was clearly an option, there is little prudence in escalating the situation any further.

    At least, that’s how I see it. Anyone else?

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