Classroom Confidential 

Seven first-year teachers tell what it's really like to teach in Memphis City Schools. Their stories will surprise you.

You're a first-year teacher in Memphis. You struggle with 35-student classes, not enough textbooks, no schedules, strange accents, discipline, violence, 18-hour days, and your self-confidence. Maybe you take solace in the cigarettes and ice cream binges you thought you had given up after college. But if you hang in there, you begin to get a grip. You see progress. You're going to make it to June. At least you're pretty sure you are.

In August, the Flyer published a cover story about Teach For America, a national program that puts new teachers, most of them fresh out of college, into tough schools for a two-year hitch. When our story came out, school had not yet started. The teachers we introduced to our readers had a pretty good idea what they were in for but had not yet set foot inside their classrooms.

Four months later, we are revisiting Teach For America to see how it's going. We invited seven teachers to write about their first semester. To try to make their comments as forthright as possible without making their jobs any harder than they are already, we are not using the teachers' names or identifying individual students.

Each year, Memphis City Schools hires 600 to 800 new teachers. The Memphis corps of Teach For America had 48 members working at 22 different schools on the first day of classes. All of them are still on the job four months later. These essays give a glimpse of the emotional roller coaster of idealism, frustration, insomnia, and satisfaction that is part of being a teacher in Memphis.

Elementary teacher: "Something seems terribly wrong with my 20s."

Many of my friends are finishing up college or attending graduate school, complaining about writing papers that they have paid someone to assign to them. My twentysomething sister is in New York working for a well-known actor and jazz-assing around town every night with friends. My boyfriend is in Colorado for the ski season, taking a year off before medical school to enjoy his youth. And I am in a construction-papered classroom just emptied of its 16 9-year-olds, crying on the Morning Meeting rug and wondering how I got here. These days, something seems terribly wrong with my 20s.

When I packed my car in Minnesota and headed for Memphis, Tennessee, I thought of Stand and Deliver. I thought of Dangerous Minds. I thought of my own pleasant and privileged fourth-grade experience. I thought of everything at which I had succeeded, and I was ready to take on the achievement gap. I pictured myself, young and healthy, suntanned from the warm Southern sunshine, jumping out of bed in the mornings to teach and inspire what in my head were hundreds of eager students. I pictured the 20/20 series they would produce about my remarkable pupils doing calculus, reading Dostoyevski, and performing their favorite Shakespeare dramas in the Elementary cafeteria. And I pictured it all coming together by about mid-October.

By mid-October of my first year in Memphis, I am still scrambling, desperately trying to establish my dubious authority in Room 304 and trying to teach. I put out the last of the chain of cigarettes I smoke on the drive home as I pull up to my apartment and carry my burden of papers and teacher's manuals up to my room. And it is not until about the third bowl of ice cream and a few more of the cigarettes I had sworn to give up after college that I can sit down and begin the second leg of my day: the five hours of reading and planning that go towards trying to make tomorrow better than today.

As I climb into bed and set my alarm for an obscene time that I had always considered part of the night rather than the morning, my head is racing with ideas and plans to teach, to get our class on the right track starting tomorrow.

I think this moment -- five or six hours before I have to wake again, as I lay down my neglected body in my unmade bed -- is what Teach For America is all about. It is what the whole mission relies on: that the young leaders of our country will be resilient enough, determined enough, or stubborn enough to do it again another day. That we will care enough to see it through. That we will realize that we are not the ones getting the shorter end of the stick; at twentysomething, we are built for this stuff. Our students -- without the Stand and Deliver story, the Dangerous Minds inspiration, the pleasant and privileged fourth-grade experience that I had -- are the ones really hurting at the end of the day.

So, today, it's what I can make of The Cricket in Times Square instead of Dostoyevski, but I'm not giving up.

High school science teacher:

"I started to question my sanity."

When we came to Memphis, I remember feeling excited, energized, and ready to take on any and all challenges that came my way. The few weeks we had before the first day of school went by quickly, and I spent it envisioning what I was going to do with my room, who these unknown students of mine were, and even wondering what I was going to be teaching. I'm a planner, and I hate the unknown; those few weeks of "break" were quite miserable for someone who didn't know every last detail of what she was getting into.

I showed up for work on the first day, and I remember feeling a little out of place. The job didn't quite feel like mine yet. I greeted every student with a "Good morning!" and their responses were shocking. Many of them ignored me and walked on past my room. Some turned their gazes my way, a huge smile brimming across their face, as if I were the first person to speak to them this morning. Others snapped to attention with a "Good morning, ma'am" like a trained soldier. I hadn't yet been called ma'am in that tone before, and that made my day feel all the more real. I was a teacher. I was responsible for children's lives.

I really started to question my sanity regarding this whole Teach For America business when I realized I was working 20 hours a day and only sleeping for four. I even considered therapy when I noticed my dreams were my lesson rehearsals. I spent the four hours I had "off" from work envisioning work! I spent the first six weeks of my teaching like this -- overworked and exhausted. Even in college, my coffee pot never received so much attention.

About four weeks into the school, around the time I became comfortable, so did my students. Pretty soon, the fights started. After the fights came, so did the 180-day suspensions. The students I was working those 20-hour days for were no longer allowed to come to school. I was frustrated and angry. I yelled and cried a lot. I didn't understand why the kids who needed an education the most were being thrown out of school for an entire school year! It was unfathomable to me. I was here to fight the achievement gap, and they were throwing the achievement gap out!

I was disillusioned for about two weeks, before I realized I still had 110 students who depended on me. I was their teacher. They looked forward to my class because we were getting smarter in my classroom. I still send messages of hope and education to those students whose bad decisions at school earned them punishment, but I still work around the clock for the students whose lives will change because they spent a year in my room.

Special-ed teacher: "I decided to counter backtalk with silence."

"I don't know how to do this!"

Welcome to my Resource Room. I hear this every day, many times a day. My students say this often and loudly with hints of exhaustion, lots of frustration, and plenty of expectation. Special education breeds insecurity in students, based on very real experiences. They have failed inside and outside the classroom, been bullied both academically and socially by peers, and have been told by teachers and adults that they are worth less than other students.

My students are insecure, and I am insecure. I understand my responsibilities. I am entrusted with teaching 15 Individual Education Plans with objectives incorporating six grade levels worth of reading, writing, language arts, and math curriculum. I am not confident yet about how to accomplish this. I am most vulnerable at 10:20 a.m. and 12:45 p.m.

10:20 a.m.: The third rotation of my literacy block. My room is at full capacity, with all 14 regular students roaming through work-station assignments (journal, spelling, silent reading) and completing guided reading skill lessons in small groups. This is not all they do, however. They also pick on each other, throw random objects, make noise with their mouths, and drum with pencils. I run on autopilot, attempting to teach while I am engrossed with behavior management. I take a deep breath, worried that these last two teams are getting the raw end of the reading deal with so many others diverting my attention.

12:45 p.m.: Eight students are in my room, sometimes focused on their math-station work, other times interested in convincing me to assign them to the computer (the one out of three that still works). I am always asking this of myself: How can I demand respect and regain control of my classroom through more efficient and effective discipline? What do my students need in individual instruction? How can I teach similar themes with leveled materials to reach as many students as possible during our precious time together?

Answers come woven through my interactions with other teachers, in professional-development workshops and university courses, and in reading materials. Integrating them into my practice is a complicated task. As I drive to school, I listen to music, sing, and smile. Each morning, I am more optimistic and excited than the day before. With this optimism, I try new strategies in discipline, management, and instruction daily. Sometimes it is as simple as bracing myself for consistency.

Today, for example, I decided to counter backtalk with silence. I harvested this technique from Fred Jones' Tools For Teaching last night as I read to fall asleep. It seemed successful. I was able to redirect my energy to engaging students in instruction. I wonder what it will be like after it becomes my style of discipline, once students expect it and understand my role as the leader of the classroom. I am optimistic that I will discover more and more free moments in which to teach. And I am excited for tomorrow, the coming months of teaching, and all that my students and I will learn.

Resource teacher: "We will do real work."

My job is not just about teaching; it is about changing mindsets. The first few weeks, I would start a lesson or hand out work, and the students would be confused. Not confused by the material but confused that they had work to do.

"But this is a resource class, not a real class" was the phrase that I heard endlessly. Especially from Justin. He would walk into class and ask for a free day, a music day, a poker day, any day that he didn't have to learn. I explained that school was for learning, not just hanging out, but he would just laugh at me.

I faced the same mindsets in my school staff too. Students have to take three Gateway exams to get a diploma, and one of these is an algebra exam. I looked at a practice test and realized that I would need graphing calculators to teach all the graphing and functions. So I talked to a woman at my school to see if she could tell me where to find calculators, and I heard a familiar phrase: "But this is a resource class, not a real class." I felt so defeated when I realized that all my kids had probably ever heard was this idea -- that their classes weren't "real" classes; they weren't even "real" students.

I still haven't gotten calculators. But now, 12 weeks into the school year, Justin has started to understand that we will work in class and that we will do real work. He no longer tells me that he wants a free day; instead, he wants a college-fair day. He attends all of the Gateway study sessions that the school offers.

Elementary teacher: "The fruit snacks in the treasure box."

I remember what it was like to be 8 years old. I didn't have much responsibility beyond going to school, picking up my room, and playing with friends. While the chores weren't too bad and school was still kinda cool, playing was what I always wanted to do. When I did homework, I certainly wasn't thinking, Oh yes, I'm so glad I can do homework instead of play Nintendo. The truth is, I did it because I had to and not because I wanted to. Maybe that is why when one of my second-grade students gave me a sheet of 106 compound words she had came up with the night before, I was stunned. But it wasn't because she came up with more words than I probably could have come up with in a week that got to me. Nor was it the fact that she probably had a little assistance from her older brother. What struck me more than anything was that there had been no homework that night. She just did it.

For months, I had been struggling with how to motivate my students to want to learn beyond the lessons that allow them to take a make-believe space adventure to the planets (complete, of course, with space food). There have been too many days where I have had students complain about being too tired, wanting to go play Xbox, or needing to get a prize out of the treasure chest for doing nothing but showing up. I've come to realize that providing incentives for working hard will only take you so far. Students will come to expect a reward for just about anything they do, and in the end I have merely taught a group of kids how to impress me instead of themselves. My students should work for themselves, not me, not the fruit snacks in the treasure box, and not just to avoid trouble. My ultimate goal here is not for them to just meet my classroom expectations but to achieve, with high hopes and full hearts, their lifelong aspirations.

If my students remember nothing else that I have taught them, my dearest hope is that they leave knowing they have the power to be unstoppable. That they can do whatever it is they want to do, so long as they do it for themselves. It seems like we often forget the strength in self-confidence. We spend a lot of time talking about ways to get the children to do what we want them to do and not enough time asking them what they can and want to do for themselves. I've been blessed with such an amazing opportunity to guide my students down that path and can only imagine the possibilities that are waiting.

Elementary teacher:

"I feel like I have aged 10 years in six months."

It is 7:15 a.m. on a Saturday, and I am wide-awake. I seem to have lost my penchant for sleeping in. During the workweek, I am desperate for just 10 more minutes of glorious unconsciousness, but on the weekend my mind races with reflections and worries. Mostly, I worry about my students. I worry about their futures.

Every single thing I know and love I left behind for something I still do not fully understand. I became a Teach For America teacher. As an undergraduate student, I studied digital design, English, and women's studies. I considered myself socially conscious. Every single day I grapple with what I used to be only six months age: a college student.

This job forces you to grow up fast. Some days I feel like I have aged 10 years in six months. The reality is I am a 22- year-old who is responsible for 15 human beings' intellectual and social health. It has been difficult going from student to teacher, especially when I loved being a student. Nowadays, I feel like the student who forgot her homework on the kitchen table. Some days, I stand in front of my students filled with a sense of awe for what I am doing. Other days, I want to crawl into the janitor's closet.

I have trouble with the execution of my hopes for them. The school day begins officially at 7:30 a.m. It unofficially ends at 9 p.m., when I get ready for bed and pass out. I stop to eat generally because that has been my only comfort thus far in this job.

There is so much potential. I see it every single day. My class is extremely enthusiastic about learning. Sometimes their enthusiasm gets to the point where I have to review classroom procedures so there is some control over their tendency to jump out of their seats while answering a question. Now I just have to find the right way to harness its power.

My enthusiasm for going into this was to find purpose and direction. I need to constantly find that motivation and strength to push forward. I am not used to failure, and I am generally a woman who gets what she wants.

If I wrote about what I have been feeling since school began, then we would all need a good piece of chocolate afterward, which is much of how I feel every day I walk out of my school to go home. Many people keep saying the goal of a first-year teacher is to keep your head above water. I'd like to keep my sanity afloat while I am at it.

It is too early to decide whether teaching is the purpose in life I want to discover so badly. The first year of teaching is hell, just as the first year of college was for me. But after that first year of college, I loved it. That is what I am hoping for with teaching. I hope to overcome the exhaustion, selfishness, and initial challenges to accomplish great things with my students.

Middle school math teacher: "The hardest thing I've ever done."

I've always known I was a people person. But I didn't realize just how much genuine love I could have for people I just met. Becoming an eighth-grade math teacher has been the hardest thing I've ever done and at the same time one of the best things I'll ever do. There are 118 adolescents who walk into my classroom every day, and I love each and every one of them more than I ever thought would be possible.

People who saw my classroom at the beginning of the school year might call me a liar for ever saying I could love these kids. The first weeks of school were nothing more than me yelling at a bunch of rowdy students who were trying to get on the nerves of the new young teacher with the weird Northern accent. And they were good at what they did. I have never been more infuriated in my life than I was during those two weeks. My students made it known that they didn't like me and that they were not going to make things easy for me.

I fell into the routine of complaining to my family and friends about how terrible things were and about how terrible my students were. Fortunately, I realized I was dwelling on all of the negative things, and as a result, I was feeling sorry for myself. So I stepped back from the situation to re-evaluate. I decided that I needed to start focusing on the good things, even if they were very few and far between.

The turning point for me was when I started getting students coming after school to get tutoring. I lived for these moments. However, if the students didn't show up to get help, I was crushed. I would go home deflated. But after one of those days, I realized something that changed my whole perception: I loved these kids. I wasn't upset because I felt like the kids didn't like me. I wasn't frustrated because the kids were mocking and making fun of everything I said. I wasn't deflated because I wasn't getting time to eat and sleep.

I realized it's not about me. It's all about these 118 kids who walk through my door. It dawned on me that I love these kids so much I could not handle witnessing them not learning. I was upset because the kids were not getting what they deserved. And I was frustrated because I didn't know how to reach them yet.

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