Failure is weird. Everyone experiences it, but when it happens, we feel embarrassed and alone. I have been writing this blog post in my head for years, but I haven’t posted it because I have been afraid. I decided after this weekend that it was the right time to share it.
I taught 8th grade language arts in the 2002-2003 school year. Our principal left in cloud of scandal, and we had a new principal. I was on maternity leave when she came in, but she didn’t have a good first impression of me, I’m sure, because I had a little bit of trouble adjusting to teaching that grade level. My test scores were great. Only one student on our middle school team of over 100 students failed the state’s writing test. By the measure that higher ups usually care about, I was a success. But before he left, my principal expressed concerns over the high rate of failure among my students and suggested my team leader was influencing me to be too exacting in my standards, and that perhaps I needed to lower them.
I left work one day and went into labor the next morning. I wasn’t due for a couple of weeks, and I hadn’t expected to be out the next day. I had some ungraded student work. While I was on maternity leave, I received a phone message from the assistant principal insisting that I needed to get the work graded, so I finally managed to do so, but I expected a little more sympathy, to be honest. I had a newborn at home.
The county let me know in no uncertain terms that my contract would be terminated if I didn’t return to work six weeks to the day after my leave ended. That day was the last day of post-planning, by the way. So I came back to discover my long-term sub had allowed the students to destroy some of my personal belongings and had done none of the things we were supposed to do to wrap up the year—filling out information in student files being the most onerous task. No one offered to help me. I had to take frequent breaks to nurse my son. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to leave school that day, but I finally was able to obtain the necessary signatures that said I had finished my work.
When I came back the next year, I was no longer teaching language arts but a journalism course instead. My new principal made it clear it was, in her eyes, a demotion. After her first visit to my classroom, she put me on a professional development plan for classroom management. I can’t even remember anymore all the tasks she had me complete. I know one of them was that I had to receive an observation with all satisfactory scores. She made sure that wouldn’t happen. She observed a perfect class but gave me a needs improvement because I had chosen to read a short article to my students instead of having a student volunteer read it. Suffice it to say that I was unable to meet the demands of my professional development plan and she elected not to renew my contract. The district must have wanted to make sure they were getting rid of a bad teacher for real because they made her observe me yet again. If I had been wise, I’d have tried to find out if I could have had a different administrator do the observation, but I’m not sure it would have made a difference.
I remember very clearly what my principal said. She felt I would never be a good teacher. She felt that I had been in the classroom too long at that point—six years—for anyone to expect I would improve. I am sure she felt that she was doing the right thing by removing a failure from the ranks of educators.
But then my current principal took a chance. I had been honest about the fact that my previous principal would not have good things to say about me, and I know my current principal did call the former one to find out what my issues were. She also talked to a former department chair of mine and another assistant principal who told a slightly different story. She thought about it and took a chance. To this day I’m not sure why she took a chance on me because a lot of people wouldn’t. I am grateful.
In my current setting I have been encouraged to grow. I have not, interestingly enough, had classroom management problems. You can’t insist it’s because I’m in a private school because I know private school teachers who cannot manage a classroom.
By any measure including my own, I was a failure as a teacher. But I learned that with the right support, it didn’t have to be that way. I could not only be a successful teacher but a really good teacher if I were given the assistance I needed from my administration.
I know a lot of folks like to blame others for their failures, but I really have to wonder what my former principal would think if she were able to see what I am up to now. In my case, I really think that I could have been a better middle school teacher if my administrators had given me the support to make it happen. Failure was probably one of the best things to happen to me because it put me on the path I’m walking now, but it stung. It hurt for a few years. I’d like to think I bounced back from it pretty well in the end, though. My former principal would have been completely gobsmacked if she had seen me walk across the room at the Secondary Section Luncheon on Saturday to receive a Secondary Section Teacher of Excellence Award from NCTE.