The Crucible that is Teaching

Remorse hung heavy in the air after 6th period.  As the school day drew to a close, the atmosphere in my classroom, and my spirit, dropped precipitously.  Memories of my shortcomings from earlier in the day melded with the shame that arose from them, for in the heat of the moment, pressured by the unyielding passing of time, I lost my temper with a colleague.

Flashbacks to the pressures of plebe year at the U.S. Military Academy frequented my mind afterwards.  A lifetime of intensity in startups, Fortune 100 companies, and high-tech powerhouses provided plenty of opportunities for me to hone my patience, deal with adversity, and make sound decisions under pressure.  Yet, in the span of less than thirty seconds earlier today, I found myself caught in what seemed an unsolvable situation.  What happened in those thirty seconds, and the minutes that followed reflect a low point in my new career, of which I am not proud.  I am still reeling from it.

Haste Makes Waste

Today marked the beginning of finals week with two days left for my AP Calculus AB classes before the exams officially commence.  In these two days, I hoped to review the entire semester, which while not ideal, was better than no review at all.  As a new teacher, I have yet to develop as vast a repertoire of resources as I wish.  Final exam review packets are most noticeably absent, for this course in particular.  Yet, at the last moment, I stumbled upon another teacher’s review packet which looked nearly perfect for my needs.  With sheer minutes to go before the bell for the end of my prep period rang, I printed off a copy of the packet and rushed out my classroom door for the copy machine.  This haste created undue waste.

Arriving at the copy machine, slightly out of breath, my smile to the person currently collating copies opened the door for her to ask me if I needed to copy my materials quickly.  Fortune smiled on me at that moment, as my  gamble looked as if it would pay off.  Sadly, my overloaded mind forgot what the kind soul pointed out to me mere seconds earlier: the staple function was not working properly.  After keying in my copier code, pressing the right sequence for a double-sided, three-hole punched, stapled set of forty copies, I took the liberty to address certain urgent biologic necessities.  In the span of the two minutes, or less, I was away, the copier jammed, with letter-number codes for jam locations filling the copier’s screen.  At that moment, as if on cue, the bell signaling the end of my prep period rang.  For a moment, I stared at the screen knowing I could not remove all the paper jams fast enough to get the copier operating and make it back to my classroom before the tardy bell rang, let alone restart my print job.  Fortune flew from the room faster than the Road Runner with Wile E. Coyote running after him.

Mere seconds later, as I turned towards the teacher waiting to use the copier, she disdainfully reminded me that the same scenario played itself out just a few weeks earlier, with me needing to rush away from the copier begging forgiveness.  Apparently, that sin had not been forgiven for she insisted that I fix the copier before leaving for my classroom, which was like asking me to make miracles happen; I am not that good.  Caught in the desperation of the moment, and stung by her lack of compassion, I snapped at her as I exited the room.  I do not remember the exact words, none of which would cause anyone to blush, however, my tone left no doubt as to my displeasure.

Fortunately, as I exited the staff lounge / copy room, I noticed a teacher’s aide who answered my plea for help.  Dashing off to my classroom, in the rain no less, I opened the door for my students just as the aide arrived.  Thanking her profusely, I rushed back to the copy room only to find another teacher in line allied with the teacher I dissed.  With my breath coming in gasps, my answer to her query as to whether I believed I could simply get back to my print job made her ask why I was speaking so loudly or something along those lines.  My short answer: I was out of breath and doing my best to answer.  With that out-of-the-way, the discussion centered on the fact that I had left the copy room, with the copier jammed even, and as such forfeited my place in line, if not my right to use the copier.  Further, I found myself as the recipient of a lecture from the second teacher about proper preparation for a class.  Somewhat bewildered by what seemed as pettiness, since neither had the immediacy of teaching a class as it was their prep period, I begrudgingly accepted my fate.  I sat at the table waiting for the first aide to finish her job, so the other two teachers could make their copies.

Venting Vociferously

Stung by their rebuke, yet aware that my lack of proper planning did not constitute a crisis on their part, I settled in for the wait knowing another aide watched over my students.  In a feeble attempt at recompense for my foolhardy behavior, I tendered half a ream of paper to each.  Both waved it off, which in hindsight was better than hitting me with it.  As the first teacher headed off to the restroom, the second asked how many copies I needed to make.  With a sheepish smile, I responded thirty to which she said “go ahead.”  Jumping at the opportunity, I loaded up the machine, ensuring I only selected double-sided copy for a count of thirty and pressed start.  At that point, I apologized to the second teacher and for some reason launched into a tirade venting vociferously about the unfairness of the predicament I found myself in (or what sure felt like injustice to me), the lack of support I felt as a new teacher, and the difficulty of being a new teacher with three preps.    She acknowledged my plight.

With the first teacher away, and my copies streaming from the machine, I thanked the second teacher and noted that we had not been formally introduced.  As we shook hands, introducing ourselves, I sat back and apologized again for my behavior.  Just as I started to exit the room, I noticed the assistant principle of discipline (APD) and the school secretary, along with someone else I cannot remember, walk into the room.  The APD said hi as I walked out.  As I headed back to my classroom, I realized he had been called in by the secretary since my venting had not gone unnoticed.  Luckily, all had settled down with a shared understanding taking root between some of the parties.

Pyrrhic Victory

Returning to my classroom, the nature of what seemed a Pyrrhic victory nestled uncomfortably into my mind.  While I succeeded in providing my students with a robust study guide packet, I suffered undue emotional distress and worse, caused it in others.  I still feel remorseful for my actions.

My only salvation may come from an apology email I sent to the first teacher, copying the second, where I owned my mistake.  I also offered a glimpse into my frame of mind and condition as a new teacher, in the hope that the teacher might empathize.  Additionally, I asked if she might reflect upon her demeanor and the contempt she conveyed in her statements in the middle of my dilemma harkening back to her years as a new teacher.  At the same time, I made it clear that my apology was unconditional, and that no amount of context I provided excused my behavior.

After sending my email to her, I forwarded it to the APD, and then forwarded that on to my principal.  I wanted the principal to know the shame I felt along with my desire to speak further about the situation, and the intense load I carry as a new teacher.  A face to face discussion with the principal later in the day went OK, where I was acknowledged as a fine teacher who had a bad day.  And it surely was.  I hope tomorrow brings brighter moments.

A Difficult Conversation Still Needed

I still need to speak with my principal to suggest that new teachers should not be assigned three preps on top of having to complete BTSA and work on a district team for the Common Core State Standards.  If the intent is to dishearten a new teacher or dissuade one from continuing in the profession, then they should ignore my suggestion.  If not, then I hope they consider it seriously.  For I still teeter on the edge of wanting to quit with such an overwhelming set of tasks every single day.  Making this statement does not come easily for I thrive in challenging work environments.  At the same time, in my three decades of work experience, the job of a new teacher, this new teacher specifically, is the most demanding, least supported, most taken for granted, and near lowest compensated one I have ever held.  While passion called me into the fold, dispassion may drive me out.

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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12 Responses to The Crucible that is Teaching

  1. PLu says:

    I am a 41-year teacher of Calc ( and various other courses including Discrete right now) who is retiring this year. Honestly, the pressure never gets better, which is probably a reflection of how demanding you are of yourself……so it’s not completely a bad thing. The three prep issue is HUGE. Having said that, for 37 years I had 3 preps,so don’t hold your breath. My advice: Every day capture a positive moment with a student and savor it. If you can’t find one of those each day, then start generating them. If you can’t do that, you’ll go crazy with the demands/pressure. Go out there and grab a good moment today!!


  2. Patti Harris says:

    It is good to hear a fellow grad struggles as I do in this most thankless yet rewarding profession. When the frustrations mount (and they do), walk away for a few minutes, or a day, and remember we are only human, and the good we do is not in a brilliant lesson plan or perfect exam review, but in the care and compassion we show our students everyday.

    Patti Medina Harris


    • Thanks, Patti. This one got the best of me. Lesson learned: do not try to do too much, too quickly…or as grandma says, “haste makes waste.” Or grandpa: “the path to hell is paved with the best intentions”… 🙂

      On Tue, Dec 18, 2012 at 3:11 AM, Reflections of a Second-career Math


      • Patti Harris says:

        Smile. It only lasts for a day or two, then you do something truly great and you know why you keep teaching…for now.


  3. Myra Shepherd says:

    Today is my last day in the classroom. . . at least for a while . . . I have resigned over similar (though less, I must admit) struggles and frustrations with the hope of pursuing better circumstances, closer to home and using the time to regroup and reassess why I’m doing this and what are reasonable expectations. I love teaching and love making a difference in young people’s lives — I hate some of the bureaucracy and other things that seem mostly beyond my control. You continue to inspire me Dave! Myra Shepherd


    • I hope you find what you seek, Myra. In some ways, I’m not 100% sure what I seek, which has been a lifelong struggle. I do know I want to make this work, even though any economic analysis (ROI, NPV, etc) screams that I should run, fast and far…yet, the service I provide, appreciated or not, is one I feel called to do for the present. Perhaps in amends for past transgressions, as payback for a debt I owe society for the awesome privilege of attending USMA, or some other yet to be determined reason…it does wear on me though. Peace to you and happy holidays!


    • Patti Harris says:

      I am sorry to hear that, Myra. I do hope that this ending turns into a happy new beginning for you–wherever that may be.


  4. Dave ( also a career changer Math teacher ),a few years ahead of you. says:

    Let me first say that I did not read your entire diatribe as I have been there, done that, as they say. And felt like a jerk therafter. Pretty much, whenever we do important stuff at last moment S__T happens. I also wonder, should you have taken someone else’s work WO permission ? And really, how much different would results likely be WO the packet ? Stress is one of the biggest killers. You are too good to get burned out. When you come east, W Point area, you must contact me.


    • Thanks, Dave. I will do that. On the copyright front, unless the material is declared as copyrighted, there is no issue, especially when available to the general public. I’m sure you’re familiar with the beg, borrow, and, ‘ahem,’ steal, necessity wrt teacher material for new teachers…Even with copyright, which does not apply in this case, there are fair use provisions which are typically in play for education purposes, with exceptions for music, movies, and other works that typically generate revenue…


  5. Thanks, Russ. It was a truly awful moment. I hope no one has to experience anything similar.

    The first teacher responded to my apology email with a litany of judgments about me (under the guise of clarifications, and perhaps some venting of her own) to which I simply responded with another apology and request she look past the inconveniences I caused her…not sure that will happen, but I will just own my failings and hope others wake up to theirs at some point.

    Peace, my friend.

    On Tue, Dec 18, 2012 at 4:47 PM, Reflections of a Second-career Math


  6. Pingback: How hard is teaching? | Reflections of a Second-career Math Teacher

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