My first teaching assignment was at a small public elementary school in Huntington Beach. I taught third grade. It was a “tough” school in that many of the students were reading below their grade level, were second language learners, or had socio-economic challenges. Several of my students had fathers in jail. Whereas most of my teaching program classmates had chosen positions in high-income areas such as Irvine and Newport Beach, I wanted to teach kids in need.
Although I had done my student teaching at the school, I had no idea how difficult having my own classroom would be.
First, the workload. I had students of vastly differing abilities. Some were still learning their letters and sounds and others could read fluently. Some could barely speak English, while others wrote stories with ease. I therefore had to individualize assignments and create leveled curriculum tracks, rotating students in groups through centers. Because there were so many struggling students, I tutored during lunch and after school and called parents at home to discuss their child’s progress. I quickly realized that most of these parents were exhausted in the evenings, working two jobs, or did not speak English. Although they were glad that I cared, parents were limited in time, energy, and education to support their kids academically. If they could they would have been doing it. Several students had learning or developmental issues, so I advocated for them. This meant initiating meetings with parents, and pushing for Student Study Team and IEP meetings, all before or after school. The resource teacher did not like me.
For some kids, my efforts made a big difference. One child had serious speech issues that had never been addressed before. Another child’s mom credited me with teaching her son to read. I chose leveled books for him to take home daily at his reading level. His mom did not know how to do this. I saved discarded library books for one student who was bright and curious, but always in trouble. The other teachers did not like him. He was uncoordinated, dark-skinned, and loud– one of my favorites. I gave him the books after school and he began to read them in class instead of horsing around with the other boys. I’d go to the public library every two weeks and borrow the maximum number of books allowed for teachers–100. I exposed my students to the best of books and literature. Kids who did not have books to read at home could read at school instead.
I was the first to arrive in the morning. I arrived by 6:30 AM and prepared until 8 AM, watching the sun rise, it’s light reflecting off my whiteboard. I worked through lunch and was the last person to leave. I took papers home to grade and materials to prepare. It was not unusual for me to fall asleep at the wheel of the car as soon as I had parked in in front of my house. I had no parent volunteers, no teaching assistants. Still, a parent would ask accusingly, “Miss Wu, why don’t you put something new on your bulletin board?”
Managing the classroom was a nightmare. I was completely detached from the world of children and families. Why weren’t kids listening to me? Why were they always arguing? Why did they talk back? Why couldn’t I get the class to quiet down? Why did I have to yell at them for them to listen to me? I was sweet, nice, and stepped all over. Imagine me with small footprints–no, tractor tread marks–all over my face and front of my clothes. Inexperienced working with children, I did not know how to assert my authority. I could not relate to their home and family backgrounds. I only knew my own Asian heritage where most kids do what the teacher says.
As the school year progressed, I grew to dislike teaching more and more. I counted down the days until summer. Managing the classroom and all the non-teaching tasks such as preparing materials, enforcing behavior plans, resolving fights and friendship issues, photocopying, and organizing papers was extremely draining. I’d wake up in the middle of the night stressed, look in the mirror, and find permanent frown lines between my brows. Soon my desire to do good was not enough to compensate for my disdain for everything else. I kept up the after-school tutoring, advocating for services, and designing fun lessons, but the classroom discipline and mundane tasks were killing me.
By the end of the school year, I decided to quit.