More Confessions of an Ineffective Teacher

Each year of my first five years in the classroom had super high points and equally impressive low points. Every teacher has a story to tell about why they are in education and why they have persevered.
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If they're honest, every seasoned teacher has had times when their teaching was not up to par - where a class got the best of them, when reactions were not the most useful, or where teachable moments needed to be realized by them. This is the natural growth process for newer teachers.

The picture was from my first two years of teaching. A new article about nurturing effective teachers and the power of using videotaped lessons helped me reflect on the growth process during that time. I realized there was more to tell about the transition from NOVICE to MODERATELY-EXPERIENCED to MASTER TEACHER. In fact, every teacher has a story to tell about why they are in education and why they have persevered.

Each year of my first five years in the classroom had super high points and equally impressive low points. I'll start with the lows because I realize that part one of this series incorrectly hinted that I had not experienced that much difficulty as a young teacher:

Years 1 & 2
  • Worried about course difficulty, so I told my Algebra 1 class on the first day that the class would be "easy." As a result, this group was the hardest to teach for a whole year because I set such a low expectation!
  • Found myself yelling in the class's direction and saying how stupid I was one day for not being an excellent teacher [yet].
  • Had a student who was deaf in one ear (a disability I share from a childhood car accident) and got her to say she hated the way I taught.
  • Got one of my students in trouble and involved parents not realizing that I potentially participated in an abuse cycle in a household.
  • Struggled with class discipline (also known as 'learning the ropes').
Year 3
  • Was a long-term substitute for a hard group and one day, had students so out of control they started a fire in a trashcan.
  • Still struggled with class discipline despite the handbook I was eagerly reading.
  • Poorly handled an upset student so he threw a desk in my direction while also coming face to face with me in anger.
  • Complained about a student's behavior to a town mayor who was also the grandparent - the core issue surprisingly was still my own struggle with classroom discipline, which I will revisit at the end of this article.
Year 4
  • Argued out loud with an angry student while teaching a methods class (a great example right?).
  • But finally had endured enough hardships so I made the final ascent towards mastery. As Ja'net Dubois and Oren Waters first penned in the 1970s, it 'took a whole lot of tryin, just to get up that hill.'

I hope this unpleasant look at my first few years of teaching shows that I was not always dancing with the stars. I wasn't on the cover of Teacher's Weekly, or at least not for a good reason. In fact, I had to learn many of Ron Clark's Essential 55 lessons for teachers the hard way.

But during each of those years, there were some of the highlights of my career that I will never, ever forget or be ashamed about. I cherish them because they made me who I am! In fact, those highlights made every mistake worth the price of learning. After all, what would teaching be if the teachers themselves didn't also have to learn too?

Some of those highlights are mine alone, but a few are important to share here. In my first months as a teacher, I connected with a struggling student that my colleagues were bragging about failing. I tutored him daily during lunch and after school in every chance I had and lifted a high bar of my satisfaction for that student. He jumped at the chance to succeed and passed the final exam which I had promised him would be very difficult. In this process, I realized my role as a game changer at times when corporate or educator attitudes are not where they should be.

And remember that student who was deaf in one ear? She put me on a yearlong learning track so that I could be an effective teacher for her. And I learned the lesson. At some point after I finally learned how to teach her, I realized that I was also helping her live effectively and shamelessly with a disability. Wow!

Every seasoned teacher who endures has a list in their mind of students they are changing. After all, students come to us with a discrete set of needs. They might not want us to fill all of them, but they are waiting to see if we can fill at least one. And it is always our job to adapt.

Along the way during my turbulent yet exciting first five years of teaching, there were experiences that kept me young and always trying to think of new ways to approach what was challenging. In fact, this is really where I can celebrate my fellow colleagues and leaders that knew the way towards mastery.

Here are some more turnaround moments and tips that I learned from master teachers and leaders I worked alongside:

  1. Make them sweat. Whenever I would bring a difficult student to my principal in my first two years, he would have the student sit outside his office. Sometimes, it was for more than hour - it depended on how stubborn the child was. Everyone needed time to sweat.
  2. Be a lifesaver and help to other teachers. One of my colleagues in my second year taught me a life lesson of paying it forward. I can never repay her and am thankful.
  3. Be real with your colleagues and don't hide. My principal in my third year had a minor teaching role in the school and we actually had major problems with one of the same students. I so appreciated knowing that even a seasoned leader had students that were difficult.
  4. Be a friend to newer teachers everywhere. Also in my third year were super-friendly colleagues that shared in my own journey in teaching by being honest, real, and inviting. I especially recall Eric for his candor and Mrs. Pat whose door was always open even years after I left the school.
  5. Be a mentor without knowing it. In my fourth year of teaching, a fellow college instructor, Homayra, generously welcomed me into her planning, challenges, and successes. The humility I saw helped me excel that year well beyond my own expectations so that hints of mastery were showing up everywhere.
  6. Be a model of a great way to do things. In my fifth and sixth years of teaching, a co-teacher and friend involved me in all areas of his professional craft as a teacher, showing me how to run the office, how to run the classes, and especially how to teach with genuine love, passion, and friendship. I cannot say thanks enough to Doug.
  7. Persist, persist, persist. I think the key ingredient to becoming an excellent teacher really has to do with being an excellent person. We don't get an award for trying, but we learn something special every time we do - so don't give up.

In this unexpected second part of a series, I just wanted to remind younger and newer teachers - and others as well - that it is okay to struggle when we learn mastery in this profession. After all, if we did not sweat, then what would our learning really amount to in the end?

Classroom Discipline that Lasts

If you are a teacher who struggles with classroom discipline, welcome to the profession of teaching. Believe it or not, students make sport of getting younger teachers to unhinge. It's like turkey season for some, but in all actuality they are trying a set of student skills to see where we have the answers and where we don't.

The best advice I can give is three-fold. First, read all of the books you can find on classroom management. Study the websites, and know what works. Second, seek outside opinions (other teachers, leaders, even friends and family) when something goes off the rails and always ask them to share how you can improve. You need people to be honest with you, not just to agree with you. Last, remember something that I had the privilege of learning in my fourth year: sometimes the biggest impediment to a lesson being learned is me.

If you ever have any questions, I am here to help you! Reach out to me on Facebook or LinkedIn.


Dr. Jonathan Doll is an advocate of school safety and teacher effectiveness. He wrote the book Ending School Shootings and was the keynote speaker at Post University's May 2015 conference, "Building resilience in lethal school violence prevention."

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