It was 1984 and I was fresh out of college. Due to my poor interviewing skills, I ended up on the sub list in various local districts. My first gig found me in a high school science room. I read the plans and got “my” class on task. They were reading a chapter and would eventually be answering the questions at the end of that chapter. The room was quiet. I was in charge. Life was good. I was a competent teacher.
Then things changed.
A girl in the front called my attention to the fact that one of the pet gerbils was eating one of its babies.
“That’s their way,” I tried, “please get back to work and try to ignore the gerbils.”
The class was having none of it. “Save the babies! Do something!”
Rising to the occasion, I reached into the cage, planning to move the baby-eater to a different tank. But the gerbil had other ideas. He (or she?) bit down on my thumb with surprising force. I yelped and whipped my hand out of the cage. The gerbil sailed across the room, over the heads of “my” students and landed in a deep science sink.
The class ran back to the sink. “You’ve killed our gerbil!”
I pushed back. “First of all, we’re not sure it’s dead. It might just be unconscious. (It wasn’t) Secondly, if you remember, this gerbil was eating its young just a minute ago. And finally, look at my thumb; there’s blood pulsing out of it. I’m going to need all of you to get back to work on your chapter. And I need someone to find me a bandage.”
That was the first day of my career. Some people might have given up after that fiasco, but I persevered. And here I am, thirty-two years later, still plugging away.
If you’re a new teacher, you probably just had a great week or two. You love your job, you love your students and you love your colleagues.
That will soon change.
Most of us are familiar with this image, conceived by Ellen Moir:
It’s actually fairly accurate. At least in my experience. Teaching is different than a lot of jobs in that it’s entirely interactive. And the people with whom we interact don’t always have the same agenda as we do. And depending on the month, it can be easier or harder to convince them to adopt our agenda.
In fact, I’ve found that this image has applied to every year in my career. With one major caveat: the slope of the line has become flatter; the highs aren’t as high and the lows definitely aren’t as low.
Mostly because I’ve come to expect the expected. I know how a school year unfolds and I’m prepared for it. It’s like knowing the difference between autumn and a dead tree.
So if you’re new, welcome aboard. You picked a great career. You’ll love it, then you’ll hate it, but then you’ll love it. You’ll never be bored. And you’ll always be doing something important.
Keep at it and keep learning. Take it seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously.
And stay away from gerbils.