Surviving to Stability: Recommitting to Year Two

Guest Contributor Erika Lai graduated from the University of Houston with a B.A. in English Literature and a minor in Leadership Studies. She teaches English at YES Prep East End.

Surviving to Stability: Recommitting to Year Two

Last year I wrote “Surviving Year One of Teaching” during a time in my career when I really had to look for reasons to stay. Around February of my first year, we were getting emails about “recommitting for 16-17,” and I responded as I usually do when any sort of serious commitment presents itself– I panicked. I quickly sought advice from veteran teachers (including my own mother) and made time for a lot of self-reflection. It’s March again, my second year of teaching is coming to a close, and I’d like to share with you why I recommitted to year two.

The Reality of the Teaching Learning Curve

Regardless of how much training you receive prior to year one, there’s nothing like your first year in your own classroom. Usually when you ask experienced teachers about their first year of teaching, they’ll preface the conversation with a good, hearty, borderline facetious laugh. Why? It’s the natureLai learning curve of the beast. It’s the learning curve.  My first year of teaching was pretty rough. Even for someone who really loved their students, I wasn’t very happy with my job and felt like I was constantly putting out a million fires. I could never determine when to give consequences, I was too afraid to contact a majority of my parents because of my basic Spanish skills, and I was planning lessons just one day before I executed them. The honest answer is that I only began to conquer the curve after my first
year of teaching. With a solid year of rookie mistakes in ALL pockets—front and back, I was able to anticipate the bumps in the road and become more proactive rather than reactive. I began to be less fearful and more productive. I became more confident in front of my students and visiting stakeholders who observed me teach. Despite what scientists and doctors will tell you, there is indeed a teaching muscle, and it’s only going to get stronger the more you exercise it. Be patient and kind to yourself and soon the learning curve will begin to flatten out.

Professional Development Opportunities

Lai professional develo
NEH Teaching Shakespeare

At the end of my first year, I understood something fundamental was missing in our classroom. Lessons felt flat and boring, our readings of the texts didn’t seem meaningful to my students or me, and I was most comfortable during independent work time. My co-planner encouraged me to go to the National Endowment for the Humanities website to seek professional development in the summer between my first and second year of teaching. I stumbled upon the “Teaching Shakespeare” institute– a fully funded, month-long program in Washington D.C and sent off my application with fingers crossed. When I received my acceptance phone call from the Folger’s Director of Education, Dr. Peggy O’Brien, I knew my entire career was about to change. The program is filled with lectures, small group seminars, informal work sessions, classes with actors, interest-based research, and access to resources only found at the Folger Library, the world’s largest Shakespeare collection. This institute existed for educators to better connect a new generation of students to the archaic language of seemingly inaccessible texts. I had the opportunity to spend an entire month surrounded by twenty-four other teachers with experience ranging from two years to twenty-five years. I was challenged beyond comfort and walked away with a fiery determination to redefine the traditional methods of teaching. When I told my students to get on their feet and create skits, tableaus, and remixes of popular songs using our texts– their eyebrows were raised. During my first year, I was so busy trying to survive each day that I couldn’t do what I truly wanted—really teach my students with resources I created myself in response to their immediate and long term needs. In year two the words, “No, you don’t need to bring your anchor” (a document used to track consequences) and “Yes, you may work together as a group,” felt both liberating for me and relieving for my students.

 Surviving to Thriving

These days, teacher turnover rates are higher than ever before. Teachers and students face a variety of challenges that have altered the entire educational experience—both within our system and in our communities. The truth is, there are a lot of things we can’t directly control, but there is a lot we can do to create stability and meaning for our students and for ourselves. During my first year, all I could focus on was making sure I had lesson plans on my door, redirecting students who weren’t listening to me, and prioritizing sleeping and eating on a somewhat regular schedule. I didn’t even know what the word “gym” meant anymore. During my second year, I started independently leading East End’s Writing Club and I pitched the idea of a school newspaper to connect our Explorers through the written word to each other and our faculty. As a team, the student journalists and I discussed our vision and brainstormed the structure and purpose of our proposed school Lai surviving to thrivingnewspaper. We pitched our ideas to our School Director and proudly released our first publication of “The Monthly Catch” on November 16, 2016. The after-school program that initially seemed most appealing because of the extra stipend became transformative for not only my students and campus, but for myself. Once I escaped the struggles only a first year teacher truly understands, I was able to focus on ways to make my profession more meaningful and sustainable.




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