Published originally in the Spring 2009 issue of the Berea College Magazine
by Ali Duff, ’07
I thought a college degree would guarantee me a job. Applications and resumes had consumed me since April and I would soon be spotting holes in my first business suit. What was I going to do? I remember being told, “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know.” Soon, one of the “who you knows” called me.
Within an hour of e-mailing the recommended principal, I had an interview. I walked in carrying my teaching portfolio to showcase my talents and then sat nervously in front of three people who possibly held the key to my future. The interview was a blur; the answers to the questions almost an automatic response. These two principals and the head of the English department were serious business, especially the English teacher. Could I live up to their expectations? Could I be that teacher? I left the interview expecting another rejection and continued scheduling other interviews.
Feeling defeated, I plopped myself in my car before driving back to my job working with kids at a summer camp. I was tired of not knowing what to expect for my future. If something didn’t happen soon, I didn’t know how I’d pay my bills, move out of my parents’ house and become the adult I longed to be.
I needed divine intervention.
While leaving another interview, the assistant principal from Pendleton County High School, where I first interviewed, offered me a teaching position, saying that I’d be perfect for the job. “Wow” and “awesome” escaped my lips. I was really going to be a teacher!
August 21 was the big day. While I had my own “classroom,” it was a cart on wheels; but I had class rosters, the first few weeks of lessons, and my syllabus was ready. Enthusiastic, I arrived before 7 a.m. every morning, staying until 4 p.m. each afternoon. After school I reviewed lesson plans. The teaching gig wasn’t too bad, other than collapsing onto my bed by 7 p.m. every night.
The first month brought a comfortable routine. My sophomore classes developed their own personalities, as did both senior classes. It seemed as if every other day I was being observed by the administration. Every time a principal visited I felt I was doing everything wrong and my teaching would be torn apart. I was an intern apprenticed to an unfamiliar college professor, my mentor teacher and the assistant principal who critiqued my teaching and lesson plans.
Soon after getting the hang of teaching, quarter grades and my first round of formal observations from my internship team approached. Not only did my observers come, but also the “big guys” from the Board of Education. Time to show what I was made of! Other teachers were asking to use my lessons in their classes. How much better could it get? I spent October perfecting my lesson plans, making every word precise and dedicating every class minute to valuable instruction.
Then the college professor assigned to me observed my worst class. For those 90 minutes, it seemed that my students were eating me alive. Teaching Antigone to a room full of farm boys felt like leading a cow down steps; it doesn’t really happen. Somehow I made it out with scores that were surely better than what really happened.
According to “expert” studies, first year teachers often take a nose dive in confidence. By November, I was dragging myself out of the building every day, counting the minutes until I could climb into bed. Yet, I was eager to get up each morning to teach. By now, my students were my kids. I knew what made them mad, what got them to work, and unfortunately, the baggage most of them carried. I also learned another valuable lesson. Students need breaks, too.
Berea’s homecoming came around and, for the first time in my life, I couldn’t wait to go back to campus. I visited Dr. Oliver Keels’ office feeling as trampled and tired as I had while working my way through college. After he asked how my first year was going, I sighed. “I’m always tired” and “It’s not as great as I thought it would be.” His simple advice got me through the rest of the year: “You are allowed to feel that way,” he said.
The new year brought a new classroom. Everything was fresh, from the desks to the paint. I had made it through the first half of the year. Surely, the remaining time would be easier. As my seniors kept at their portfolios, my “free time” filled with the splatter of red ink on their papers.
My sophomores busily read everything from short stories to novels. Many students complained, “I don’t read, Ms. Duff!” It reminded me of myself as a teenager. With a smile, I responded, “Do you drive? Do you shop? Do you watch TV?” They answered with a confused “Yes.” My point was proven, I said, “Then you do read. Now get busy!”
February and January also brought 11 surprises: snow days! As a worn-out first year teacher, I couldn’t have been more grateful for them.
Spring brought more writing portfolios. The red ink kept flowing, and my students and I grew more frustrated with each other. They would thank me later.
After being videotaped in the classroom, I waited for my observers to score me. My forehead was pressed to my desk to avoid throwing up with nervousness.
Expecting the worst, I walked into the final internship meeting. My supervising teacher said, “You’re doing such a great job that we’re going to observe you next year to learn how to improve our own teaching.” My fears about being a terrible teacher left me. I knew I’d done what was expected, maybe even more.
The year was coming to an end. and it was hard to believe it had gone so quickly. My seniors were giving their last efforts to make it to graduation, struggling to overcome “senioritis.” As students looked forward to summer, I rushed to finish last-minute tasks: grading, packing up my room, making sure all the paperwork was filled out and turned in. Teachers love summer too!
Looking back on my first year, I wonder how I survived. The year was a blur of struggles, triumphs, tears and laughter. I watched my first class of seniors cross the stage to receive their diplomas, knowing these students had also improved their state writing scores by 30 percent! I felt as if 50 of my own children were graduating. Already, some of these students have come back to visit. One decided to go into English education as she started her first year of college.
Two things are certain as I enter my second year of teaching: Berea College readied me for the challenged of teaching; and wherever I go, there will always be a Berea family to support me.