Welcome to the Influence

Posted by on Jul 20, 2012 in Mixes | 10 comments

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And life barrels on like a runaway train/Where the passengers change/They don’t change anything

Some of my favorite conversations with teachers revolve around some of the formative experiences they had that lead them to becoming the kind of teacher they are today. Sometimes these are experiences that answer the “Why did you become a teacher?” question. Those stories are interesting to me, but not as interesting as the nitty-gritty stories that demonstrate the growth stages a teacher would hit along the way. Sometimes these stories stretch back to childhood, and sometimes they happened in the relatively recent past.

So to kick off the Influences strain of posts for this blog, I’m going to share a confession.

I was a terrible teacher my first year.

“Oh, we all were!” is the response I normally get to this statement. But wait, there’s more.

I was such a terrible teacher that I nearly lost my job after my first year on the job.

Mr. Callahan 1.0, before I really knew what I was getting into

I’ll freely take a lot* of the blame for that. My skills in some areas, in particular classroom management, were terribly weak. I was not a particularly reflective person at the age of 23, and I ended up way over my head very quickly.

Not to say that I didn’t try. I was the first teacher in my building almost every day that year, and the last one to leave as well most days. That was me just trying to keep up.

It was a very hard year for me. But also incredibly influential.

Thanks to the intervention of my district’s Director of Special Education, I was given the opportunity to come back the following year in a new school.

I spent that summer in between reading everything I could. I spent it planning and strategizing.I studied everything about the way I did things under a microscope, then tore it apart and started from scratch. The summer, I built Mr. Callahan 2.0.**

The next year I came back in my new school, and, not to brag too much, but I crushed it.

Ever since then, I have felt a strong urge to examine what I’m doing and truly think about what I’m doing and how it’s working for me. Some years I’ll tinker with it on my own. Other years I’ll attend some sort of professional development that will cause me to radically rethink my approach. Or I’ll start working with somebody new that makes me think about my role in a different way. I’m constantly both consciously and unconsciously setting goals for my own professional growth.

So, in retrospect, while that first year of teaching was the hardest of my life, and I wouldn’t relive it again for any amount of money, I’m glad that it happened, because it set the stage for everything I’ve done since then.

Mr. Callahan 6.2 at Edcamp Philly. Photo by Diana Marcus.

*Not all, though. A side story: it’s the first day for new teachers, and we spend the morning in the basic new teacher stuff. In the afternoon we finally have the opportunity to go meet with our building principals. We’re a bunch of nervous, inexperienced teachers, who have been hearing that our school is the most challenging in the entire district. We need a pep talk. We sit down in the meeting, ready to hear from our leader. He greets us, and then moves straight on to the first agenda item: copier numbers. I swear to God.

**By my reckoning, I’m working on Mr. Callahan 7.0, rolling out to schools everywhere this Fall. Not a bad amount of reinvention for 10 years as a teacher, I think.

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previous post: The Breakdown: Critical Skills Institute next post: Going Dark


  1. Hi, are you me?

    Your experiences mirror mine almost exactly. I, too, had a most troubling first year, to the point where it was questionable as to whether or not I would be re-hired for the following year. Thanks in large part to 4×4 block scheduling, I was able to start my own re-invention in January instead of the following September, and where I thought I was working my ass off before, I learned to work smarter, not harder, among other things. My second semester of teaching was infinitely more successful than my first, but the question of my re-hiring still hung over my head, because what if that second semester was a fluke, or beginner’s luck?

    I still remember sitting in the Director of Curriculum’s office with my supervisor for my final annual evaluation meeting. He asked me point blank what assurance I could give that what happened my first semester would never happen again. My response was that having lived through it once (“it” being that first semester of awful teaching), I never want to go through it again, and that each semester from then on would get progressively better. They ultimately re-hired me, and I made good on my promise every semester until I left teaching in 2008.

    You’re right, though – that first year was damn near a dealbreaker, but it ultimately turned out to be the jumpstart into adulthood and my crash course in what good teaching demands that – at the risk of sounding cliche – helped me to become the educator I am today.

    I’m still trying to make good on that continuous improvement thing, too, twelve years later.

    • Yeah, sometimes I feel like every day I’m still trying to make up for how terrible I was that first year.

  2. I have a feeling this experience is more common than we’d care to admit. I won’t say I was on the chopping block after my first year, but thinking back and reflecting I was not a great teacher. I made it through the first few years, but I certainly can’t say I was amazing. I do think I’ve done so much better, and have to think that writing a blog and expanding my PLN. Thank you so much for sharing this story!

    • Yeah, I know almost everybody feels like they were pretty crappy their first year. I just definitively know how close I was based on my evaluations and my AP’s eagerness to document each and every one of my failures.

  3. And look at you now! Really, I have the same thoughts about my first year, but no one ever came in my room so I never had to deal with how bad it probably was. This is not a profession for the weak! It takes more self-reflection than I think others may realize, and it cannot be done without putting yourself under a microscope every day. Well done 🙂

    • I’m fortunate that by the time I had a principal who didn’t care to come into my classroom at all, I was at least decent. Which is fortunate for everybody, since I got tenured under his supervision.

  4. I am glad it wasn’t just me. I am returning to teaching after 7 years as a technology facilitator (completely by choice) and have some of the same reflections on my past performance.

    • Good luck back in the classroom! What made you decide to go back?

  5. I think I reinvent myself daily. Weekly during a slow season.

    • Sometimes it feels that way a lot, especially when something’s not working and I’m trying to figure out what will.


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