By the time these lines are published in the Marion County Express, I’ll know whether I’ve been offered a new contract to teach in my current district or if I’m looking for a job.
This is a harrowing time for me. I built up more than $60,000 in student loan debt to earn a master’s degree on what was essentially a high-stakes gamble: Could I add to my education and stay in the middle class after being cut by big corporate media or will I fall flat on my nose and need to rebuild yet again at 47?
I teach middle school English, or language arts as they call it these days.
I go through the same formal evaluation process as do all first-year teachers in my district.
I just finished my second last week. It went well. My supervisors were positive.
But you don’t know until the ink is dry and for a chronic sufferer of acute anxiety, this period proves the late Tom Petty right: Waiting is the hardest part.
Everybody tells you the first year is going to be hard. The professors in school tell you. Your mentor teacher tells you in student teaching. The administrators who hire you tell you.
At some intellectual level, I understood this was going to be a hard job, but that’s sort of like saying you understand your body will have aches and pains when you get older.
Only when you are older and living with those aches and pains do you truly understand the burden.
I’ve already done everything I said I would never do as a teacher.
I’ve yelled at students.
I mean I’ve yelled from the bottom of my lungs until my voice nearly cracked. I thought I would never do that. But I have. It happens, my mentors say.
I once texted a mentor teacher that I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through the class.
She asked if I wanted her to step in for a minute. I did.
But she told me after it was over that it wasn’t as bad as I thought.
I was still helping students figure out questions on their tests. I was still alert. I was still in the game.
She, too, lives with a brain that tends to churn chemicals into a cocktail that produces the worst kind of fight-or-flight, emergency anxiety.
We’ve bonded over that. We support each other.
A brain prone to anxious thoughts takes a small bit of real anxiety — am I going to get a new contract or not — and turns those thoughts against and runs them through your body like razor blades in your veins.
A sample of this thinking:
My contract renewal is due.
I’m not going to get a new contract.
I’m not going to get a new contract because I’m a terrible teacher.
I’m not going to get a new contract because I’m a terrible person.
I’m not going to get a new contract and will never get another teaching job.
I’m not going to get a new contract and I’m going to go bankrupt, get thrown out of my apartment, and die shivering in a homeless encampment down by the river.
There is only one true statement in that rant: My contract renewal is due.
The rest is panic and fear and self-loathing that people with anxiety live with to some degree daily.
Medication controls this for me most of the time. But the last few weeks have not been great for the mind and body.
The recent cold weather makes my arthritic knees stiffer and more painful.
And if you thought the long series of negative thoughts about my teaching contract was exhausting, I’ll spare you what my brain can do with a health worry.
A few weeks ago, I was convinced I had cancer and was on the slow path to the crematorium.
Here’s the reality: I don’t know if I’m going to get a new contract or not.
I think it will probably be OK. Everybody is encouraging, even my supervisors.
If it doesn’t work out, well, I’ve been knocked down before and gotten up again.
My therapist says I’m resilient.
Am I a good teacher?
I want to be.
I’m working to be.
I’m just so new, a puppy who still has accidents, even after almost seven months at the whiteboard.
I’m getting better. I’ve learned from my mistakes.
I hear the voice of Darth Vader in the back of my mind: “Drake University has taught you well, but you are not a teacher yet.”
I’m getting there. I get by on little moments, ones that aren’t in the grade book or curriculum.
The other day, I was subbing in a music class. One of my sixth graders plucked at the piano.
Years ago, I took piano lessons at the instance of my father. I begged out of it because I didn’t want to practice.
I’ve long forgotten how to read music, but I always remembered a simplified version of the refrain from the Hoagy Carmichael and Frank Loesser song “Heart and Soul.”
I asked my student if she wanted to try it. She wasn’t sure, but I convinced her.
My out-of-practice fingers fumbled. I helped her learn the notes. We learned together. By the end, we weren’t half bad.
She smiled and so did I.
I was a good teacher that day.
Middle school teacher Daniel P. Finney is a Marion County Express columnist.
Daniel P. Finney wrote for newspapers for 27 years before being laid off in 2020. He teaches middle school English now. He writes columns and podcasts for ParagraphStacker.com, a free, reader-supported website. Please consider donating $10 a month to help him cover the expenses of this site.
Post: 1217 24th St., Apt. 36, Des Moines, 50311.
Every year for 35 years I sweated the contract renewal. It came. I quickly signed it, even driving to the school board office to deliver it. I never relied on campus mail, where I was sure someone would pluck mine out of the stack and I would be out of a job. Well, there was this secretary at PACE that would deny my 495 request for a medical leave by ripping it up, until I got wise and took it to the top. that ended that practice. I feel for you. Sure being a first year teacher is rough, you never ever want to get into a power struggle with a kid, and never show the fear in your eyes. For the 20 years in DMPS, it has never been easy, and yet the contract comes. I do suggest one more thing. As you renew your license, get the high school journalism endorsement as well as reading endorsment. You want to make yourself a bargain . Good luck. Never resign as the district wants people to do, then they do not get unemployment benefits. fight the bastards to the bitter end. BUT you are a good teacher, and some kids are the spawn of Satan and some kids are trying to figure out life. Just be careful. 🙂
As always insightful. It sometimes seems as if you live in my head. It will be fine, we both know this. Good thoughts, for the the upcoming weeks.