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Passionate high school English and History teacher inspires young minds

This high school teacher with eight years of teaching experience explains the temptation to quit her difficult job dealing with teenagers, and what keeps her from pulling the plug on this challenging but rewarding career.

What is your job title? How many years of experience do you have in that field?
My job title is English/History teacher at a public high school and I have eight years of teaching experience.

Would you describe what you do on a typical day?
On a typical teaching day, I arrive at the school approximately one hour prior to the first bell – at 7:30 in the morning. I prepare the white board, organize my lessons for the day, do some copying if necessary, and open the doors in case a student needs to make-up tests or other work. I interact with my colleagues and answer any emails I may have.

If you’ve experienced discrimination, in what ways have you responded and what response worked best?
At first, the lack of English language skills was a little problem for me, but it was overcome quickly. I never let these shortcomings get in the way of learning to speak a new language and I used a sense of humor, kindness, and asking for help in my daily life.

Because I am a more mature individual, that is, I am middle-aged female – some of the young teachers have often called me “Mom” affectionately. I look at it as being a compliment rather than being slighted by it. I believe two things: that everyone can learn, and that a person is never too old to learn. I know that my job actually is a benefit to those younger teachers who may not have the life experiences, or the initial maturity to deal with teenagers in a public school. I am of European birth, having immigrated with my family to the U.S.

Where you work, how well does your company do ‘equal opportunity’? Is management white and male? How are minorities perceived and treated?
The school where I work at the present time is located in an area of Arizona where there are many Hispanic students. That being the case, the administration is fairly aware of the need for diversity. The hiring that is done is equitable as far as opportunity for anyone who has the qualifications necessary to be able to teach at a specific grade level. The administration itself is diversified with one Hispanic female and two white males. While there are more white middle-aged teachers both male and female, there are Hispanic and Black teachers to round out the teacher population. The instructors are able to treat each other with respect and work well together.

What don’t they teach in school that would’ve been helpful to you?
One of the things that I did not learn in college that would have been really helpful when I began teaching is planning ahead at least a couple of weeks. Seeing the big picture makes it a lot easier to plan the daily work. Most colleges and universities are so focused on the single lesson plan that they forget to tell you that more than one lesson must fit into a unit of learning. I have since learned to adjust and plan a month ahead. A second thing I have learned is that teenagers in particular, respond to kindness and emotion much more than teens used to. As the old saying goes, you can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. Even male students are more emotional and wear their feelings on their sleeves more often than not.

How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?
I began in the business of education when I was faced with having to have a job that required benefits and a full year’s salary. I did a review of my education and life skills and realized that with a little push and a few more courses to obtain my teaching credential, I could have that full time job with benefits. After doing some more homework, I discovered that teachers are paid better if they have a Master’s degree. I found a good university where I could complete my course work online. Meanwhile, I was able to supplement my income with a part-time job in sales. The entire process of receiving my degree happened in about a year and a half. I would not have done anything differently. It was a lot of work but felt good when I was done.

On a good day, when things are going well, can you give an example of something that really makes you feel good?

Most of my days as a teacher are good days! What makes me feel really great is seeing the looks on the student faces when the “brain light” goes on and they truly “get” a point that I am trying to get them to see. Or when something makes everyone laugh until it hurts. When the balance of seriousness and fun is reached…that’s when I am feeling at the top of my game. On the other hand, there are days when nothing goes well. Kids come into the classroom with attitudes that disrupt the mood of the others. It’s sort of like an infection that spreads really fast. Kids have bad days too, and those days are the toughest to deal with.

How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance?
Learning how to cope with the stress of dealing with 25 to 35 teenagers on a daily basis means that you have to establish a management style that is right for you from the first day of classes. If you don’t grab a hold of it right from the start, you will have a difficult time. I have written a number of letters of resignation during my time as a teacher – each time I have torn them up when a student makes the sun shine! All it takes is one! I also maintain a healthy work-life balance by leaving school behind when I go home. Kids can become all consuming and you have to be their teacher and not their best friend. They have plenty of “best friends.”

On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What would it take to increase that rating?

On a scale of 1 to 10 I would rate my job satisfaction as an 8 because the pay level for a teacher in the state in which I live is very low and it would be good if there were an increase in the base pay of a teacher. Also, teachers seem to be required to be counselors, mentors, and even stand-ins for parents due to the fact that there are so many dysfunctional families and single parent families where the mother or father is too busy trying to make ends meet, that there is not enough time in the day to pay close attention to the needs of the kids. The burden falls on the teacher to pick up the slack.

What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough considering your responsibilities?
The salary range in this state for a beginning teacher is roughly $29,000 for someone with no experience. It goes up to approximately $50,000 for someone with multiple degrees and experience. Most schools here are not year round schools, so there is generally a two and a half months time when you are not working daily.

What’s the most rewarding moment you’ve experienced in this position? Of all the things you’ve done at work, what are you most proud of?

The most rewarding moment of my working life so far is to have had all my students pass the state exams without exception. To see that kind of improvement from the first part of the year when some students come in with major writing and comprehension problems, to being able to pass with flying colors, is truly remarkable.


What’s the most challenging moment you’ve experienced? What would you prefer to forget?

Of course, I would prefer to forget the times that you have to call parents of unruly students, or have to flunk a senior who cannot graduate because of his/her bad grades is sad. All in all, the kids still know that you cared enough to be honest and be the best role model you can be.

What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?

We can all remember the names of special teachers we had in our own school experiences. In fact, many older people can still remember the name of a favorite teacher 50 years later! That speaks volumes. In order to succeed in this field of teaching, you have to have the desire for passing on knowledge in a field that you have passion for, the consistency of sticking with getting a degree and teaching credential in that subject that interests you, and pursuing excellence. I would urge anyone who wants a good job that you can grow with, and likes kids as well, to go into the teaching profession. What other job can you have where you have a 2 months break, lots of holidays and time off, where your professional development is paid for, and you are remembered for the rest of your life?

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
If I could write my own ticket five years down the road, I would most likely want to go into administration or become a curriculum specialist. There are so many opportunities for further growth in the education profession that you can literally pick and chose where you want to be. The jobs in teaching and education can move your heart and can move the heart of a youngster as well. After all, learning is for a lifetime.

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  • I really connected with this article because if it weren’t for the teachers I have had I wouldn’t be where I am today. I had some inspiring teachers that became my mentors and encouraged me to continue in my pursuit of higher education. I have experience working as a tutor for high school students and it can be difficult to teach when a student feels like they are never going to understand a problem. However, when they do understand the process and can do it on their own, it is such a rewarding experience. Education has always been an important part of my life and I hope to one day serve as an educator in a public school in a community where the curriculum can be improved and programs can be implemented because everyone deserve the right to a great education regardless of their economic situation.

  • Thank you so, so very much for sharing this beautiful story! Perhaps where I see my own teaching and mentoring experiences connecting most to this teacher’s work with youth is my time teaching at a junior high school in Taiwan, where I discovered how my teaching is inextricably linked to the way I interact with social justice issues. At my school, I took the initiative to mentor two at-risk seventh-grade students, Kenneth and Roy.  Kenneth and Roy come from very difficult home lives and, as a result, struggle with many behavioral issues that include a general lack of motivation, acting out, and bullying, among others.  One ongoing issue they have is an inability and unwillingness to work on group activities with other students.  Instead of separating them from the rest of the class and further ostracizing them, I invited them to form a new group with me, where I have been facilitating their learning as their group leader.  One activity we did together asked students to work with their groups to brainstorm as many words as they can related to a new topic we will be learning.  As Kenneth and Roy’s group leader, I helped them with the spelling of the words, but I asked them to brainstorm and write the words themselves.  Although they were reluctant at first, they eventually grew excited about being in the same group as me, began to come up with new words by themselves, and were willing to become active participants in the activity.  This approach has allowed me to better assess Kenneth and Roy’s learning and understanding of the class material through individualized attention and instruction and, perhaps more importantly, build a stronger relationship with them as they are motivated to take ownership of their learning.

    This was an incredibly transformative period in my life where I learned about and actively dealt with the socioeconomic issues surrounding inner city life, especially underprivileged students’ educational outcomes.  I believe that teaching literacy and critical reading matters because I recognize the value of writing as a way to express one’s creativity, struggles, and views of the world. I want Kenneth and Roy to understand the importance of trying spelling on their own because writing is a special skill that may open up many opportunities for them to be heard and succeed. My role as a mentor is to take Kenneth and Roy’s lives seriously, even when they do not or, rather, could not.  It means dedicating myself to helping to build their character with them way beyond what they thought was necessary.  It means motivating them to care by showing my own interest and engagement with their process.  It means taking the time and working with them personally and giving them the guidance, instruction, and support—morally, personally, intellectually—they do not receive at home. For us, home is our newly cemented bonds and parallel joys.  Family discovered like peeling away bark and of course sometimes underneath is tender pulp.

  • Reading this interview was very heartwarming because I identified with many of the points. I taught 12th grade American History in Newark, NJ and saw many of my students struggle in school because of issues at home. No matter how stressful it was teaching there, the students kept me grounded and reminded me that this is the work I was meant to do. There are always moments when you want to quit but there are always students that steal your heart. It’s so important for teachers to band together and share stories because it can be an isolating and extremely overwhelming profession. The transparency of this interview was relevant and energizing.

  • This is such an amazing and lovely post. I can’t describe how happy I was to read the statement “…I used a sense of humor, kindness, and asking for help in my daily life.” This statement really touched me simply because I fully believe that all people could accomplish amazing changes in the world if only we spent a few minutes applying kindness to our behaviors and our actions. I personally know the benefit of having someone treat me with kindness. There are times when even just a tiny amount of love, compassion, and kindness can change the outcome for a single person. You just never know what someone may being going through. I’m so proud that this teacher sees the value in kindness.

  • Teachers like this one are amazing. This article was written in June 2011 and 6 almost 7 years later she is still teaching people that she has never met before.

    When I read the question about the salary range and if she feels that she is paid enough I was expecting an answer about how teachers need to be paid more. Her response pointed out the pay range that people in her area can expect but she never mentioned about how they need more money or even the supplies that are needed in the classroom. Instead her answer was very direct and pointed out the work schedule with summer vacation. She left it up to the reader to determine if the responsibility she fulfills is compensated in her pay.

    She realizes her role with her students is to be a mentor and teacher not their best friend. She even went on to say that she hated failing a student in their senior year keeping them from graduating but she also understands the need for teaching responsibility and consequences of previous decisions made.

    I can relate to this situation as a nurse I have patients who need something done for them but they don’t want the pain associated with it such as starting an IV. Like the teacher we have to tell them the consequences of the choice they are making and help them understand that for their better health in the future an IV is necessary now.

  • This article was wonderful with such insightful questions and answers in the interview. I would love to teach one day in another country, and the fact that this teacher is teaching in her non-native language gives me hope that I can one day teach in my non-native language as well.

    The honesty and realism of the answers gives a clear picture of what to expect and how one can prepare themselves as a teacher. Great article thank you for sharing!

  • Within a few paragraphs, I immediately related to your experiences. I worked in an 8th grade English classroom at a title 1 school as a teacher’s assistant. I had such a passion for helping students reach their “ah-hah” moment, but unfortunately, I didn’t feel like the rest of the staff had that passion. Either that or they had lost that passion through being overworked and underpaid. Most of the students had never been told college was even an option for them, and part of my job was to discuss with them otherwise. However, I constantly butted heads with my own co-teacher and the principal. The moment any students messed up, they were quick to punish and hopefully get them sent to the alternative school. It was hard being in this field as most students had poor role models and didn’t know better. They just needed encouragement and patience, which this school was not eager to provide. I think being a teacher is one of the hardest fields. You have to not only get across your daily lesson plan, but also deal with the emotions and habits they bring into class from home.

  • The first words I can recall are words that are regrettably embedded in my mind: “Gay people go to Hell.” Because my father – though a bright and diligent Presbyterian minister – disapproved of my sexuality, I unfortunately knew from as early as I can remember that I could not safely approach my parents with my struggles.
    I always felt that I had to fend for myself. The relationship strain I had with my parents, along with the struggles that came with adolescent puberty, situated me into a position where I was at constant war with the world and with myself. I yearned for a time where I could finally reach a state of peace.
    Upon entering the 10th grade, I was assigned into an English class with a teacher by the name of Ms. Goldstein. I did not know then that she would be the individual to help me ease into that state of peace I so desired. She, both an English teacher and dean at my high school, helped me pave my path of acceptance and self-worth by allowing me and my classmates to spend the first five minutes of every class to write in our journals. I was encouraged to express myself through paper and pen as my mediums, which sparked in me a love for writing as it warranted a cathartic effect. Ms. Goldstein would collect our journals from time to time and respond with motivational words of wisdom. It was through this activity that I realized she saw something in me that I did not see in myself: that I was a unique individual deserving of love and attention. She was, in other words, sort of a surrogate parent that I could, unlike with my own parents, count on.
    I mentioned previously that one of the greatest obstacles I had to overcome was not being able to depend on my parents with my struggles. During my stay at a high school in NYC for Student Teaching, I found that many of my students faced great challenges of their own: there were students who were in the middle of their parents’ divorcing, students who had broken relationships with individuals around them, students who were only able to eat meals once a day, students who were suffering from depression, and students who were constantly being bullied. A common ground I discovered was that these students would not express their struggles to their parents. I do not know whether this meant that my students were weak – in that they were unable to trust their parents with their battles – or if this meant that my students were undeniably strong, in that they were being mindful of their own parents’ feelings by choosing to face their fights alone. What I do know is that each of my students experienced a plethora of pain coming into my classroom. Knowing this, I adopted Ms. Goldstein’s use of journaling into my very own 10th grade classroom. At the end of every week, I would collect these journals and respond to each entry, in order to foster interpersonal relationships with my students. I endeavored to reply with comments that would show how deeply I cared for my students. I endeavored to show them that they were unique individuals deserving of love… that they were deserving of attention. My goal became not to just be their teacher, but to be their mentor, their confidante.
    A facet of the Teaching of English program at Teacher’s College that I hope to explore is aiding prospective teachers in being keen and responsive readers of their students as learners and of the obstacles that might obstruct learning in classrooms. It is a given that students come into the classroom to learn. However, during this time of instruction, each student brings into the classroom his or her own emotional baggage. Like I have with myself, I believe that many students at the adolescent level are also at constant war, whether it is with themselves, those around them, or with their environments. I believe that Teacher’s College will create a platform that will allow me to empathize with my students, as empathy has always been a trait I appreciated in all of my teachers.
    I anticipate that the instructional practices at Teacher’s College will allow me to assist students into pursuing future college academia and constructing achievable, lifelong goals. As a future educator, I believe that not only do I need to evaluate my students’ work, but that I also need to foster their own personalities and skillsets, as well. I desire to become the kind of teacher that shows encouragement through my actions. I admit that I am, at this point, a novice teacher. However, I ultimately believe that with proper instruction from the highly-dedicated professors at Teacher’s College, I will become the type of teacher who students will come to admire.
    If at some point in my life even one student looks back into his or her life and contemplate even for a second that “Wow, Mr. Park really motivated me to become the best version of myself that I could be,” I’ll know that ultimately, everything that has transpired in my life – the good and the bad – was indeed worth it.

  • This article gave me a new perspective of the educational pursuit. It was a reminder that I will continue to learn and grow beyond the classroom and that I, too, will never be “too old” to become knowledgeable about new things. This article genuinely made me smile because my mother just recently went back to school to pursue an education degree. She often talks about how weird and embarrassing it is to be back in a classroom with students half her age. I think this article would serve as a nice reminder that she isn’t the only one in this kind of position and that she should remain proud of her decision to further her academic career. The author of this article, like my mother, inspires me to expand my knowledge throughout my life and never stop learning.

  • Growing up, my parents have repeatedly told me about the importance and significance of education. Not necessarily in the “degree-help-you-get-better-jobs” kind of way, which of course was always brought up. But they really emphasized on how being ignorant in this world is one of the worst thing one can be.

    Naturally, school and learning was and is my entire life. I lived and breathed school, reading, writing, and being a huge academic nerd. Unlike my countless peers, I understood the value of it. My parents have sacrificed immensely purely for me to have an opportunity to go to school, educate myself and rise above being more than another Mexican statistic.

    History and English being my top two favorite subjects, this post of a high school teacher made me reminisce about my own history and English teachers, and how they have inspired me to keep going.

    My history teacher, in fact, is the reason I am pursuing a degree in History, and perhaps a future career as a secondary education history teacher, or work in social justice. Just like the teacher above, she was stern all while being incredibly caring. She had this sort of “tough love” method.

    I am always told that teachers do not make the best salary, but I always respond the same way, I don’t care about the money. If I could educate the future generations to be functioning citizens of the world, and feel like they matter in a classroom and that their future is not just another statistic, the money does not matter to me.