I graduated Mercer in May of 2014. I didn’t truly know what to expect when I came back home. I needed to transfer my teaching certificate from Georgia to Florida. The window to take some tests had passed, and thus I was in a bit of limbo period.
I studied some for the subject area test. It’s too dumbed down for anyone with a relevant degree. So, I got bored of preparing and mostly just played League of Legends. Perhaps it was a waste of time, but hey – it’s a fun game.
I found a job at Sylvan Learning as a tutor for the Pembroke Pines location. I liked that because I worked mostly with elementary kids. I felt like I was doing more than helping them learn to read. Some had special needs and grew attached to me. I taught them how to manage their emotions and deal with bullies. My experience there was good practice for when I’ll be a dad.
It wasn’t until September had a window to apply for the state teaching exam. Then, it took about four weeks for the paperwork to come back to me. Government is very slow and annoying. It was even more annoying putting out hundreds of applications and never hearing from any. It’s nearly impossible to get a teaching job in the middle of the school year.
Potential Christian Academy
I started to look into private schools. In January, I landed a job at Potential Christian Academy teaching 5th grade. I didn’t last long there.
I liked the students and mostly got along with them. Yet, I didn’t enjoy teaching every subject. I wasn’t ready for that level of preparation. My certification qualifies me for 6-12th social sciences. 5th grade was entirely different.
The principal paired me with an aid for math and a general helper throughout the day. I think they were more spies to test me.
I was let go just a few months after being hired. Apparently, controversies flooded the church. The principal herself was fired a week later. It seems the way she handled me was the last straw.
I am glad I at least taught Bible to my satisfaction, and I let the kids get plenty of recess.
A week after leaving, I received a collection of letters from the students. The school counselor probably coached them, but I believe they were genuine. They are beautiful memories.
Coral Springs Pre-K – 8th
I had a troubled spring and summer of 2015. Losing my job at PCA felt frustrating. I had to clean my classroom out on a Friday and stayed on the campus until almost 10 PM. At some point, the janitor walked in to help me sweep. He only spoke Spanish. I couldn’t explain why I was crying.
I became reclusive and depressed after leaving. The county hardly put out any social studies teacher postings of any kind. I went back to video games; League was an escape and a way to kill time. I was fortunate to have a close friend to express myself and have some support.
I took up writing again for the first time since high school. If I cannot win in life, at least I might have my characters triumph. I wrote for myself, but it felt good to have someone to share in my confusion. My best works I still publish on my Wattpad profile, LordTravis.
The K8 Experiment
It wasn’t until July I had my next interview. It didn’t go anywhere, as I expected.
I decided to go back to Sylvan. I had built a good relationship with the center manager and was able to float back in easily. Smiling kids missing me cheered me up some.
Finally, the week before the school year started, I interviewed at Coral Springs Elementary. I was puzzled when I applied how they had a middle school position given it was an elementary school. Still, I went to the interview confident. As it turned out, the county was experimenting with creating K-8th schools. Coral Springs Elementary was a test. If it failed, it wouldn’t bode well for me. But hey – a job is a job.
The next week I got the offer and promptly accepted. I am not sure if I regret it. Careerwise, I might have better to wait for another opportunity. As it the first year of this “developing” middle grades program, I was mostly alone in my planning and had basically no resources to get started. Then again, the school year was only just beginning. I doubted I would get another chance.
I learned to be independent and get things done in my way. I liked the freedom to teach history as I thought it should be taught. There was no “team leader” in social studies to tell me otherwise.
Florida 7th Grade Civics
I came to realize middle school history and civics was more about reading and writing. Most of the strategies from the ELA teacher was transferable to my classroom. You could even say social studies is just a non-fiction reading course. In a way, that made teaching frustrating. It’s difficult to explain the significance of the landmark court cases when students cannot read on grade level. There’s only so much you dumb down the language. While I needed to break apart the terms with reading strategies, the pace of the curriculum made things difficult.
I don’t know why but Florida feels it necessary to test 7th grade students in civics. It was hard to motivate them around the topics, especially since they don’t take American history until 8th grade. I often got questions like, “If I cannot vote until I am 18, why does any of this matter?” There was no good answer I could give. I always remember civics as a 12th-grade course.
Worse still, their state assessments didn’t count for anything. Middle school civics was a new state course then, and the official testing was “under development”, as were the teacher resources and even practice tests. So, I mostly had to wing it. The students hated the course. By the end, I did too.
The Other Classes
I was lucky only to teach one class of civics. The other four were 6th-grade world history. I had more flexibility in preparing the content because there was no state testing and the standards were somewhat vague. I decided to split the content evenly with Western history before Christmas and Eastern history to the end of the year. Again, the classes needed a lot of reading worksheets to drill students on the new terms and ideas. Reading straight history is boring, but a necessary evil. I found plenty of funny videos to play, like “Bad Roman Emperors” and other Horrible Histories songs.
My last period was a social studies enrichment class. There were no guidelines on what that meant. It was a small class of four students, three girls and a boy that had the highest test scores. Usually, it was a nice, relaxing end of the day. We mostly watched the news and wrote little reports and projects. I should have found more movies for them. YOLO.
Looking back, I don’t regret the time for the students I was blessed to have taught. I think all middle school students are weird and special in their own way. Age 11-14 is a strange transition period of life. You can learn a lot by observing their mannerism. They are also very honest. If a lesson sucked, they would be sure to let you know. I am grateful for the harsh criticism.
I think I discovered the so-called achievement gap has nothing to do with race, gender, or socio-economic status. Students fail to succeed in academics because of broken family structures. It seemed every troubled kid came from separated or uninvolved parents. If the kid misbehaved enough, I would typically call home and try to schedule a conference. It’s hard to use that consequence when the parent doesn’t care or makes every excuse in the world for their child’s behavior. Everyone wants to find a perfect standard to evaluate teachers, but there are many factors outside of their control.
Sometimes as I taught, I felt like a therapist. Other times, I felt like a drill sergeant. Either extreme was not what I wanted. I just wanted to share my passion for history. Life isn’t that simple.
By March, I figured I couldn’t put in another year at Coral Springs Pre-K – 8th. I considered applying at high schools, but, again, the county hardly put out any postings in their system.
Rumor had it most positions weren’t posted publically. Instead, they were filled internally. Life is about who you know. I went to university out of state and was thus at a disadvantage with the connection game.
I wanted an established school with a team and plenty of resources. I was putting in way too many hours after school without much return. I hated spending all weekend building an awesome lesson plan only for it to fall apart for some random reason. I know that’s how first year teaching was, but I didn’t expect the mental toll. The stress was killing me.
The principal, who did everything she could, kindly declined to renew my contract in May.
The last month of school at Coral Springs Pre-K – 8th, I was gathering signatures for the end of year paperwork. I stopped by the guidance counselor’s office for something. Alone with her, I told her about how I was leaving the school. To my surprise, she said education wasn’t a good career anymore and encouraged me to find what’s best for me personally.
The last official day of duty, the “teacher planning” Friday, I spend a long time cleaning my classroom. It was a sad repeat of the year before, except this time I had help. Some of my best students offered to come to the school and assist me emptying the room and bring items to my car. All of my students were really good kids at hearts. They didn’t always do their homework, but they did miss me. That day, I gave away my copy of All Quiet on the Western Front to one of my favorite students. Maybe the classic text is too graphic for a 12-year-old boy, but the story contains a great lesson that I could never teach in the classroom.
Deerfield Beach Middle School
The summer of 2016, I didn’t go back to Sylvan Learning. I could have and felt satisfied, even for the lousy pay. Rather, I thought it best to take time to think over the direction of my life. I spoke to a few close friends to get advice. I didn’t want to feel stuck in a career that seemed so defeating. At the same time, I didn’t want to give up so easily. It was only the first year. Right?
It was yet another summer of reflection. I spent a week volunteering at the church youth camp. It brought back good memories. Then, I used my time mostly writing.
Broward County offered a teacher job fair around mid-July. It was much smaller than the one I attended in May. Nothing came of it. Although, I awkwardly ran into my own middle school principal.
Substitute Teaching in Broward
I didn’t get a full-time position by the start of the 2016 school year. I got email requests to join the system’s substitute teacher pool. I didn’t like the idea of potentially jumping from school to school babysitting, but a job is a job. William Danny Middle called me to sub for a week in math and computer classes. It was a long drive and students were much louder than my past schools.
Then, began to sub at Deerfield Beach Middle. They actually placed me in social studies classes. I tried to be polite, professional, and confident, but I didn’t really want a full-time teaching position there. It was too far from home and kids were very rowdy. As luck would have it, the 6th-grade principal took me aside and offered an interview after school one day. When they offered me the position, I should have told them to give me a day to think it over. I accepted immediately.
The Late Start
For a reason I am still unsure of, the administration moved the students to my portable with a substitute before I started. Meanwhile, I observed other classrooms and grew acquainted with their procedures. The kids had full reign to do whatever they wanted with the sub. Splitting them off early just put them behind in the content and created chaos. I assume the school was under a compliance violation from the county for overcrowding and had a deadline to add new classes. I just came in at the wrong time.
My portable wasn’t ready and had structural issues throughout the year. The air condition broke from time to time, the internet was off and on, and we had the occasional roach or lizard invasion. Towards the end of the year, the tiles began to break apart.
On top of all that, I had two preps again with four civics and two world history classes. Because of my odd scheduling, I rarely planned with either grade level.
I figure all these trials were a way of breaking in new teachers, as a rite of passage or something.
I did have a great coach that helped me get established and organized.
Unfortunately, the same issue persisted as before: I had difficulty contacting the troubled kid’s parents. Phone numbers in the system were dead and students felt proud they filled out fake digits on contact cards. I hope they realized if there was an emergency, no one from home would know.
However, I had plenty of content resources the other teachers didn’t have. From Coral Springs Pre-K – 8th, I had build up a massive folder of worksheets, activities, and projects from across the web. The teams here had overrelied on the state resources and textbooks.
I enjoyed this school because of the tight-knit community in the staff. By the time Thanksgiving came, I had already grown close to the 6th-grade team. We hung out together after school nearly every Friday. A good beer after an exhausting day helped ease my mind.
By looking forward to the end of classes changed my perspective on the job. You shouldn’t place the students above your sanity and friends. Lesson planning can wait. Teaching is an honorable profession, but it’s just a job. You have to live a life outside of work. When work becomes your life, you start to lose it.
The behavior of the classes slowly got better with the students that I could phone home and connect with parents. Maybe 80% of the students started to respect me, but everyone had their days.
Towards the middle of the year, the administration added about five ESOL students to the fourth period. They were a group of Spanish and Creole speakers. Similar to the Spanish boy I had the year before, they were the smartest and most respectful students of anyone. Sadly, immigrants have stricter parents than Americans. I somewhat lied and said the civics test would be similar to the actual US citizenship exam. They were then eager to learn everything they could adjust to the culture.
I tried mixing up the seating arrangements and used different programs to some success. Some kids loved Class Dojo; others craved the rewards from Kahoot or Quizziz. I never had access to a class set of laptops, so the technology use was limited to students sharing smartphones.
As you could expect, that led to problems. Cell phones are a huge source of drama with preteens. Most aren’t mature enough for them. Cyberbullying led to fights in the courtyard on a monthly basis. Apps like Snapchat have disappearing messages. So, usually, the administration had little evidence to handle cases. Every week it was stupid “he said she said” drama.
Our school counselors could do little to restrain the rage of students. If you send a kid to one of the counselors, they would likely be overwhelmed with other students and send them back. I’d need to schedule a student with them. They might get back to me in a week. By then, the conflict would develop into a fist fight in the hallway. I understood the struggle in balances caseloads. Counselors did they best they could, but the county left them understaffed and unappreciated.
I thought to let the students listen to music as they work would be a workable compromise. Then, some students introduced me to their “music”. It’s no wonder most students only know how to deal with problems by fighting. All their rap idols glorify the gangster lifestyle and encourage degrading women… Eventually, the privilege became me playing Pandora on my laptop.
The Incident + Leaving
Sadly, I noticed a disturbing racial trend at the school. Haitians tended to think they were better than other Africans. Haitian Flag Day is an excuse to wave their colors and provoke others nationalities into “wars”.
As the year progressed, fights across the school only increased. I’d rather not discuss all the incidents and threats against the school.
One episode involved me personally. The administration was not very encouraging. The best the union representative could say was, “It could have happened to anyone, but the school used to be much worse.” I realized the system was more political than educational. After the Parkland shooting, I am certain the inefficient and often corrupt bureaucracy is to blame for the state of public schools.
My civics scores came back before the end of the year. They were amazingly good for my situation and experience. Still, that wasn’t enough to keep me. Again, my contract was not renewed for another year.
I wish I didn’t have to leave my friends. On our final teacher planning, my team assembled at some seafood restaurant on the beach. It had never felt more appreciated in my life.