Diary of a First-Year Teacher: The Crippling Fear of Failure


Each week, an anonymous first-grade teacher will share her confessions, musings, struggles, and successes during the first year of her teaching career in rural Mississippi.

By choice, I teach in a failing school district. I've always felt that through hard work and positivity our school can succeed. Most of the teachers at my school feel the same way.

According to our district’s state test scores we are categorized as “low performing,” and we have not met our growth goal for the past few years. Each year the state department gives low-performing districts a growth goal and if you meet growth in scores, even if you are still technically failing, they leave you alone.

However, after enough years of not meeting growth, the state department has become an active presence at our school. They pop in and out of classrooms and put heat on the teachers. The state is there for valiant reasons, but I've noticed that teachers are called out for minor organizational infractions just as much as they are for lacking instruction.

As much as they want us to be successful schools, they also emphasize appearing to be successful. And even more than pressuring the teaching staff, the state department is laying into our administration.

It is evident each time our principal has had a harsh meeting with the state, because we are inevitably called into a faculty meeting where we are lectured, threatened, and often ridiculed for our performance. Of course, the reason our school is in this position has almost nothing to do with the faculty in the room at these meetings.

The fear of failure is hurting the system as much as the actual failure.

Last year, our school cleaned house and replaced 80 percent of the staff. The only teachers that remained were the ones with good scores. Yet the staff that came to our school to change the statistics get rung out for the legacy of low scores. I do understand it. The administration is under great pressure, as is the state. The entire state of Mississippi is struggling to save its education system. However, I feel the fear of failure is hurting the system as much as the actual failure.

The teaching staff at my school is often stressed and worried. We fear being written up for minor infractions, such as forgetting to update the objectives written on the board, or for one of our students talking in the hallway. We fear getting in trouble for the details that matter little to student achievement.

I feel everyone around me is pressuring the teachers to present the school as successful over actually making the strides to be successful. Personally, I have been lectured on clean classrooms and accessible lesson plans, but not once on lesson execution. This fear is crippling to what is actually required for our school to grow.

Our administration repeatedly tells us that our jobs are on the line if we do not meet growth. Teachers cannot teach their best when there principal threatens their job. I fear student’s education is being damaged because of the culture of being a failing school.

I think about the empowerment that I imagine drives successful schools. I think of what we know about the most successful organizations: they value and empower employees and seek to serve their customers best. I long to see this model taken seriously in all schools.

Although there are many attributes that contribute to failing schools, I believe one of them is the culture of the organization. I have no statistics to support this, but I have my experience. We must express value for teachers and administrators if we expect them to do their best work. We can't keep pretending that threats and write-ups are the best way to create high-performing teachers. We must start empowering and supporting teachers like we do with our students.

This is especially true for teachers in the toughest schools. Otherwise, how can they expect us to succeed?

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