The frog jumps back in the boiling water: what I’ve learned by going back to a classroom

During a conversation with a teacher friend last year, I learned that his high school lost the teacher who was supposed to teach the AP Research class. This high school just started an AP Capstone program and this was the first time AP Research was going to be offered in our district. I’ve been looking for a way to teach a high school class again, so I decided to see if I could teach this one section while continuing to do my “day job” as a district office administrator. 

Here’s some context: I taught high school psychology and philosophy for 13 years, then got a grad degree and took an administrative job at our district office. I’ve worked as an Assessment/Evaluation specialist for the past 16 years, and I’ve learned a lot. Being an administrator helped me learn things and develop skills that I don’t think I would have been able to learn as a high school teacher. But I’ve always missed teaching in a high school classroom and for the past few years I’ve been looking for a way to teach high school again. 

So this AP Research class opportunity emerged at just the right time. I got permission from the director of my department, the director of curriculum and instruction, the high school principal, and finally the director of the human resources department (whew!) It’s a bit unprecedented for a district office administrator to “go back” to the classroom, but my hidden agenda (which isn’t very hidden at all) is to try to convince other administrators to figure out how to teach a class. I think our school district would be stronger if we could figure out ways for more administrators to spend more time teaching. I think our communication would be better and we’d make better decisions if we were also teaching.

Here’s a short and not very organized list of some observations about teaching that being back in a classroom helped remind me about: 

  • High school students are great. That’s what I missed: getting to know high school students and working with them over a long period of time. While I’ve been a district office administrator and gone from a classroom, I organized a psychology club that met monthly, and I enjoyed that, but it’s not the same as working with high school students every day. I’ve taught grad classes for a couple local universities, and I enjoyed that. But it’s not the same kind of satisfaction as teaching a high school class. 
  • I like the rhythm that teaching provides. I like the ritual of going to the high school every morning and then going to the district office. Mondays are Mondays because you’re starting a new week of teaching. You get to think about what you didn’t get done the day before, and how to possibly get it done the next day while trying to keep to the schedule you planned out earlier. Teaching provides an overall “arc” for a year. I know that this week is the 14th week of the semester, and that there are a couple more weeks until there’s a big break, and I need to work to get students to a good stopping point before we pick up on big projects after the Thanksgiving break. And I know I get to repeat this rhythm again, with starts and middles and breaks and “endings” that aren’t really endings. My district administrator job doesn’t feel like it has the same rhythm. In that part of my work life, I get assigned projects (or I try to create projects that I think are useful), and there’s a satisfaction in getting those projects done, but it’s not the same “long arc” satisfaction that the rhythm of teaching a high school class provides. 
  • It’s a pain when students have to be gone, and when students can’t get assigned work done on time. Absences happen, and not everything can get done on schedule. But it’s tricky to time work and feedback and new work and transitions when not all students have been present for or been able to do the kinds of thinking and work that you planned. Do you back up? Press on? Figure out how to help them get that thinking done in a different way? It’s tricky. 
  • Having my own classroom is a great creative outlet. Now my “teacher imagination” always has something to do: I often think about what I want to try in the AP Research class. I get to think about ways to share ideas and what experiences I can set up that might help my students think about these ideas. I bump into cool articles and other resources and get excited about sharing them with my students. I get to think about goofy things we could try that also relate to the big ideas in our content. 
  • It’s hard work, and it makes me anxious. I get nervous sometimes before class, and (so far) I like that anxiety. I’m often not sure whether something will work, or whether it helped anyone learn anything, and I get to think about how to try to figure out what we learned. 
  • The feeling of something “clicking” in a high school class is different than any other kind of teaching I’ve experienced. I enjoy presenting for teachers and administrators, and I want to keep doing that, but those experiences can’t compete with these peak moments in high school classes. I don’t know why. There have been moments when I’ve heard my AP Research students analyzing an article or giving each other feedback on their work that cause me to be SO happy and proud of them. 

I’m glad that I jumped back in the boiling water. The drive to the high school every morning is long, and I’m often anxious when I think about what we’ll do in class, and I feel rusty and out of practice, and it all feels good and right. I hope I get to keep teaching. 

6 thoughts on “The frog jumps back in the boiling water: what I’ve learned by going back to a classroom

  1. Glad you are back in the classroom. Loved the eloquence of your description. I can see your positive nervousness teaching a class in research and have the constant thought about how it relates to 3verything.

    1. Thanks for the thoughts, Scott! I’m planning on writing another post about my recent subbing experiences (covering classes for teachers who have to be absent). My subbing experiences aren’t as positive, but I think I’m still learning how to be a good sub!

  2. Rob: your passion is contagious! Thanks for sharing this heartfelt article. Your descriptions felt real and helped me process why I still miss teaching middle and high school students. The planning, the anticipation, the cadence, the positive nervousness, the exhilaration of seeing students “get it”, and the satisfaction of seeing their confidence grow with their increasing competence!! Ahhh – This is a joy that teachers get to experience …

  3. What an inspiring post. I hope you’re successful in encouraging other district administrators, in a wide range of districts, to take on a light teaching role. It would do wonders for the relevance and quality of feedback they’re then able to provide the teachers in their care. Bravo!

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