An Interview with the Class of 2013's "5th-Year" Teachers
The following is from an interview with Melishia Brooks, Ryan Eshleman, and Emily Fyda. All three entered MTC together in 2013, and all three are still teaching in Mississippi.
What drew each of you to join the Mississippi Teacher Corps?
Emily: For me, I just…I’ve always kind of been interested in teaching, but I didn’t major in Education during undergrad. I had done some service projects working in schools throughout my time in college, which kind of piqued my interest. So I started looking into alternate-route programs, and I kind of stumbled upon Teacher Corps through a school search; and it sounded too good to be true. I applied, and that’s how I ended up here.
Melishia: For me, I really didn’t have any idea what I was going to do after undergrad – like what direction I was going. One of my professors, who was the Chair of the English department at the time, likes to do exit-style interviews before graduation. When she was doing mine, she asked what I was planning on doing. I was like, “I have no idea.” Then she was like, “I think you should apply for this program,” and it was the Teacher Corps. So I did. I had never heard of the program before, and I was kind of like this is too good to be true.
Ryan: My little Mennonite community in Harrisonburg, Virginia was one that really stressed servant-leadership, and that the only way to lead was to help other people feel agency. So I believe teaching is a good way to do that, and there’s no place where kids feel less agency than in low-income areas. So when I was looking for teaching programs, I kind of stumbled on a link for the Mississippi Teacher Corps on a blog post somewhere, and I applied right away.
What was your first year of teaching like in MTC?
Emily: My first year, my classroom was a mess. I was not very good at classroom management. Yeah, classroom management was definitely my biggest struggle my first year. The first year is also just really hard because you’re going to school each day, and then almost even dreading going home because you know you’re just going to have to go home and plan, go to sleep, and then do it all again the next day. Even though it was a lot of hard work, having support from my MTC classmates as well as the North Panola staff made it easier and that’s something I’m really thankful for. North Panola was a really great placement. It was a big MTC base, so a lot of senior MTC teachers teaching there were really encouraging and supportive throughout the year.
There were two second-years, two third-years, and two fourth-years. We also had MTC teachers at the junior high, and so we did a lot of things outside of school together. So whether it was going to football games or basketball games together, it was a great community to be a part of.
Melishia: I think my first-year experience was probably…..it was hard. If I had to look back at like takeaways, I’d say there weren’t a lot of takeaways except that I didn’t quit. That’s probably the only positive thing about it. That I stuck it out and didn’t give up. And being placed at Greenville was like the complete opposite of a North Panola experience because it was just myself and two other first-year teachers. And so, we were each other’s support. And even in my school, all of the 9th grade English teachers, and I think there were 6 of us, were new. With the Math teachers, all of them were new except one teacher. So being at a school where there’s almost a 100% new staff, and many of us were alternate-route teachers, TFA or MTC, it was a huge struggle because there was not a lot of support in that building of teachers who could help us find our way, so we were kind of beating our own paths out there that first year. I think the thing that really got us through was having classes on Saturdays and being able to kind of have that community time with our classmates to know and remind that there is a light at the end of this tunnel – just the encouragement to keep going. I think I struggled mostly with instruction, like I don’t think those kids learned anything that year just because I was not good at teaching. Either I got up there and talked them to death or I didn’t know anything about data or assessing them properly and all of those sorts of things. And it really didn’t start getting better from the classes I was taking through Teacher Corps until the end of the first school year, and so the first year was kind of bad.
Ryan: I think my first year came down to adjusting to three things. First, culture. I came from a private high school and private university, both predominantly white. So being at a public school with a predominantly black student population was a new experience for me. I’m really grateful for that and everything that I’ve learned since then. This new home still feels different than my old home, even as I’ve grown to love it, and I needed that kind of broadening of perspective and experience. Second, entering the work world was a bit of a shock. Being inexperienced and maybe a bit naive, I wasn’t used to the workload and not having a lot of time outside of school to form healthy habits. I would just come home from school and work until I slept, and then work as soon as I woke up again in the morning. The third thing was getting used to failure. It was hard to spend eight hours a day (and many sleepless nights) feeling like I wasn’t doing a good job.
Talk about your second year.
Emily: As far as my second year, it was by no means perfect, but it was much better than the first. I had a little bit more confidence as a teacher. I was a little bit better of a classroom manager. Planning didn’t take quite take as long. It was still a lot of time and hard work, but it was definitely much better and I could work on building relationships more.
Melishia: I would say, for me, the second year was better and I think I was able to spend a lot of time looking at what I could do to have my class more structured and more focused on instruction. Even over the summer, after summer school ended, I still spent a lot of my free time working on just being a better teacher and like instruction and like planning out lessons and stuff like that and it really helped in the long run because that year I could see a big difference in my first year as a teacher and then my second year. I really began to feel like I was more so facilitating the learning in my classroom and not just so beaten down every day after school. That was one positive thing from my second year.
Ryan: I taught science my first year and English my second year, so I jumped from teaching upperclassmen in science to 9th grade English. I was really grateful for summer school my second summer - I was able to be in an English classroom to get my feet wet a little bit. But it was still a totally different ballgame. I was planning all new material all over again. It was a ton of work still. It’s also amazing the difference between teaching seniors and teaching 9th graders. It didn’t feel like a repeat of my first year - I was at my same school and I was obviously a more confident teacher - but there were a lot of things you could say I was still treading water with a little bit.
What did you learn about yourself and/or the students/community from the two years spent in the Teacher Corps?
Ryan: For one, I learned a great respect for teachers. I love teachers. And I’ve always loved school and loved teachers, but I never really understood what the lifestyle is for a teacher. And also, I learned (as I keep learning over and over) how small I am. It was so hard to see my impact here in just a few years because there’s no real finished product. As a teacher, you can’t immediately see many things that you’re affecting because you come in the next day and a kid is still rude to you and you’re still upset with them. And often it doesn’t feel like their work is getting any better. It’s just hard to see the progress, so it made me feel small.
Melishia: You’re a student your whole life, so you know what school is like for a student. And then you become a teacher, and those perspectives are so different. And so for me, I really just learned, I guess, the potential of my impact; and I think that’s kind of what we chase as educators – the potential to be impactful for students, whatever regards we’re trying to be. So I think I realized that, especially towards the end of my second year, just because I knew I wouldn’t be returning to Greenville and so letting my students know that hey, I’m not coming back and then having their response just showed me that these kids do really value my being in this building. And so, yeah, I think that’s what I learned over the two years mostly.
Emily: I think the big thing that I learned is just how good people really are and I’m really thankful for that. There were so many small acts of kindness that made every day better, like having a student after class write you a note apologizing for their classmate’s behavior and giving you words of encouragement. I’m also so thankful for having a community and a staff that really takes you in as an outsider and is really kind and supportive when they have no real reason to be at all. I’m also so thankful for the support of the MTC community. I’m just really grateful for all of the kind people I’ve come into contact with over the two years.
What kinds of thoughts are going through your mind at the end of the two-year commitment?
Melishia: I feel like our class was really unique in so many different ways. I think on top of just being classmates, we’re generally friends. We weren’t very clickish. We were close. We all tried to keep in touch with everybody in our own special way. Everybody had their own relationships with each other. It was almost like you were the odd man out if you were not about to teach that third year. So it was like this peer pressure almost. So number one, to have a high percentage of us teach a third year and number two, to not let each other down. Those of us who decided not to teach the third year, I think for the people who decided to go in a different direction professionally, it wasn’t anybody that we would be like surprised about, not that they weren’t great teachers for the two years, it’s because we kind of always knew that that person would move on at that point. For the rest of us, and maybe I’m just being fanatical about our relationships, but to me it just seemed almost understood that it’s what we were going to do. And I know people had to make the personal decisions they had to do, but I think the community side of it pushed a lot of us in that direction to stay. And I think the fact that so many of us were staying, it really helped some of us who were on the fence to go in a different direction.
Emily: For me, when I initially joined Teacher Corps, I kind of didn’t even think that I would consider staying a third year. I thought I would do the two years and then move on and do something else. At the end of the second year, I was very torn. I didn’t know exactly what else I would want to do, and I couldn’t really imagine leaving yet. So that, along with a lot of other things that fell into place, made me feel like I was in a good place to stay. So that’s what kind of made my decision.
Ryan: I’m not going to lie, every March it’s a bit of an existential crisis for me about what to do for the following year. But I think what happened to me my second year is that I really fell in love with the community and the school. I really loved the co-workers I had and the kids I was teaching. I got the opportunity to loop with my 9th grade English class and do 10th grade English. And that opportunity really swayed my decision to come back to get another year to spend with those kids. I feel like there are a lot of reasons to stay, but that was the big one.
Emily & Melishia, what were the biggest reasons both of you stayed?
Melishia: I think I would also have to say the kid connection. Just knowing that I was going to get to go back to a classroom and help kids is really what motivated me the most to continue teaching.
Emily: I’d probably have to agree with Melishia. I really love the kids at NP (North Panola) and the staff there and the community. And I think that if I didn’t like that, there’s no way I would have even considered staying.
Can you talk about the progression from year two to year three as a teacher?
Melishia: I think in any profession, you have to give yourself a chance to know if you’re going to be good at this or not. And like one year is really not enough time to know if you’re going to be a good teacher. Year two you start to develop a little bit more – kind of settling into the more positive things like habits and things like that. And then year three is where I really think you find your identity as a teacher. Like we talk about teacher persona and all of those sorts of things, but I think by year three you are who you’ll be as an educator. That year really just kind of shapes and polishes over who you’re going to be as a teacher. And I mean, obviously, I’m always working to be better, but I’m definitely not changing a whole lot of that foundational stuff from year three. Because by then, I’m going to do the things that worked for me.
Ryan: What made my first year hard was getting used to things, and I think between my second and third years, it’s just amazing what I was more comfortable with. I was more comfortable joking around and being around high school kids. More comfortable planning a lesson. More comfortable pulling out teachable moments in a lesson whereas before I was just worried about getting all the way through it. So I think a certain level of comfort makes you a better teacher. But it was still a challenge. With the kids I had as 9th-graders, I had already read my favorite short stories and essays with them, so I had to come up with a whole new material for them, which was a fun test. My third year wasn’t a stressful thing; it was an enjoyable thing.
Emily: Year three meant being able to really focus on instruction and trying new things in my classroom. At least for me, my first year was focused on survival and second year was like ok, I can teach a solid lesson but I was still not trying anything super innovative or trying any cool ideas out. Then in year three, I felt like I was able to go to a lot of school PD’s where I could learn and actually implement some things that I didn’t feel like I could do during my first two years. Also, my methods professor from my second year of Teacher Corps came to North Panola and he had a lot of really great suggestions that I just couldn’t successfully implement as a first year teacher, so I really used that third year to try new things and grow instructionally, which was really cool to do.
What thoughts go through transitioning to year four and now to year five?
Ryan: My whole little career here has been bouncing into new things, so for my fourth year I became our school’s instructional coach, which is a whole new exciting challenge for me. I applied for that in March of my third year, and really enjoyed many aspects of the position last year. So it wasn’t a hard thing for me to stay this year. I knew I had a bunch of things to work on in the summer, which kept me excited and busy.
Melishia: One of my selling points for being dedicated to the program is I’m a wife and a mother, and job security is a big thing for me. So I always needed a job for next year. That was first priority. And next, having a degree and being a competent adult, I could very easily get employment elsewhere. That’s where the, “do I really want to keep doing this?” comes in. It was different for me because going down to teach middle school my third, fourth, and fifth year – it’s state tested galore, data, all of that stuff. I didn’t deal with that my first two years. And so having those things on the table now it brings the conversation back up. So even now it’s still not a lifetime commitment. It’s still like year-to-year. And the contracts keep coming up earlier and earlier. It’s almost like six months to six months. It just seems like the contract is so fast and you have to make the decision so fast. The contemplation is still there but for different reasons.
Emily: Yeah, I definitely still struggle every March with whether or not to stay. I’ve enjoyed each year for different reasons, and each year brings a new set of challenges. Each year, you get better and you’re just more comfortable. This year has been really fun for me because I have two teacher-support periods built into my day to help new teachers. So I have really enjoyed helping new teachers but also still having a classroom and working directly with children. I don’t know if I would ever commit to being a lifetime teacher. I really love teaching, but it’s a lot of work and it’s a lot of time. I know how hard teachers work outside of school, so I’m really not sure. Every year, I still think about what to do around that time.
In what ways do you think you’ve grown by staying longer that you think you would’ve missed out on if you would’ve ventured into a new opportunity or challenge after the two years?
Melishia: To me, two years is not enough time to know. Year one, you just feel like a failure as a teacher. And I’m like, “this can’t be the reality, because we would never have teachers if everyone quit.” So let me try harder next year. And so you do a lot of self-reflecting. And just looking at what I need to do better inside my four walls. Then, in year two, you start to see a turnaround. Year three, you want to continue with the good habits, continue implementing them, continue working hard for your kids so you can see those good results. So I would say that a two-year commitment is not enough time. Yes, you accomplished something because you get the degree. But as far as the craft side of it and the professional side of it, it’s not enough time to feel accomplished as a teacher. So like you accomplished something in completing the program, but I didn’t really feel accomplished as a teacher at that point. So that sort of motivated me to continue on.
Emily: I think, like Melishia said, growing instructionally – I was a better teacher in year two, but still not a good one. I think the additional year really allowed me to grow instructionally. Also, it meant a lot for me to stay because I taught a lot of ninth graders my first year and I was able watch them graduate. I feel like I kind of watched them grow up. So I was really happy I stayed for that and this year’s graduating class will be the second class I’ve watched grow up all four years. I am really grateful for the relationships that I’ve built with students and I think that’s a really important part of the job, and I think I would have missed out on that had I not stayed past the two years.
Ryan: I think I would not have learned as much about how a school functions on a larger scale. I got to seeing how a school district works at its higher levels. I’ve witnessed having new teachers come in and helped them through the process, because there’s so much coming across you in two years. You don’t get to understand the patterns until you’ve done it. Also, it’s really not until you’ve been around several years that you can gain trust. I know that’s true in so many situations in life. People are hard to trust in a short amount of time and when you stay for four or five years, then you really get to know some co-workers that you otherwise wouldn’t have known. Then kids trust you as well. That’s been really important to me, and it’s something I would’ve missed out on had I left after just two years.