Way Down in Hadestown

“Follow that dollar for a long way down

Far away from the poorhouse door

You either get to hell or to Hadestown

Ain’t no difference anymore!”

from Hadestown Musical by Anaïs Mitchell

I really don’t know how better to describe this year of teaching. It has very much felt like the train to hell since Spring 2020 or at least like the world without Persephone livin’ it up on top. In case you don’t get the reference, go look up Hadestown (<a href=”http://<iframe src=”https://open.spotify.com/embed/album/1J1yxODbNlqKbwRqJxYJUP&#8221; width=”300″ height=”380″ frameborder=”0″ allowtransparency=”true” allow=”encrypted-media”>Original Broadway Cast Recording). My Spring 2021 Student Teacher introduced me to the musical Hadestown and I’ve been somewhat (read as: VERY) obsessed with it ever since.

I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on this past school year as I watched my Spring 2021 Student Teacher teach. Watching them grow in skill and comfort has been amazing and it also came at a very heavy cost. I didn’t realize just how painful and difficult it would be to feel as though I was reliving Spring 2020. It sounds ridiculous, I’m WELL aware. Spring 2020 was a hard time in my teaching career. I was still employed, but was told not to directly teach my students so as to not overwhelm them. I was placed with a group of around 10 other educators (including pre-service educators in the form of 3 student teachers) and we worked together to create ONE lesson plan for ONE grade level each week. I had no direct influence or communication with my students. I felt powerless. Flash forward to Spring 2021. I became a Cooperating Teacher for a wonderful person and once again was put in a position of not lesson planning or really interacting with my kids so that they (Spring 2021 Student Teacher) could get the experience they needed. I had to watch them do lessons differently, interact with my kids differently, and ignore things I would address behavior-wise. Add to this a lack of AC and you have my personal hell. I feel awful saying that, because it makes it sound like my Spring 2021 Student Teacher was terrible and they WERE NOT! They were wonderful and worked so hard and taught our students so much! I just don’t like feeling powerless. If we had begun in person before they started taking over classes, I know I would have felt differently. But we didn’t. We went from being 100% online to in-person (with some kids online) the week before they began taking over whole classes. It felt like as soon as I got my kids back, they were taken away. I realize how grossly unfair that sounds to my Spring 2021 Student Teacher. I wrestled some time with the fact that I sound course and uncaring when verbalizing those thoughts. Then I realized that is because those thoughts are self-centered and that is okay. I’m allowed to mourn what could have been, so long as I don’t let it affect what IS. So I journaled about how much I was struggling, I complained to my husband, and I showed up to school every day with a positive attitude and a heart full of grace. I gave feedback based on what I observed and not what I felt, as a good CT should. Spring 2021 Student Teacher and I got to know each other. We talked about life, we talked about work, we talked about pets. Getting to know what an amazing person they are didn’t help my feelings of frustration and despair, but it did allow me to realize that the feelings weren’t directed at them as a person. I would have felt this way with ANYONE in their position, even my best friend.

One thing I never realized before becoming a CT is that people have very negative and hurtful opinions about CTs. It began with the art teacher at my school in Fall 2019. I told her I was getting ready for a student teacher and how excited I was. I set up my Spring 2020 Student Teacher’s desk and tried to figure out what kind of chair to use for it. As the art teacher helped me find one, she exclaimed how nice I was for setting up a work space for my student teacher. I paused. “It’s an expectation…” I said, motioning to the Student Teacher/Cooperating Teacher handbook. We both recounted our student teaching experiences and I realized that not everyone had an amazing CT like I did. The things I took for granted as something all CTs do (provide a desk, have a framework for how to take over lessons/classes, give feedback after every teaching experience no matter how small, allow for a slow takeover rather than a full immersion right away) were not a given, at least here in New Mexico. Later on I spoke to one of my good friends who happens to be a middle school choir teacher who student taught here in New Mexico and she confirmed that her student teaching experiences were very different than my own. She felt unsupported, never received feedback, and basically had to learn everything on her own. Though she loved and respected the people she student taught under, it was hard. Being that so many people had this experience, it makes sense that they would have assumptions that CTs do nothing. To someone already struggling with feeling powerless, however, there’s nothing more hurtful than people assuming or joking that you are doing nothing. I sat in every single class and wrote notes or took notes about my student teachers’ teaching experiences and discussed it with them at length. I sat on my hands when I wanted to redirect students (unless it was about their masks or safety). I choked back corrections and allowed them to make their own mistakes and try out their own ideas. I may not have been directly teaching my students, but in NO WAY was I doing nothing. I felt even more powerless and defeated. I struggled with wondering if they were right-was I just sitting and coasting and doing nothing? Was I making a difference? Why am I even a CT? Am I doing my student teachers a disservice by being a CT? Am I doing my students a disservice by having student teachers?

I am painfully aware of the lies those questions are built on. I am aware of the mental weakness they showcase. I am aware that they display a lack of confidence and great insecurity on my part. I worked through those feelings and recognizing the lies they were built upon, but damn it was exhausting. I was hot. I was tired. I was frustrated and missing teaching my kids. It felt like deja vu. I was constantly working on talking myself out of a hole. Now it’s over. My Spring 2021 Student Teacher has finished their placement and has graduated. I am back to having my kids for one whole week before school is over. I’m so excited to have them back to myself, but I’m again painfully aware of how futile it is. It’s the last week of school. There’s not a whole hell of a lot we can do, but they’re mine again. I get to joke with them, have direct influence over their behavior and accountability, plan the activities, etc. I am so grateful. I am planning on not having a student teacher again for another 2 years. I’ll welcome university students into my classroom to observe and practice teaching, but no student teachers. When talking to my friend about a recent experience where a teacher joked (I hope they were joking) that I’ll have to actually start working now that my Spring 2021 Student Teacher is leaving, she asked me a question. She said, “Do you really feel like you’re doing nothing?” I took inventory of my feelings. I didn’t. What I felt is that I KNEW people felt like I was doing nothing and that was draining. Then she reminded me I told her that I loved teaching teachers how to be teachers and asked if it was my passion. I told her TEACHING is my passion. Teaching future teachers is something I can be passionate about, if I’m at the University level. When I am Dr. Flippo and teaching Intro to MUED or any other MUED course to undergrads, I will be wildly passionate about it because that will be my focus. Right now, my students are my focus and my passion. Being a CT has come with way too many sacrifices this past 3 semesters. While I am grateful for the experience and so happy to provide a learning opportunity for the next generation of Music Educators, I’m beyond ready for a break. Taking on 3 CTs in 3 successive semesters was something I intentionally did because my Spring 2021 Student Teacher requested me and I really, desperately wanted to work with someone who CHOSE me as opposed to the past 2 semesters who were just placed with me. I don’t regret it, not in the least, but I am so looking forward to the next 2 years of just me and my kids. I have a zillion times more respect for my elementary CT and her colleague, who I also worked with, now that I’ve been through the ringer 3 times.

Although I’ve come a long way in my confidence and respect for myself, my talents, and the skills I’ve worked hard to hone, I have a long way to go before I can feel that I’m doing right by my student teachers. I am also intentionally going to be more picky about accepting student teachers in the future. Not for my students’ sake, for my sake. I learned that having a student teacher who WANTS to be with me is way more beneficial than a student teacher who was just placed with me. I don’t relish being randomly placed with someone again. I’m sure lots of people are just fine with that, but I feel I was able to be of more help and use to someone who KNOWS how I teach and wants to learn to teach a similar way.

I’m starting to ramble and my legs are falling asleep so I’m going to end on this note: I am grateful to have a hand in helping future teachers prepare for their first year, but it’s SUCH a great responsibility that I’m not sure everyone takes seriously and that hurts my heart.

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