Growing Pains: What My First Year of Teaching Seniors Taught Me About Expectations

Have you seen those "Expectations versus Reality" photographs across social media--the ones that contrast what you think something will be like with how it actually turns out? 

My first year of teaching  was like one of those photographs. 

Expectation picture: My first day would go swimmingly. The weeks of summer planning would pay off. My students would happily learn to write college application essays, resumes, cover letters, thank you letters, and other real-world writing documents. They'd enthusiastically read and engage in conversations about Hamlet and recite the "To Be Or Not To Be" soliloquy for fun. Everyone would love me. I'd win an award for my expert teaching! 

Reality picture: I was 23-years-old in charge of teaching 11th and 12th graders. I looked closer in age to them than I did the rest of the faculty, so much so that on my first day, my students looked at me as though I had four heads.  

"Wait, you're the...teacher?"

I got off to a power struggle with my students from day one and was had a hard time maintaining order. Instead of apples, I received a delicious taste of eye rolls and sarcasm neatly wrapped with contempt.

I went home that first week wondering if I'd make it through the school year. 

My teaching peers had passed on the idea that if you didn't get your students to cooperate in the beginning of the year...well, then good luck to you.

My excitement for the year quickly transformed to dread.

I looked back on my positive experience teaching 9th graders during my student-teaching placement.

"Ms. Corley, how old are you?"

"I'm 40."

"No way."

"Way."

They looked around suspiciously. One student nodded, and that was that. I was 40.

"Let's get back to Of Mice and Men."

There I was in my first year of teaching living out the quote, "Even the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry." 

How cliche. 

Aside from the initial power struggle and the realization that none of my lesson plans would work with this group of students, we got hit with a hurricane. 

A literal one. 

Hurricane Sandy hit our area hard in late October. We were out of power for weeks. The lines for gas were hours long. Buses weren't running. Families were displaced. Back packs, laptops, and school books were left behind. A few of my students lost their homes. College application deadlines were pushed back.

Around the same time, my mom's cancer spread, and I had to face the reality that I was about to lose my best friend.  She went into hospice that January, and I juggled teaching with full-time caregiving until she passed away in March. 

As much as my expectations of the year were completely off, the inability to plan for anything forced me to grow as a teacher and as a person, and I was able to transform my first-year teacher woes. 

And, it came in the form of an unexpected solution: college essays. 

I decided to make myself available to my students to help them with their college essays in hopes that they'd conclude, "Hey, she's not so bad; she does want to help us."

It would also keep me busy during my off periods instead of spending that time consumed by worrying about what was going on a home. Was my mom confused again? Was she in pain? Was the hospice nurse tending to her? 

This decision not only greatly impacted how my students responded to me for the rest of the year, it changed my life--and, that's not hyperbole. 

College application essays ask students to share stories from their lives that admissions teams can't get elsewhere on their application. 

When I met with my students 1:1, I got the opportunity to get to know them on a much deeper level than I could in my classroom. 

I learned that there was a lot going on “behind the scenes.”

Some of my students had just lost a dear family member or a friend, some were dealing with crippling anxiety or depression, several were dealing with chaotic home lives, one thought there was nothing interesting about her to write about, and some had low expectations of being able to get into college, which was reflected in their writing.

My high-achieving students were cracking under the pressure. Getting into their dream school felt like life or death.

I could relate to what my students were going through because I too was going through it. I knew what it felt like to feel worried, to feel sad, to be overwhelmed. I knew what it felt like to want to be accepted and to hope your hard work would pay off.

So, I listened.

At a borrowed cramped desk tucked in the corner of the school's office, I gave them a space to share, to vent, and to regroup their energy, so they could be in a better head space to freely write pieces that they felt confident submitting.

I guided them to get past what they thought admissions teams wanted to hear to write something that inspired them. 

Instead of writing from their heads, I helped them write from their hearts.

It was here that I had a realization that humbled me. 

We were all people who, deep down, really were doing our best in any given moment. 

After I began helping my students with their college essays, the energy in my classroom shifted. 

Instead of trying to paddle against the current, we started flowing together.

Things became easier.  

The day after my mom passed away, I went into work.

Showing up there was an autopilot response. But, it was not because I had spent so much time rushing back and forth between work and home and hospitals that my body just took me there. It was more that my soul recognized I needed to be there. 

I walked upstairs my classroom where another teacher was covering for me. I peered inside the window and saw my students making giant sympathy cards for me on poster board. I walked in.

When they saw me, a few of them started crying. Many came up to hug me. And, a few sat with quiet acknowledgment and spoke to me in the hallway afterwards. 

"How can we be there for you? We love you so much." 

How far I had come from that first day.  A place filled with young people who had once caused me anxiety now was where I went for comfort. 

Oh, irony. 

My first year of teaching was a giant lesson in learning to trade expectations for appreciation. 

One student who was suspended for an inappropriate comment he made about me was a student I never expected to change his mind about me. We both lightened up around each other when I helped him with his essays. 

A few weeks after my mom passed, he caught up to me in the hallway. 

"Can I show you something?" 

He ran to his locker and returned with a shirt in his arms.  

He had my mom's initials embroidered on each of his team's soccer jerseys--over their hearts.

"I didn't know what to do after your mom died, so I thought it would be nice to carry her with us when we played. I know I never met your mom, but if she was anything like you, she was a wonderful person." 

Again, my expectations were nothing like reality. 

I could never have imagined a moment like this that first day. 

It was one of many that filled my heart that year. 

I recognized these moments stemmed from simply caring about my student's stories.

Year after year, I became a better teacher, adviser, and listener. 

I didn't know it back then, but I had found my calling through advising and helping teens move past their limiting beliefs and self doubt.

The decision to help my students with their application essays brought me on an unexpected journey across the country to start a business to help take the stress and pressure off teens during the application process--a pivotal part of their lives. and one in which being clear-headed is important. 

My first year teaching was tumultuous.

It brought me immense amounts of growing pains.

But, it also showed me what I'm capable of, and it forced me to learn to let go of my expectations and go with the flow and control the only I ever could--my attitude. 

It also taught me that teaching from a place of love is never a bad idea.  

This blog was written by Jaclyn Corley, Founder of The College Essay Captain and digital course creator of College Essay Playbook

The College Essay Captain helps teens overcome their fears and limiting beliefs around writing college application essays, so they are free to authentically share their stories with admissions teams.