Name: Elizabeth Kirsch
College & Majors/Minors: University of Puget Sound, Major in English Literature, Minor in Spanish; University of Puget Sound, Master of Arts in Teaching (Secondary Education)
Current Location: Portland, OR
Current Form of Employment: Teacher
Where do you work and what is your current position?
I currently work for Portland Public Schools as a high school English teacher. This year, I taught Sophomore English, Junior English, and Essential Skills (a class that supports juniors and seniors in meeting their graduation requirements for reading and writing). Next year, I will be teaching Sophomore English, Intro Journalism, and Advanced Journalism (the school newspaper).
Tell us about how you found your job!
I graduated from my Masters program in mid August of last year. Throughout that whole summer, I applied to any high school English jobs I found in districts that were of interest to me. At the time, I was living in Tacoma, and looking for jobs in that area, but also thinking of moving back to Oregon, and looking for jobs there as well.
The job application process was extremely stressful; applying and interviewing and all the prep that comes with it are things that feel very unnatural for me! I probably submitted around 10 applications, and I interviewed for three jobs at various stages towards the middle of the summer. At one point, I almost drove down to Springfield, Oregon for a final interview (that would have involved me giving an hour long presentation) the day before I had to present my graduate thesis in Tacoma. Ultimately, I decided that the job wasn't quite the right fit—I was taking a risk and it weighed on me, but I decided to keep applying.
A graduate of Portland Public Schools myself, I dreamed of returning to the district as a teacher, but it is very difficult to get a job in PPS, and they don't hire many first year teachers. I applied to the district pool, met with my high school principal for advice, talked with my old high school teachers, and ultimately landed an interview for a last minute opening a few days before the school year started. The administrators called later that afternoon and offered me the job. I was very lucky to get this opportunity, and I remain so grateful for it!
What has been the most surprising thing about your first year as a teacher?
The most surprising things have been how much fun it was and how much support I had. Well-versed in horror stories about the first year of teaching, I pretty much expected to be miserable all year (as excited as I was). Because of those warnings, I was not at all surprised by how stressed out I was, how hard I worked, or how deeply I felt the needs of my students (and how much that weighed on me, even on nights and weekends), but I was surprised at the warmth and support I encountered in my building from fellow educators, from students, from parents, and from administrators. It sounds cheesy and like something you might take for granted in another situation, but as a young teacher, I am very privileged to work in a space where I have support throughout the high and low points of teaching.
What did you do in college to prepare for your post-grad life?
I avoided any talk of the future like the plague! Throughout most of college, I just focused on my classes, which was the best thing I could have been doing as a future English teacher. The mental practices I learned in college have been invaluable in my job, as I aim to teach my students to be questioning, critically-minded citizens. My professors made me question my assumptions, pushed me to think outside of my comfort zone, and stretched my intellectual capacities to far greater lengths than I had ever imagined they could go. They also supported me and encouraged me in those moments when I did not believe I could get there. Learning from them was the best practice I could have had! I strive to do all these things for my students.
I also built experience through jobs that I was passionate about; I worked as a Writing Advisor and Spanish Tutor in my university's Center for Writing, Learning, and Teaching. I did extracurriculars that helped me stay sane in between those early mornings and late nights at the library; my sorority sisters were integral to my college experience. Overall, I really just tried to experience college the way I wanted to experience it—always with an eye towards the future, but mostly trying to immerse myself in the present and take advantage of the academic community I had around me.
Towards junior and senior years, I began talking to professors (they can be incredible resources when it comes to soul searching, job searching, quarter life crises, etc.), meeting with the Career Center to work on my resume, and investigating graduate programs. Once in graduate school, I took advantage of opportunities that were built in to support us as we began applying for jobs (mock interviews, resume support, etc).
What is your advice for students and graduates who are interested in becoming a teacher?
First, find a graduate program that is both supportive and rigorous. There is no shame in having a community of support as you are pushed to navigate the challenges and dilemmas of teaching. In fact, it is critical—if you don't ask for help, you will never improve. You owe it to your future students to be the best teacher you can be, and to do that, you need a teaching program that will help you get there!
Second, try to manage your discouragement during the job search. I won't say don't get discouraged, because that will inevitably happen. You will watch other people get interviews and wonder what is wrong with you. You will freeze up during interviews and dwell on it for hours. You will do well during interviews, not get the job, and wonder what happened. Here's what happened: You are a teacher with no experience—it is very challenging to get hired! There are lots of candidates out there with more life and work experience than you—so don't feel bad about yourself. Rather, do the work to be the best candidate you can be, be honest with yourself and others about the kind of teacher you will be and the kind of job you want, and put yourself out there in any way you can.
Finally, be aware that everyone and their mother has an opinion on what is wrong with the education system today. Lots of people will want to tell you what to do and how to think. As a budding teacher, remember that part of your job will be to challenge your students, expose them to new perspectives and information, guide them in locating themselves and their views, and push them to back up those views with evidence and arguments. Remember to do the same thing yourself. Be involved and informed, and trust your instincts about what is right and what isn't. There are a lot of things to be disillusioned about in the world of education in the US today, and you should never forget to be critical. But it is also so important to be aware of the good things that are happening, and to know that even with the disillusionment, every day in my classroom is a gift. I might be sad, I might be exasperated, I might be angry, I might be proud, I might be ecstatic; it doesn't matter. All of those experiences are valuable.
People will tell you not to go into teaching, and you certainly only should if you are passionate about it. But if you are passionate about it, it is worth it. Those things that make you angry or sad are reasons to participate in the system, so you can inspire students to change what is wrong with it, not reasons to walk away.