According to a recent survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly nine in 10 public schools had a difficult time finding teachers to hire ahead of the 2023-24 academic year.
Many educators, who chronicle their classroom woes on social media, are either abruptly leaving the profession (some after merely a day in the field) or are seriously contemplating a career change. A common reason is that, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers feel disrespected by their students, burned out, and simply at a loss of what to do to make things better.
For those at their wits’ end, the forthcoming book of Langhorne’s Jennifer Nelson, a former journalist who pivoted mid-career to become a high school French teacher, might shed some light on how struggling educators can once again find joy in their chosen field.
Teaching with Heart, available Oct. 31 through Amazon and Target, is a memoir about the highs and lows of Nelson’s entrance into the world of education, and how she overcame the lows.
“Teenagers are teenagers and they’re more interested in their phones than before, but you can control that. You need strategies on classroom management, and I think my book does provide some strategies on how to work with different types of young people, and to be successful in the classroom and not get so stressed,” she said.
Nelson’s inaugural career was in journalism, penning stories for a daily newspaper in New Brunswick, New Jersey. She loved what she did, including getting to interview folks from all walks of life. But eventually, she had to make the difficult decision to leave the field. The paper sold, and her new deadline- and quota-heavy workload proved to be too hefty for a mother on the brink of divorce trying to raise three children.
It was suggested that she give teaching a try, specifically French. Given her upbringing in Morocco, where she and her sister attended a French school (their father was a diplomat), she was fluent in the language. Plus, teaching would allow her to spend more time with her kids.
“I think it’s hard for people to leave jobs that they like, and I wasn’t sure I would like teaching,” said Nelson.
Understandably, Nelson was nervous about her first days in a high school classroom. Would the teens like her? Could she relate to them? To prepare, she drew from her prior experience teaching in the West African country of Niger through the Peace Corps.
“If I could teach in the Peace Corps with no resources, how complicated would it be for me to teach in an American school where they had computers, they had textbooks, they had resources to help them, they had the internet?,” said Nelson.
Her initial dive into the American education system was quite smooth. Nelson landed a job at a Catholic all-girls’ school where the students, for the most part, took their studies very seriously. Still, she had three kids of her own to raise, and a private school salary simply wasn’t cutting it. So, she moved to the public school system in Central New Jersey…and came extremely close to leaving the profession. From teens hitting each other in French class to extreme statewide testing regimens and less-than-supportive administrators, it was a stark contrast to her previous environment.
“I was one of those teachers that was lost in the beginning,” she said. “And in fact, I got fired because I hated the school, they hated me, everybody hated each other.”
Nelson didn’t think she’d ever return to the public school setting. But at the encouragement of a colleague, who explained that it’s usually tough for new teachers to acclimate, she eventually returned with a fresh determination to make French class enjoyable for everyone involved.
For Nelson, it’s all about establishing a rapport with her students, even the ones who lash out at her. She recalled one teen who, after using foul language toward her, agreed to a sit-down conversation with Nelson. It was revealed that the student was on medication that amplified her anger, and therefore Nelson was able to not take the words so personally.
“You still have to understand where they’re coming from and try to relate to them in some way. They will not work if they don’t like you, at least in high school. They will tune you out,” she said.
On her quest to establish a rapport with students, Nelson realized why some students weren’t taking to her: she needed to loosen up and bring some fun to her teaching style. Once she did this, things significantly improved.
“Students want to get to know their teachers, a little personal stuff. You should maintain some privacy, but they do want to feel that you’re not a robot,” she said. “And you should also get to know the students, find out something interesting. Do they like the Jets? Are they annoyed about the Phillies losing? Find out one little thing about each of your students, especially in the beginning. Even if it’s just knowing their names after a week or two.”
Nelson also urged new educators to not isolate themselves from their colleagues, especially ones with experience. Chances are, they’ve lived through the same struggles and will have a word or two of advice.
Of course, the pandemic affected students in a negative way, forcing them to adapt to remote learning while isolated from their peers. According to Nelson, classrooms are still feeling the effects of 2020 and 2021. Learning loss remains, as well as an increased dependence on cell phones and technology. The key, she said, is to establish that rapport so that students don’t mind looking up from their screens, at least for a little while.
Ultimately, added Nelson, succeeding as a teacher is all about confidence. There will be tough students, administrators and parents, but if an educator can believe in their abilities to instill some knowledge, they’ll make it through those tough times.
She said, “You’ve gone through some training. You’ve taught. Believe in yourself. Believe you can do it.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org