On Being a High School English Teacher Danielle Hampton

Before I had my son, I was a high school English teacher. Five days a week I welcomed 175 different students into my classroom, teaching 5 classes of American Literature to rambunctious 15 and 16-year-olds. I think I learned more from those kids than I could ever dream of teaching them, and I still think back fondly on those six years I was “Mrs. Hampton”.

It’s interesting because I never thought I’d end up being an educator. My Mom is an elementary school teacher, and growing up I spent a lot time in her classroom, but it was still never something I dreamed of becoming. And later, although I loved the social aspect of high school, the last thing I could have ever imagined was that one day I’d be back there dealing with wild teenagers like myself. But after earning my Bachelor’s in English Literature, I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do with my life. My original dream of becoming a lawyer had lost its luster and I found myself looking into grad school… and somehow, my focus turned towards Education. A year and a half later I had a Master’s degree in my hand and a job teaching English at a high school in the small town I now call home.

Teaching is a truly noble profession. At times it is thankless; it can be tough to work in a career that isn’t paid well and is often the first area that gets the brunt of budget cuts. But overall, it’s beyond rewarding. People have called me crazy for voluntarily wanting to spend my days with teenagers. “How could you want to do that?” “Aren’t those kids just too much to handle?” But I really think it was the best job I’ve ever had.  I got to talk about books, read with the kids, design lessons based around some of my favorite authors and novels and focus on writing every single day. What could be better? I had my good days, I had my bad days…but through all of it, I found a deep sense of purpose and found myself laughing and smiling through most of it.

Now I spend my days chasing around my 14-month-old son, and although those times spent in a classroom seem so far away, I can still remember my very first day of student teaching. There I was, shaking in my boots (or black Payless flats, if you want to get technical), a 5’3″, 22-year old fresh-faced college graduate. I was facing a room full of seniors who were just a few years younger than me and I was terrified. But I did it. I looked them all in the eyes, I talked to them, I got over my fear and over that semester, I became their teacher.

The next year I had my own classroom and had to go through those first-day jitters all over again. If I think about it, I can still feel the butterflies, the sweaty palms and then that sweet relief once that first day was done and over with. I conquered it, though, and I spent the next five years building relationships with some of the most wonderful children, inspiring them to read and getting quite the education myself.

I learned that you can’t procrastinate when you have a roomful of teenagers relying on you and that if you count on the photocopier to make 35 copies right before class is about to start, it will most likely break right then and there. I figured out right away that the school librarian is an English teacher’s best friend. I quickly realized I wasn’t as hip as I thought I was (Can someone please explain to me what a Wiz Khalifa is?). I figured out that some of my students come from great homes full of love and support…and others come from a very lonely place, where the only encouraging thing they might hear all day was quite possibly from me. I found out that kids still really do love to read, but that in this age of technology it better be exciting.

I realized that my attitude and the climate of my classroom directly affected my students. I learned how to notice cheating with my back turned, how to spot plagiarism at a glance, I gained super-extraordinary hearing and could pick up the subtle click-click-click of a student texting during a lecture. I found out that everyone has a story and things weren’t always as they seemed. I quickly lost my naivety and realized that things today are much different than they used to be. I learned a million new vocabulary words from repeating the same lessons  over and over, five times a day. I experienced kids lying to me, I saw kids being bullied and I witnessed them standing up for one another. I saw tears (lots of tears), but I also saw a lot of happiness, even in boring old English class. I learned that I need to carry my teacher ID on me at all times or run the risk of a substitute teacher mistaking me for a student and sending me to the office for loitering in the halls (true story). I found out quickly that even though I was the teacher, I wasn’t always right, and it was okay to say so. The biggest thing I learned, though, was that at the root of it, every single one of my students wanted to be loved. They wanted attention, they wanted to feel important and they wanted someone to listen.

My time spent teaching truly changed my life. Even though I can distinctly remember some days being so difficult, most days I loved it. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else during that period of my life, and I wholeheartedly believe that those six years made me into not just a better person, but a better Mom.  I look forward to the day I can use my super-human hearing to wow (and annoy) my son, and I think I’ll always get a kick out of throwing some of those fifty-cent vocabulary words obnoxiously into conversation. I don’t think that will ever get old.

Did you ever have a job that totally changed you or your perspective? I’d love to hear about it, so feel free to chime in via the comments below!

image via The New York Times

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  1. What a frank and refreshing article. I’m 25 and in my PGDE (Scottish version grad school) training to be an English teacher in Scottish secondary schools (like High school). It’s been really, really hard work and stressful and at times I’ve doubted myself, but at no point have I ever not been certain it’s what I want to do. I’m so glad the profession exists.
    Amy x

  2. Everyday I am in a quandary about whether or not I should continue to pursue my dream to become a high school English teacher. Your article was a great reflection of the good and the bad, but best of all the real reasons people boldly/naively/fascinatingly step up into this profession. Thank you so much for sharing Danielle, your article has once again illuminated the reasons I really want to do this.

  3. It might sound a little flaky as far as actual career-work goes (as a junior in high school, I’m not too spazzed about it, yet), but babysitting the same two little girls for the past five years has been one of the most fantastic and rewarding experiences I’ve had. There is something so amazing about seeing a baby grow into its own person and teaching them the weird little things about the world.

  4. Thanks for sharing! I have two semesters before I graduate and become a high school English teacher and it is nice to hear a story of loving the days in the classroom rather than a horror story! Makes me excited!

  5. I’m in my second year at the university to become a high school spanish teacher. I’ve learned that with all of the politics and controversy with education , it is easy to be discouraged. This article reminds me why i got into it in the first place :) thank you!

  6. I am a high school biology teacher and as I read this, I found myself nodding at every line you wrote. After teaching middle school science (a combination of general, life, and physical) for six years, I took a promotion which gave me the flexibility of using the bathroom whenever I felt the need and not during my planning period, while working behind the scenes helping teachers develop entertaining and sound lessons. I did this for two years, giving a multitude of staff developments to a teaching staff of 157 certificated teachers and worked with many of our school divisions higher ups, reporting the good, bad, and ugly as teachers faced classroom problems. However, the one thing that was removed from the equation was the students. If you re-read the first line of this comment, you will see that I am a HS biology teacher. I went to my admin and begged them to let me go back to teaching, back to the lesson planning, and countless hours of paper-grading. I gave up my office beside the principal and my title as Instructional Specialist, and took a pay cut because I needed to have that connection with the students. Now, I’m back and I’m loving every minute of it. I might teach them biology, but they teach me something about myself every day.

  7. This is exactly what I needed to read right now. I have just decided against my long-time goal of going to law school and am now adding another two years of school to my plan in order to become a middle-school social studies teacher. A lot of the people that I’ve told about my new career path have been a bit negative and a few have basically told me that I’m going to hate it. Now my faith has been restored and I am more excited than ever to get to be a teacher. Thanks!!

  8. I’m a high school teacher and I always tell people that it only takes one student, or one situation, to remind you why you do it (putting up with all the crap, that is!).

    Lol, I’ve been thrown out of the library before because the librarian thought I was a student being non-compliant with uniform policy! Never getting old!!!

  9. I am currently studying psychology hoping to one day be counselor. After my first semester of college without an English class I realized it something I cannot live without! I never wanted to be a teacher (and I’m still not entirely sure that is where my path is leading me), but I am passionate about books, reading, and writing. Your positive experiences, in a high school no less, are an encouragement to me. Thank you so much for taking the time to write this article!

  10. Articles like this lead me to remember why I became an educator. Yes, it is crazy hard, and yes the copier will ALWAYS break down when you need it the most, but the real reason we’re there is to lead students to knowledge! Nothing is better than seeing students excited to learn. THAT is the most rewarding thing to me- when the students are having fun and are engaged in their learning! This article makes me excited and gives me a renewed energy to see my kids again in January! Thank you so much for this!

  11. Eight years ago, I moved back to my hometown after an unexpected divorce. I was scared, but I knew that I wanted to have a schedule that would allow me plenty of time with my children. So I started subbing and not long after was hired as an aide. I worked in Special Education for the next five years. The last year I worked I started my college education to be an Elementary teacher. I had planned on being a lawyer, too, but I love that God gave me a different direction. I look forward to my own classroom. I think the greatest blessing has been hearing my children plan their college educations. Thanks so much for sharing. I go to block and then student teaching, so this gave me some comfort!!!

  12. I love this! I am about to start student teaching in 3 weeks, as an art teacher! I am petrified….but excited too. This is a very encouraging article to read right now ;)

    Anonymous | 12/29/2011 12:12 pm
  13. Awe loved this article. I have been working at an elementary school for 2 years now and although I don’t aspire to be a teacher is see how rewarding it is. 5 and 15 are not the same age but your right that all these students want is attention and to be loved at any age. I do find it frustrating sometimes the lack of interest parents have on their children but I just help those kids out more. Plus I loved hs lit. I am bookworm so I excelled in that class & I was luck enough to have teachers like you who where passionate about what they taught.

  14. Thanks for this! I’m a student teacher right now doing English as well, and it’s already very rewarding (if a bit scary!!!) I get to teach “To Kill a Mockingbird” which I’m very excited about :)

  15. I’m a first year high school Spanish teacher about to finish up my first semester. I love reading articles like this and I don’t think there are enough out there. People who don’t teach don’t understand the fun thats there!

  16. Sounds like an awesome time. I work for Child Protective Service and talked about an over worked and underpaid job! It’s amazing though, I am there for those children when no one else is and I know that I matter to them and that makes me happy… that makes the long days worth it.

  17. Freedom Writers part 2 ; ) starring Danielle Hampton. i can see it!!

  18. I remember graduating high school and wanting nothing more than to be a teacher. It was the only profession I could see myself enduring that many years of college for. Then on my first day of college, my speech/communications professor is freaking out over how many teachers are under threat of being laid off. This went on for weeks. I became so discouraged that I delayed school and went to work hoping the situation would get better. Now, three years later it seems things have only gotten worse. There are rumors of schools being shut down in my area and my desire to be a teacher hasn’t waned a bit. It’s getting to the point where I’ll probably have to seriously consider doing something else with my life.

    • That’s wild because I live right outside of Dallas. We seem to be in similar situations. Crazy coincidence.

    • I wanted (still do) to become either a culinary high school teacher or a home economics teacher. I graduated from culinary school about 2 years ago and the only job that I really want in the culinary field is to teach high school. Unfortunately, the school systems around Dallas are also becoming worse throughout the years; laying off teachers, pay cuts, etc etc. I’m afraid to go and spend more money on school, when its not a guarentee that a job (especially what I’m interested in teaching) is even available.

  19. i’m currently in college to become an art teacher. and i’ve received some bad reactions from people when i say that, “ooh, which age, do you really want to chase around 100 6 year olds all day?, or- ooh, you know art programs aren’t getting any money these days, will you have a job when you graduate?”… Despite all of this negativity, i know thats what i want to do in my life- i’ve had experiences with the kids that i nanny, doing crafts and projects day after day, and coming back months later and repeating them, you can see how much they’ve grown and developed. Now I don’t know which age i’ll be teaching, maybe it will be high school- and i’ve got to say, i’m excited about that as well- i have the greatest memories from high school because my teachers were so great. They were excited, and treated us as adults, they were supportive, and taught my classmates and I in a way that was attainable and exciting. Teachers can make or break your love of anything- music, reading/writing, art. And its teachers like mine, and from the way it sounds, you, Mrs. Hampton, who are some of the great ones. Thank you!

  20. Danielle, I loved reading this article. I taught high school English for five years and am now currently the librarian at the same high school. This year is my 8th year in education and I completely agree .with all of your observations. Teaching has changed my life. It has made me compassionate beyond anything I thought possible and has taught me exactly what you said, all of our students just want tone loved. Teachers are rarely taken as seriously as we should be, and we are rarely appreciated for what we do. Thank you for writing this and giving us yet another voice!

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