I was wearing a tight black dress, pinstriped. Not too short, but enough for a night out. Hair to the side, and contacts that I only wear on weekends. Drink in hand, that song, my song came on. Dreadlocks shaked, “It’s a party it’s a party it’s a party! I got a main chick… and a mistress!” I dip. I spin around in a circle. In a blur, arms are opened wide to me with a huge smile:

“Ms. Hooodddgggeeee!!!!”

It’s one of my students. Class of 2011. But, I thought I had left Ms. Hodge at work that day despite my smile or my pride because he looked happy (and no cup in hand). What I wanted to know was simple: How the hell did he get in?

This has happened before, I’m sure. Whether in the street or at the grocery store, it’s a defining moment of every young teacher’s character. It’s just one of the daily challenges of training children. Like most quarter-life, or post-grad women, sometimes, you don’t know which way to go yourself.

Classroom Rules

It’s not about what to wear anymore with the new school year. No matter what Davie Yarborough, 25, wears, people still mistake her for a student. And students mistake her for a ‘big sister’ kind of figure. For most young teachers, defining the line is a bigger challenge in a high school classroom. Luckily, Yarborough’s classes are mostly freshmen. But if there’s a problem between who’s boss, she says it.

“If I think for a second that a student is having some trouble identifying the line between who I am and who they think I am, I will say it. ‘I am not your big sister. I am your teacher.’ And I am willing to call others to make sure that they [the kids] are promoting a successful learning environment, not only for themselves, but for their classmates as well.”

For young teachers, it’s been a calling. Dominique Cauley, a 4th grade teacher in Washington DC knew that this was what she wanted to do. Despite her hesitation, her transition into the field has been successful, and even though she’s the one writing the teacher’s comments now, colleagues still have a hard time adjusting.

The Principal’s Office

Senioritis doesn’t just apply to students anymore and neither does senior preference. While due to retirements and budget cuts, over 700,000 teachers will be needed in the next 10 years. Despite vigor or zeal, the more experienced employees get the bigger paychecks.

Cauley describes, “In education, it’s a lot of ageism. Leaving Georgetown, I had just got accustomed to racism. No one had told me about age! So when I got to school, I was 22 years old, it was like, ‘You’re young — you don’t know anything. And then my second year it was like, you’re still too young. But look, I’m going be young for the next 10 years of my life. That doesn’t give me an excuse to be an ineffective educator.”

Not every young teacher is so easily dismissed. Robin Pope, assistant vice principal at Prince George’s County’s Oxon Hill High School, made the transition from teacher to administrator after more than a decade in the field. She admits that older teachers are less sensitive to the special needs of kids. They’ve seen a million kids with no parents or no home. To her, young teachers are consistently willing to go the extra mile, making that personal connection with students today.

Despite her praise, ironically enough, young teachers don’t like homework either. “The other thing that’s a big difference is that the younger teachers don’t spend as much time, at home or during their free time, on work, whereas older teachers grew up working that way.”

No More Homework, No More Books. No More Teacher’s Dirty Looks

And no more chalkboards. Yarborough’s school has placed dry erase boards over the classic instructional tool.

And no more gradebooks. Both Yarborough and Cauley are mandated to use electronic grading systems like Engrade, where parents and students can keep up with assignments.

And no more visiting your favorite teacher from 9th grade, the one who made you read Nectar In A Sieve and love it because, well, she’s not there anymore.

For Cauley, teaching couldn’t be a passing phase: “You meet a lot of young people who do the programs — Teaching Fellows, Teaching For America — but I knew if I was going do this I wanted to do this without the idea of thinking about what was coming next. And I feel like a lot of those programs will offer to get teachers into the classroom, but if you’re only going to commit for two years, then I always wondered was, what kind of change did you actually intend on creating?”

The young educator’s commitment is rare in this field. With the country in an economic downturn, the workforce turns to education as a back up plan. According to the National Center for Education Statistic, age isn’t the only factor. While 14% of teachers who move schools are under the age of 30 (higher than any other age bracket), it’s those with the least teaching experience that are more likely to leave the profession all together.

Despite the risks, administrators like Pope have no choice but to hire these applicants. The mother of two shares her frustration, “We get a lot of second career people assigned from places like NASA, and they’re brilliant, absolutely brilliant. But they can’t teach high school students. They can’t teach elementary school students. They can’t teach middle school students. So yeah. There are a lot of second career people who find out teaching is a gift that they have but most of the time — they don’t.”

Pop Quiz

And what about the things that we’re afraid to admit? How are young teachers to deal with the flirting of students only 5-4-3 years their junior? What about the young (and old) teachers who smoke the weed we’re supposed to warn our children against? What about the veterans? Can they tweet homework assignments? How can we as a community not only get good teachers, regardless of age, but keep them? Clutchettes?

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