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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  • Peaches

    Wow! SPOT ON!

    I am 26yrs old and this is my second year teaching in an urban school. We have grades 2-12 in our building, and I teach middle school English.

    I have been hit on by students (and coworkers too) who seem to have a thing for the fresh new teacher on the block.

    I don’t even go to the mall on the weekend during peak hours because I’m sure to see my students. Just this past weekend I was out on a double date (and quite tipsy) and I hear “HEY MS. ****” being screamed from across the street as my student ran up and hugged me lol.

    But I absolutely love my job. I love working with the kids. They are amazing little people and it’s awesome seeing them learn and mature before my eyes.

    And yes, I have encountered the ageism thing while at work.Our faculty is practically split down the middle w/ old school and new school. The kids respond a lot better to us because they feel that we care more about their issues and can relate to them on a personal level.

  • Michelle

    This article is my life in a nutshell. I’m 32 & I’ve been teaching for 10 years, but I’m still the “young teacher”. My current school has many younger teachers who interact well with the students (grades k-6). The older teachers have more difficulty connecting with the students & adapting to the more technologically advanced curriculum.

    I make sure to shop & run errands in nearby towns to avoid running into my students. Sometimes I still see them….LOL!

    Some days are harder than others but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Seeing my students eagerness to learn makes it all worth it.

  • ms_micia

    That level of responsibility comes with a certain level of commitment to realizing the boundaries that need to exist. You don’t have to be a stiff, but I myself would frown upon seeing a teacher “shaking her locs” with her young, impressionable student in a club. Once that line is breeched it just is. I kinda raise an eyebrow to young teachers who make light of the fact that, despite what you and your coworkers do on your downtime, when you deal with children you are in a position of authority. That’s a serious position to be in. I personally feel that twenty somethings should NOT be teaching highschool. I just feel that level of responsibility is something that becomes better managed with age and experience. Lines get blurry when Mrs.Brown only graduated four years ago from the school down the street. Is that to say every young teacher has this problem? No, but many do. I remember being in HS in NYC in the early 00’s. Teaching Fellows program was alive and kicking and some of my teachers were around 23. And it showed! They weren’t prepared or cognizant of the inappropriate comments or oversharing. It was just a sheer lack of experience and maturity. Dealing with teenagers is a very difficult task anyway. As the child of a 25 year veteran teacher, I’ve seen firsthand how attached students can get, and how in those formative years if that trust is mishandled or the person in the position of authority doesn’t treat that with some respect, it can be detrimental to the child. Think long and hard about the level of responsibilty being of a secondary education teacher at that age means. Cuz you can do more harm than good if your not ready.

  • Pearlsrevealed

    Oh My! What an eyeopener. Thanks for helping me understand a younger sibling who is a high school teacher. I always thought she was so mean to her students when they would show up on her front porch in the summertime squealing “Hey Ms. P!” To this she snarled, “Hey Ms P my [email protected]#! I don’t want to look at yo face ’til school starts! Now get from around here!” (slams the door. I gasp) And you know she would win teacher of the year at her school many times and even won the title in her region!!!!!! I thought those kids and that school was nuts. LOL!

    • That. Is. Hilarious! I used to feel the same way after being around kids 12 hours a day (I worked the after school program until 6:30). Some days I’d be completely drained of everything in me by the end of the day. Teaching is the kind of profession that requires you to give so much of yourself on a daily basis that once school is out, most often all you want to do is hide, recuperate, and replenish your stock of sanity.

      As a former teacher (7 years– I’m 33 now) I totally understand that divide that many young teachers feel between their persona at school and who they are everywhere else. I think that because teachers are regarded as role models for young people and children, there is more of an expectation for “proper” social behavior.

  • whilome

    I’ve taught for 14 year and I live less than 2 miles from my school. My students all know where my house is and I’m proud expect to run into them down the street, at the grocery store, and especially the mall. I try to have my “teacher persona” going at all times.

    It is a tad disconcerting when a fine ass 32 year old approaches you at the club and goes, “Hey…didn’t you teach Senior English in ’97?”

    Yes. Yes, I did. sigh.

    • whilome

      The teacher in me is looking at this typo-filled comment up there and cringing.

      The tired ass woman in me knows y’all understand. Carry on.