navigational, compass

Year 35 or Year 1? The Voyage Has Begun

Sandy Merz Uncategorized

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Some weeks ago, in Year 35 or Year 1?, I pondered how teaching in a high school for the first time since 1987 would go. I wondered what high school students were like, how well I would do, in delivering content as well as building relationships, and finally, what unknown unknowns would I encounter on the voyage.

Now, after a month of high school teaching, I can say two things: I love it, and I’m closer to Year 1 in my career than Year 35.

I spend most of my day with juniors teaching Algebra 2, their last required math class. (To graduate, they still must take an additional high-level class of their choice, like Pre-Calculus.) Classes tend to be much quieter than middle school, and at first my students seemed disengaged, but when called on they usually had a reasonable, thoughtful, and original answer, indicating they had been listening and processing the lesson. Nearly all demonstrate that the social lessons their middle school teachers tried to teach about behavior and responsibility have taken hold. (A confession: I don’t miss the constant vibration and imperative nature of middle school students.)

I’m grateful for how fun it is working with these students and getting to know them personally, but I’m most impressed by their resilience in these early days of post-remote learning. More than a handful expressed serious anxiety and anger during our early diagnostic quizzes that covered material from their previous classes. There was little formal review for these assessments, and their angst wasn’t unreasonable. But when it came time for their first test for a grade, the vast majority stepped up, tried every problem, made no excuses, and showed some serious growth.

Two unknown unknowns revealed themselves in these early days. First, our attendance and grading software includes pictures of students. Most eighth graders are easily recognizable from their fourth or fifth grade pictures. But there are loads of my eleventh graders that I can’t recognize from their pictures taken just a year or two ago. They’ve grown, their faces change, and they’ve often changed their “look”. Many times, when I was learning names, I’d look at my class roll and try to picture a student in my head. Then I’d look at their pictures and they were unrecognizable.

The second surprise was realizing how much bigger high school students’ lives outside of school are compared to middle school students. Granted, maybe I should have thought about that earlier. But it still opened my eyes the first time a student said he had left his book in his car, and I realized he meant his car. Several students in each class have outside paying jobs. Sports and other extra-curricular activities are more demanding and the stakes are higher than in middle school. I often tell friends how disconcerting and rewarding it is to see my own adult sons being real grown-ups. Seeing my students being almost grown up gives me the same pleasure.

As far as teaching, I won’t go beyond saying I’m doing ok. I’m working crazy hard and am a bit concerned about my overall craftsmanship. Plus, it feels like I’m always behind. If I had a superpower, it would be to stop the clock for an hour or two a day just to catch up. Either that or add five minutes to lunch. I’m not as stable in the more advanced content as I’d like to be, but I’m getting there. Bell to bell I rarely feel a lesson is going as smoothly as I’d like, but day to day I’m generally happy with the progress my students make. I think to improve, I need to apply a video I have students watch to my teaching. The speaker breaks learning into four steps: 1) Identify the main components of the skill; 2) Learn to self-correct; 3) Remove barriers (the biggest of which is lack of confidence); and 4) Practice intensely.

Yep, it’s clearly Year 1. I love teaching high school, and I hope my feelings for my students are obvious, but it would be unconscionable not to mention my eternal gratitude to my colleagues. Thanks to the constant help, coaching, checking in, friendliness and encouragement of Matt, Anthony, Brett, Alyssa, Rony, David, Kelly, Laura, Bernadette, Isaac, Pooja, as well of the administration, counseling staff, and support staff, not only has the voyage has begun but my compass has a needle.


I grew up in Silver City, New Mexico and went the University of New Mexico, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in Geology. After working for the U.S. Geological Survey in remote regions of western New Mexico, I moved to Tucson to attend graduate school at the University of Arizona, earning a Master of Science degree in Hydrogeology. While working as an intern hydrologist for a local county agency, I started doing volunteer work that involved making presentations in schools. At that moment I knew teaching was the path to follow. It must have been a good decision because I’m still on the path after thirty-two years. My teaching certificates are in math and science and I am a National Board Certified Teacher in Career and Technical Education. After teaching engineering and math and elective classes at the same school in downtown Tucson my whole career, I've moved to a different middle school and district on the edge of town to teach math. In addition to full time teaching, I am actively involved in the teacher leadership movement by facilitating National Board candidates, blogging for Stories from School Arizona, and serving on the Arizona K12 Center’s TeacherSolutions team. In January 2017, Raytheon Missile System named me a Leader in Education and I'm a former Arizona Hope Street Fellow.

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