First Time Teaching in Houston: An Adjustment Nightmare And Its Story

By Martin Castillo on 2023-07-20

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An Early Disappointment

With almost thirty years of teaching experience in the Philippines in my back pocket when I migrated to Houston in 2002, I felt confident that teaching inner-city high school kids would just be a leisurely walk in the park on a breezy moonlit evening. After all, I already had exposure to tough teaching environments in both the University of the Philippines Cebu College High School and the Sacred Heart School for Boys, now Ateneo de Cebu.

How wrong was I. Laughably wrong, perhaps.

The first few days alone already set the tone for what I was getting myself into which was not like anything at all that I had hoped for or imagined to be. The earlier few weeks of in-service seminars, mandatory online pieces of training, new teacher acclimation exposures, and other kinds of stuff in preparation for the first day of classes, suddenly became impotent distant memories incapable of anything they were supposed to be good for, or good at.

Or, was it just me simply overwhelmed by the novelty of the new, unfamiliar territory?

The ensuing weeks didn’t help either and weren’t any better at all, to put it mildly. They only succeeded in validating my fear for the feeling of inadequacy that was beginning to sprout in me.

Doubts started crossing my mind if I was good enough for the job to begin with. The almost thirty years of teaching experience had to be good for something, at least. I would silently encourage myself with that thought in trying to make sense of the incredulity I was wrestling with.

Stepping Back

I never had the good fortune of seeing, until then, of the popular saying to never be lost in the trees, to see the forest and for it to find a place in my own struggles and point me in the right direction. A subtle but strong enough nudge for me to shift to a new perspective in addressing my quest for answers.

For one, staying close to the collective presence of the students magnified the dissimilarity between them and the kind of students I had grown so accustomed to and comfortable with back in the Philippines. No. It’s not a case of apples and oranges comparison. It’s also unfair and, perhaps, even cruel to compare the two knowing that they’re their own entities from disparate societies. It’s nowhere near their fault either, in fairness.

I had to look from farther away. Who knows what I might see that which I missed in being so up close.

From a vantage distance, a wider horizon of opportunities presented itself which was firmly encouraging. I saw multiple options for lifting layers of besetting concerns and hopefully uncovering the pertinent answers I was looking for hiding under each one.


No Man Is An Island

While trying to stay afloat in my sea of unsettling worries, I inexcusably missed grabbing the physically proximate sources of life-saving interventions… my colleagues, my co-teachers. Nowhere was it intentional on my part in any conscious manner. It just didn’t initially cross my mind then for some reason.

As I have always been an advocate of the merits of building up one’s collective experience as a weapon for advancement and to remain relevant, I found myself at the hungry receiving end for the wealth of knowledge generously streaming in from my colleagues. They were profuse with endless ideas, strategies, and techniques in putting in place an effective, iron-clad classroom environment all coming from the Houston, Texas schools setting!!!

The Kicker

Yes, from the perspective of the Houston, Texas school setting. That was the kicker! As an experienced teacher from the Philippines with my own proven sets of tools that I could weld and win the battle for classroom sanity, I was doing an embarrassingly poor job. Too embarrassing even to myself looking back at it now. It’s no wonder I wasn’t anywhere near fixing it. My tools weren’t the right fit for the job staring at my face.

The Need To Retool

Retooling comes with a price, I would learn. Throwing things out the window that had been with me in my teaching journey proved to be an uncomfortable undertaking nor a welcome exercise that I would look forward to doing. But the absence of a choice made the decision predictably easy. How comforting!

Rolling Up The Sleeves

With a mindset prepped for proactive reforms, I exposed myself to criticisms from my colleagues; What needed to go; What needed to stay; and What needed to be in place.

The shortness of the list of the “ What” belied the true extent and intensity of the required endeavor to sublimate the offending concerns with productive options. Knowing the Whats was the easy part. But internalizing the merits of the Whats and making them do their magic in the classroom rose to the level of approaching an art. An almost impossible exercise.

Nonetheless, I simply drew comfort from the conviction that there would always be incremental ground gained, no matter how minuscule it may be, for every minute, hour, day, week, or month that I would put in in addressing the nagging concerns for as long as it is coupled with a dogged continuity and tenacity of purpose.

It's like picking up a new habit that requires time, repetition, iteration, conviction, application, and the most important component in my opinion, determination. How do you think I did?

Fast Forward On Autopilot

That was twenty-one years ago to the day. My retirement in 2019 from the same school district, The Houston Independent School District, and from the same school where I started in 2002, the Sam Houston Math, Science, and Technology Center, sums it all up as my crowning glory for the hard-earned triumphs over the span of seventeen long years of, yes, adjustments big and small that ultimately ran its course as if it had grown a life of its own without my conscious intervention. It was like navigating on autopilot.

Final Thoughts

There weren’t any clear lines to cross as markers that I was winning the struggle. On the contrary, there were multiple instances in the early phases when I was ready to pack up and call it quits due to the absence of perceptible signs that I was in the right direction.

Curiously enough, however, the stark reality I found myself in also assured me that I had no other option but to fight and must win the battle for classroom supremacy. That I had to win it at all costs.

Although every day was its own struggle, positive changes crept in surreptitiously unnoticed in the ensuing months. While before, I’d dislike getting out of bed on weekdays for work, now, I’d find it less of a struggle and, still onwards, a weekday was just another day.

Nightmare vanquished. Battle won!

Thank you for taking the time to read.

Stay safe y'all!

Martin Castillo is a retired public school teacher with the Houston Independent School District. He is currently based in Houston, Texas.

Marlou Cos —:Houston, Texas
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