What age group and subject were you teaching?
I was accepted into a graduate program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha called the CADRE Project. In this program you are placed in a classroom as a full-time teacher at one of the surrounding public school districts while simultaneously completing a Master's Degree program. Part of the program included a "Master Teacher Mentor" that would check in on my classroom periodically to give pointers and advice to make the first year go smoother. I was placed in the Omaha Public Schools as a 4th grade teacher.
What was your first classroom like?
My classroom was in a building that was built in 1912, and hadn't had many renovations so it was very "antique". Wood floors, high ceiling, tall windows, old radiator for heat, and no air conditioning! The school itself, a K-4 building, actually had more classrooms outside in portables than we had in the actual building. I was lucky to be in the main building. Outside my classroom door was the "office" which consisted of a large counter in the hallway for the secretary to work from with a small office to the back for the principal. The security guard sat right outside my classroom as well at a small little table.
Were you given supplies or materials?
I was given very minimal supplies to start off since my class was added on. I had a set of math and reading textbooks, and a set of old metal desks in the room. I had access to large rolls of colored paper, writing paper, and pencils in a school-wide storage room. If I needed anything else I had to put in a supply order, but this was only for the basic office supplies like pens, staples, etc. It took several months just to get a working pencil sharpener in that room that first year!
These conditions are where I started creating my own materials since I had no other choice! Ended up well for me though as it led to a love of curriculum development and gave me skills to use for my post-teaching career!
What was the hardest part of your first year of teaching?
The biggest challenge I had that first year was learning how to work with such a diverse population, both racial and socio-economical. There was nothing taught in teacher training to prepare me for that. I originally came from Sioux Falls, SD, where my graduating class of over 500 had less than 1% non-white students and all basically came from a middle class economic status.
My students were about 50% black coming from a very low income neighborhood directly around the school. The other 50% were mainly white students that were bussed in from an even lower income area that included a homeless shelter. Due to the homeless shelter we had a lot of movement in and out of the school. In a given year I would have on average 18 students in my room, but at the end of the year I would have a list of 40-50 kids that had actually been in my class at some point during the year.
About the same time that school started my first year there was a police officer, Jimmy Wilson Jr, shot and killed by gang members while still sitting seat belted in his patrol car. This caused quite a bit of unrest and tension in the city, especially the area where my school was located. One of the first Friday afternoons after starting school it was too hot to be sitting in the classroom (no air conditioning) so I took the class out to the front yard under a big tree to do our read aloud time there. Instead of reading, a discussion about the shooting started amongst them. My eyes were really opened during the discussion to just how different the families in the area viewed the shooting than I had as a white woman from the middle class area of town. I was also really tuned in to just how much innocence was lost in these young 9-10 year olds, on the mature nature of the things they'd seen and experienced at such a young age. I had student taught 4th grade in Ames, IA, those kids were so much less mature and innocent than the students I had sitting with me under that tree. It was a very eye opening and educational experience for me. I think that discussion really helped me see into the lives of these children and gave me a better empathetic attitude towards what I had ahead of me in being their teacher.
What was the best part of your first year of teaching?
The biggest challenge was also the best part. I learned to be so much more open minded and learned to work with a diverse population. I also felt that I really made a difference for those children. I was a person they could depend on every day to be there for them to provide structure, empathy, and kindness.
There was one student in particular who I feel I touched more than any other student I've ever had. I was, and still am, very proud of how I helped him build his confidence that year and helped others in the district, who had dismissed him and written him off as a goof-off who didn't have much potential, see that he was very worthy of another look. I proved them wrong and opened their eyes to the incredible potential he did hold.
What do you know now that you wish you knew that first year?
Every year you add a little more to your knowledge base. You learn the importance of organization, the importance of seeing each child through a clear set of eyes (don't read past files before meeting them), and realize that your classroom doesn't have to look "perfect" and that money can be better spent on instructional materials rather than cutesy bulletin boards!
I have also learned that you can't solve every problem, you can only do your best to try. Make sure to protect yourself as well, don't let all the problems of your students and classroom dominate your life. Take some time out for your personal mental health so you don't get burned out too fast!
I wish good luck and happy days ahead for all teachers reading this, but especially all of you first year teachers! Take a deep breath, it will work out in the end and you will do fantastic! There is nothing more exciting than a first year teacher's enthusiasm!
Please head over to Laurah's ESOL Odyssey Blog to read other first year teaching memories!