Big dreams and a broken shelf:
Thoughts from a beginning teacher
Twenty first graders shuffle toward the classroom door leaving behind tables covered in a disarray of newly sharpened “Welcome to First Grade” pencils and unopened boxes of crayons. Their new backpacks and lunch boxes hang neatly from the labeled hooks in the classroom closet. As the children walk toward the door they gaze at the baskets of new books, the walls decorated in freshly laminated posters and the small cage of crickets (food for our class pet) sitting safely on the shelf. It is the first day of school and my first year of teaching.
As the children assemble near the classroom door, I explicitly explain the line-up procedure as I read in countless “beginning of the year” books and had been advised to do so by my mentor and university supervisors. Twenty pairs of questioning eyes look at me as they quietly transition into their designated spots in line. Their smiles tell of the anticipation they hold for what we all believe will be an exciting new adventure.
Before we leave the classroom, I check a final time to ensure that everyone is in his or her spot and ready to step out into the rest of the school. As I turn to lead the class to art, I chuckle to myself, “This is easier than I thought it would be!” Just then a boy toward the back of the line leans on the shelf containing the cage of crickets. The sound of cracking wood echoes in my ears as the shelf (and the crickets) tumble to the floor. As the plastic cage hits the ground, the lid pops off and opens a flood of screams of fear and utter excitement as the tiny insects begin to hop throughout the room. The wonderful line turns to a distant memory as the children scramble to stand on their chairs or grab crickets to hide in their pockets. For the next 15 minutes, I wipe tear-filled eyes, calm excited voices and try to account for the 49-something escaped crickets. Needless to say, we arrive late to art.
As a beginning teacher, we are to expect the unexpected and prepare for many surprises. The first year of teaching is a gift waiting to be unwrapped or a disaster waiting to happen. It all depends on how you choose to look at it! As I reflect over my first year of teaching, both a gift and at times a disaster, several key themes surface.
Celebrate every success
My first day experience is funny to think about now. However, at the moment the crickets escaping and the children running around the room in chaos resembled more of a disaster rather than a gift. Fortunately, my first year turned out much better than the first day could have predicted.
When I accepted my first teaching position, I was determined to make a difference in the lives of my students and also establish a reputation as a respected teacher among my colleagues. I was going to succeed!
As the year unfolded, I was faced with other difficult situations that would test my determination. These experiences are typical of our profession, but as a first-year teacher, issues around student behavior, difficult relationships with parents and school politics can be daunting. At the same time, each day I was presented with opportunity after opportunity to make a real difference. I had to make a choice as to whether or not I would use the day for good rather than dwell on the professional difficulties that occurred. Some days I was successful at maintaining a positive attitude, while others truly tested my commitment. As a beginning teacher, choose to celebrate every success and learn from every mistake.
Ask questions and listen to answers
As a first-year teacher, I was fortunate to be surrounded by wonderful colleagues who were equally committed to my professional and personal success. I joined a team of three veteran teachers whose years of experience nearly tripled my age. Two of the teachers had been honored in the school as “Teacher of the Year” in years past. I will never forget our first team meeting. We walked into a classroom carrying our empty lesson plan books. My teammates had tons of ideas about what might happen during the first week of school. I, on the other hand, had little experience with beginning a school year, much less a team planning situation. As I sat in the meeting, I nervously took notes about every idea shared. I knew—I needed to share something, anything. I just could not find the words or the ideas to share. The conversation bounced back and forth between the other members of the team, and I just sat there feverishly jotting down notes. When the session ended, I returned to my classroom overwhelmed at the knowledge of my teammates and embarrassed with what I had to offer.
After some time, my mentor, truly a lifesaver, walked into my classroom. She asked what I thought about our team meeting. I conjured up a smile and then managed to ask, “What does all of this mean?” referring to the meaningless scribbles in my plan book. She giggled and gave me a hug, a routine we would follow many, many times throughout the year. She then shared the importance of asking questions. I knew I needed to ask questions and clarify what was expected of me, but at the same time I did not want to give the slightest impression that I was clueless or that the team had made a mistake with their choice. I wanted to appear in control, but instead felt foolish because I would not allow myself to ask questions. As a beginning teacher, ask questions and make sure you listen to answers.
Strive for balance
As any newcomer understands, I was determined to do well my first year of teaching. Whatever it took, I was going to be the model beginning teacher. I spent countless hours reading professional books, writing the perfect lesson plans and cleaning my “well managed” classroom. Some evenings I even followed the night custodians out the school doors. I maintained that pace through winter break and even into early spring. Nothing was going to stop me! Well, except maybe the flu (and it did).
In early spring the endless work and hours of personal neglect took their toll. I was still determined, but I was mentally and physically exhausted. My university professors advised my peers and me that this might happen, but I was going to be the model first-year teacher, and these types of things would not stop me.
As spring break approached, I had to make a choice. I could spend the week off reading more books (I had already selected three great choices) and constructing lesson plans, or I could allow myself to take a break and reflect on what had happened over the past eight months. The truth is, I needed to get away. I packed my bags and headed for the east coast.
It is amazing what a little time away can do. When I returned, I was the same determined first-year teacher, but I also was fully aware of the person behind the job. Both the professional and the personal me deserved attention.
At times I still struggle with balancing my professional and personal lives. However, when one becomes too much (usually the professional part), I need to give myself some time away. I have realized that occasionally stepping away from the profession, even if for an evening, can actually be more productive than continuously spinning my wheels. Imagine that! As in any demanding profession, allow yourself time to enjoy the person you have become. Commit to excellence in both your professional and personal lives and strive for a balance between the two.
Dream of tomorrow and enjoy today
I set out to change the world in nine months and believe it or not, I did. No, I wasn’t granted early tenure or asked to chair a congressional hearing on teaching excellence, but for the 20 hearts and minds who walked into my classroom each day, the world did change. I believe for the better.
Each day we learned together, laughed together and grew together. We listened to what each voice had to share and honored our differences. We celebrated when we were successful and supported one another when we were not.
I had enormous goals for my first year of teaching. Some were realized, while others changed as the year evolved. I learned many lessons, but most of all I learned the value of dreams for the future and the importance of enjoying each day as it comes.
As the summer sun beams through my classroom windows, I pack up the books with slightly torn covers and wrinkled pages. I gather the posters and tear faded paper from the bulletin boards. As I stack a box full of odds and ends near the classroom closet, something unexpected, yet very familiar, catches my eye. Toward the back of the closet, leaning against the wall is the broken shelf that started it all. I shake my head in disbelief, laugh a little, and keep on working.
by Jason C. Adams
Tillman Elementary School, Kirkwood NEA
sb, fall '08