My first day blues

29th October 1999 at 01:00
Having left the comfort of training college, Stephanie Cooper found herself unprepared for the realities of school life

It was the beginning of September and my first day as a teacher. I was responsible for a Year 1 class, and I was nervous. I'd just finished my degree, which had trained me to teach seven to 12-year-olds.

The only time I had been near a class of younger children was when I'd spent two weeks with my new class at the end of July, when they were in reception. They were making 3-D pigs from balloons, papier-mache, pink paint and corks for the feet.

I am not a creative person, but suddenly I realised I would have to be. All my teaching experience had been with Year 5 or 6. Last term, I taught the history of St Paul's Cathedral, and the thought of using paint, glue and scissors with these young children terrified me. I thought of everything that could go wrong.

I said during my interview that I wanted to teach in key stage 1 so that I could "broaden my experience". Actually, I wanted to work at this school in Kew because the staff were young and friendly, and I was impressed with how well motivated and calm the children were. I suspect the school wanted me because I could play the piano - on reflection, I think that was the clinching factor.

My parallel teacher was enormously experienced and I wanted to ask her the most basic questions even before day one. Where were the children going to put their lunch boxes? What exercise books should they use? Should they have plain paper, squared or lined? But the question I was longing to ask was how do I teach a class of five-year-olds?

I didn't know how to keep reading records; how to use running records; how to warm up text for children so they can read it on their own more confidently; or even how children used contextual, visual and phonic cues to help them decode print.

When I went into the playground to collect my class for the first time, my stomach was in knots. Everything the children possessed looked brand new - bags, sweatshirts, shoes, lunch boxes, PE kits. Thirty-one pairs of eyes eagerly looked into mine.

The parents were equally expectant: I sensed they hoped for a miracle from me - not from the curriculum or the school, but me. I was the adult who was to spend six hours a day with their child for a year, during the crucial time they would learn how to read and write. Although it was entirely reasonable, I really was taken aback by their overwhelming sense of expectation.

Nothing could prepare me for the tears - I wasn't used to persuading a child to come into the classroom. I was 24, I didn't have children of my own, and the Year 6 pupils I'd taught hadn't cried.

On our way into the classroom, the children talked over each other, competing for my attention, telling me about their pets, parents, the little shell they had found and carried around in their bag all summer. All 31 wanted to tell me something about their life. It was obviously important to each child that I liked them. That surprised me.

My chat about classroom rules took five minutes instead of 30. Then the admin officer arrived with Sayaka, a girl from Japan who couldn't speak any English and who was to be in my class. I had not been warned and had nothing prepared for her.

I turned my back on them regularly to search for more pencils in the stock cupboard, pencils which soon started to go missing. "Who's got the rubber?" I demanded at least 10 times that day. I hadn't realised that when a child possessed a rubber, they held on to it.

I had a train of children following me around the room. They seemed to know that I would talk to them for at least 10 minutes After play, the classroom helper came in. She had worked at the school for 20 years and boomed "Hello children" just as I had got them all settled and working.

At 3.20pm, the parents started to appear in the playground and peer through the classroom window. I held a fixed grin as I waved the children off. I wanted them all to go home feeling happy and content enough to want to come back for more the next day.

Five minutes later, a parent approached me with her child, who was not wearing her school sweatshirt. "She's lost her sweatshirt in the school." I had no idea, but spent half an hour looking for it before sending them to lost property. I tidied up the classroom, then rewrote my plans for the rest of the week.

I learnt more on my first day than I had throughout my degree course. They spilled paint, glue and tried to cut each other's hair when they thought I wasn't looking. They tested my patience, made me laugh, but impressed me with how much they learned.

Nothing fazes me now. When Father Christmas came to see my class at the end of term, I didn't worry when they started to get over-excited because I knew, and they knew, that I was in control. Nor did I worry when a wasp flew into the classroom and the children started to shriek and wriggle around on the carpet. I calmly told them to sit still and gently wafted the wasp away. I survived the Christmas play, too - even when all the music fell off the piano during "Little Donkey".

Now I have a strategy for everything, and I know children inside out. I know when a child is avoiding something or doesn't understand, and I can predict tears.

Queues are a thing of the past. Sweatshirts must be named and put into a box when taken off. My class always has plenty to do, and we don't use rubbers.

I make sure adults who come into class are as calm as we are, and I have a spare set of books and cloakroom labels for unexpected arrivals. I have class rules which are simple, clear and positive. The nightmare of day one is past.

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