What I learned from my first year in the classroom: three teachers share their stories

16th August 2016 at 22:03

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As teachers gear up for the new school year, even experienced educators can feel nervous about the return to work. But for rookie teachers entering a whole new world, it can be a highly stressful period as they step into the unknown with a new career, students and colleagues. We decided to ask three young teachers about their first year in the classroom, what they learned and what advice they would offer to those starting out.

Grace Connell, Tamanend Middle School in Warrington, Pensylvania, Ninth Grade English

Grace Connell, teacher, advice

What was the best moment of your first year of teaching?

My best moment revolves around an independent reading unit I created. The idea of allowing students to self-select books is gaining traction in the educational world so I decided to try it out. Many of my students gave me positive feedback, but one student's reaction stuck with me in particular. This student was very against the self-selected book idea. He started and then put back many books during the course of the unit. I could tell he was getting discouraged, but I never let him give up. Eventually we found a book and he couldn't put it down. His initial positive response was amazing, but my best moment came when I saw him walking around school with the second book in the series. I have such a love of reading and it felt great to be able to pass that on.

What was the worst moment or biggest challenge you faced?

Throughout your first year of teaching you are going to be getting observed a lot. For me, this was a great source of anxiety. I had this idea in my head that my observers expected me to be perfect. The observers never expect that of you, they simply want to help you become better. Although the observations scared me at first, you leave your post-observation meetings with tangible solutions to improve your teaching.

What was the most important lesson you learned?

Veteran teachers always say “don’t reinvent the wheel!” As a new teacher, this advice never sat right with me. Education is constantly evolving; it doesn’t make sense to continue on with the same old materials. However, once I observed other teachers in my building I had a better grasp on this advice. You can formulate new ideas from other teacher's expertise. You can utilize other teacher's classroom structures and uses of technology and make them your own. In short, don't go at it alone. All of your colleagues were once in your shoes so ask them for help!

What's the best way to control your class?

Know your students and be consistent.  Once you know your students, you can anticipate difficulties you may run into with them and then work in ways that prevent them. As a teacher we know that things will not always go according to plan, so it is important to make sure consequences are fair and that they are enforced in a calm, consistent way.

What is your top tip for having a successful year?

My top tip for you as a teacher is always over plan.  It will take you a while to figure out how much you can realistically get done in a class period. I would make sure to always have materials you can go to if a lesson moves more quickly than expected.

My top tip for you as a person who is being a teacher for the first time is be good to yourself. Everyone says your first year of teaching is the hardest and it is. You're new at this and you're going to be working harder than you probably ever have. You have to find ways to decompress.  For me, it was running. I tried to run at least four times a week. With so much on your plate it is easy to say "Oh I don't have time for that, I should be doing this." However, you need this time to clear your head and focus on you so you can be your best self in the classroom.

Taylor Oskowiak, Stratford Friends School in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania, K-2


What was the best moment of your first year of teaching?

One of the greatest moments happened during a Parent-Teacher conference when I learned how much information a particular student was taking out into the world. The parent shared multiple stories about connections that were made to material that was taught throughout the year. It was also such a wonderful moment to watch this parent read poetry this student had written. Knowing how much of an impact I am had on a particular student was the most rewarding and humbling experience.

What was the worst moment or biggest challenge?

One of my greatest challenges was helping students see that the expectations put in place for each student varied based on what they needed. Working in a special education environment, all students come with different strengths, challenges, and abilities. Creating an environment where students were not only judged by their ability, but also not judged by their peers was challenging.

What was the most important lesson you learned?

How important it is to establish routines from the first day of class. I realized how even teaching the simplest procedures, like packing up belongings, or how to ask to go to the bathroom, needs to be explicitly taught. It wasn’t until halfway through the year, after I went to a Responsive Classroom Conference, how much I needed to establish better classroom management practices.

What's the best way to control your class?

I found that letting students have autonomy in how rules, guidelines, routines, and procedures are conducted really allows them to feel responsible for the classroom. It no longer is a question of the teacher controlling the class, but rather the students taking ownership of their actions. It is also so important to really get to know each one of your students. Once I had established a connected with my students, I knew how to be proactive rather than reactive in certain situations.

What is your top tip for having a successful and happy first year?

I would definitely suggest making sure that your students see you as a human. It helped me immensely that they knew I was still a student and in school, that learning can take place inside and outside of the classroom, and that all students AND teachers make mistakes. When your students are able to see how much you care about them, and that you are truly on their side, it makes for a happy classroom.

Mary Beth Gries, Master Charter Pickett in Philadelphia, 6th and 7th Grade Writing 


What was the best moment of your first year of teaching?

The best moment was when I finally felt myself sink into my rhythm. It took me almost three-quarters of the year to fin my own rhythm for balancing management and curriculum delivery. The first week I delivered a lesson that met student needs each period, consistently, and with data-backed student outcomes, I felt like I was running and that I could do this.

What was the worst moment or biggest challenge?

The struggle to this balancing point was the most difficult. I had to learn about my students’ needs and mesh them with the expectations for culture and instruction at my school. I had to learn how to use the systems of my craft as a substitute for emotional responses to challenges in my classroom, and this was extremely challenging for me because I put a lot on myself into my work.

What was the most important lesson you learned?

Being successful is not about being perfect. It is about being responsive.

What’s the best way to control your class?

Develop and utilize systems with clear steps and consequences. Employ them consistently.

What is your top tip for having a successful and happy first year?

Find a mentor teacher that you want to grow into and observe and befriend this person. Focus on small winds and make your development of grit your top priority. 


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