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First Year Flashback

First Year Flashback

I have to dig deep into my memory to flashback to my first year of teaching during the 1995-96 school year. It is always nice to revisit those times though, and every year new teachers everywhere go through the same struggles. You are not alone and you will get through it! I promise!

I graduated from Iowa State University in May 1995 and was accepted into a graduate program at the University of Nebraska-Omaha called the CADRE Project for the 1995-96 school year. 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 help make the first year go smoother. I was placed in the Omaha Public Schools as a 4th-grade teacher.

My classroom was in a building that was built in 1912 and hadn’t had many renovations so it was very “antique”. Wood floors, very high ceiling, tall windows, old radiator for heat, and no air conditioning! The school itself, a K-4 building, 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 at a small little table.

I was given very minimal supplies to start off since my class was added late in the summer. 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 forced me to create my own materials. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise that led me to a love of curriculum development and gave me skills to use for my post-teaching career!

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 grew up in 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 living in the high-poverty neighborhood where the school was located. 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 by 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 in 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 learned a lot about my students and the experiences of their families that day. I was also really tuned in to just how much innocence was lost in these young 9-10 year olds, from the mature nature of the things they’d seen and struggles they had experienced at such a young age. I had student taught 4th grade in Ames, IA, those kids were so much less mature and more 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 the life experiences that they carried.

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 learned as much from those kids that year as I taught them.

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.

Sometimes you’ll feel like you are stuck and you’ll never get through, but you will. Every year after that first 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! You don’t need a “Pinterest Pretty Classroom” to be a good teacher!

You also learn 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! Use your mistakes as learning experiences instead of stressing out over them. We all make them and you will too!

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 and contagious than a first year teacher’s enthusiasm!

How to Build a Better Teacher

How to Build a Better Teacher

I found an interesting article: How to Build a Better Teacher, by Elizabeth Green, that I thought was worth sharing.

The article talks about the myths and perceptions of what makes a great teacher. Are they natural born? Can it be learned?

The article gives five examples, taken from educational research that shows what sets apart a great teacher from a mediocre or bad one.

1. They can right a wrong: “The best teachers put themselves in their students’ shoes—and grapple with how they arrived at the wrong answer in order to set them right.”

2. They never say Shhh!”: “The best teachers eradicate ambiguity and respond to misbehavior with specificity, describing the desired behavior rather than the problem. “We’re following along in our books,” the teacher might say, gently reminding the distracted students to get back to work.”

3. They encourage deeper thinking: You will hear a lot of “why” or “explain how” type questions in these classrooms.

4. Great teachers “cold call” with a purpose: “The goal is to ­extract the maximum possible mileage from each question. By ­introducing the possibility that anyone can be asked to speak at any time, the teacher ­decreases the chances their students will tune out.”

5. They show more than they tell: “The teacher needs to be specific, showing students what detailed thinking looks like by illuminating the invisible mental steps that go into it.”

As I read I couldn’t help but compare myself and see my successes and shortcomings. This is a great article to think about as you navigate your school year. How do you measure up? What are you doing right? What can you improve to make this your most successful year yet?

How Much Does it Cost You to Go Back to School?

How Much Does it Cost You to Go Back to School?

There are many stories out there regarding how much money teachers spend out of their own pocket on their classroom. Of course, it’s not news to you! This also doesn’t account for all the “off the clock” time teachers put in to get the classroom ready!

The 1995-96 school year was my first year teaching fourth grade. I remember being so overwhelmed with so many things. I was not prepared for the culture shock of teaching in the low-income school where I was assigned, but I had a lot of foreshadowing so it wasn’t a total surprise. What I was really shocked about was the complete lack of supplies and condition of the building/classroom that I was to teach in. They do not warn you or prepare you at all in college for the complete lack of support you may receive for supplies!

The school I was in my first year dated back to 1928. For the years I was there 1995-1999, it was very aged and deep need of repair. The day I entered my classroom for the first time I was welcomed with 20 older metal desks, an old teacher’s desk with broken locks on the drawers, a single (empty) bookshelf, 2 smaller tables, and a very dated overhead projector on a cart all covered in dust!

After thoroughly cleaning I took stock of what I had to work with. The storeroom was supplied with some colored paper on giant rolls we could use for projects or bulletin board backgrounds, some pencils, student paper (that old very thin, brownish tinted kind). To get other supplies like scissors, pens, and other basic office supplies for my desk I was able to put in an order. Our school did not have any kind of a Parent/Teacher organization in place so there was nowhere to go for extra funding for anything else. Even with my sparse inventory, I was so excited to decorate and get my classroom ready to be a place to come together as a community and learn!

For the reading area, I bought a carpet remnant and scrounged garage sales and found an old chair and as many chapter books as I could find. The room had hardwood floors with big high ceilings so it wasn’t comfy and cozy and the acoustics were terrible!

Due to the income level of the area and district mandates we did not ask students to provide any school supplies at all. I went to Target’s back to school sales and bought up folders and other supplies the students would need. Of course, I emptied my checking account at the teacher resource stores on bulletin board supplies and classroom decor supplies. This was pre-TpT days before you could create and print any of this yourself on a computer with a colored printer so it was all that pre-made stuff which was not cheap!

A computer was not added to my classroom for a year or so. I was able to go to the Teachers Administration Building in another area of town and use a laminator that the district provided so that was helpful!

I was really proud of how nice my room looked, but my bank account was pretty empty those first days of school!

Throughout the year I tried to continue to stock the class library with $1 books from the Scholastic orders. I had a desperate need for chapter books. Our school only went up to grade 4 and sadly the school library was pretty small and very, very light on chapter books. My students did not have a high rate of public library use due to lack of access, so school was the place for them to get their hands on books. I wanted them to be reading age-appropriate books. I felt very strongly that you could not expect students to be reading at a 4th-grade level when all they had access to was 2nd grade and below books!

I also replaced folders and other supplies throughout the year and kept the class stocked in tissues. The district did not provide tissues at all, we were expected to use the coarse paper towels. This was not comfortable or very hygienic!

Over the course of that first year, I spent approximately $1400, more than a month’s pay, on supplies to make my classroom a place that was conducive to learning. I didn’t go fancy, I added the bare bones to make the shell of a room into a learning environment.

I still look back on that room with great pride. I do feel the school should have provided much more and there is still a little bitterness there, but I don’t regret spending the money I did on those kids. They deserved a warm classroom where they could learn. It just shouldn’t have been funded by someone being paid a mere $10,000 per year*!

For the years after that I didn’t contribute quite as much to my classroom since some things like carpet, the chair, bean bags, etc could be used again year after year. I continued to contribute for all that other stuff and it added up!

I see so often in the news about the cushy 9-month a year job of teachers and other disrespectful comments and it really burns me because I really don’t think the general public understands that my experience is replicated in classrooms all across the country every year. How many other jobs are workers expected to contribute one month’s pay a year back to their employer or clientele?

I know the state of finances for teachers has not improved over the years. Quite the opposite actually with legislation hurting or eliminating teacher unions.

Studies show that 94% of teachers spend out of their own pocket. This number actually surprises me and I find it low. I have never met a teacher that spends nothing, much less 6% of them! The national average is $479 for out of pocket spending by teachers. How does that compare to your experience? Do you receive much support for the basics? For extras?

Where do you find the best deals for the things that you buy for your class? Please share in the comments below your feelings about this subject and share any great deals you come across!

*My first-year contract consisted of a stipend of $10,000 and my tuition for my Master’s Degree paid at UNO. I was also not provided any medical or other benefits.


Back to School Organization

Back to School Organization

It’s that time of year again, the end of summer and the new beginning of a school year. Mixed feelings are sure to be had with missing the relaxing days of summer, time spent with family, etc. There are also good feelings to be had with the anticipation of a new year, starting with a fresh slate.

One way to start off on the right foot is to have a classroom organized like a well-oiled machine ready the first day. To help you with this I have collected some ideas to help you save time from tedious hours of web surfing. I have included some web links below and a link to a Pinterest board that is chock full of classroom organization and money saving tips. Hopefully, these tips will help you devote the little bit of free time you have left to fun things and not work! 😉

Click the image for a Back to School Pinterest Board



Back to School Tips and Resources for Teachers

5 Back to School Tips for Teachers and Parents




Good luck with a bright new school year! Let it be your best one yet!

Why Should You Use Novel Studies in Your Classroom?

Why Should You Use Novel Studies in Your Classroom?

Funny thing about educational research is if you look hard enough you can usually find studies to support both sides of an issue. Very rarely do you find a straight yes or no answer to what is good or bad theory or practice. Generally, it boils down to the common sense of the teacher in regards to his/her individual students and the level of freedom the teacher is given by the administration.

Sadly in today’s standardized test-heavy climate teachers are given less and less freedom to choose what is best for their students. So many curriculum guidelines have become so rigid that teachers are not able to modify or enrich with their own lessons and materials.

I struggled with this myself while teaching 4th grade. I taught in a very high poverty, low scoring school. Most of my 4th graders could read at a 1st-2nd-grade level. Very few came to me over the years reading on grade level. The biggest challenge I had as a reading teacher was to get kids excited about reading. They saw it as such a challenge and our district used a basal series for reading instruction that was unrelatable and very boring! The students saw no reward for their challenge of getting through a story because the stories were so uninspiring and they had no emotional connection. I knew if I could “turn them on” to a book they would see more value in reading and see a “payback” so to speak.

Fortunately, I was blessed with a principal that valued my knowledge as a teacher and let me teach as I saw best for my students. I started with a read loud time where the kids would get comfortable and I would read to them. Kids in the upper elementary grades don’t get read to enough in my opinion. It is reserved for the emergent readers of the primary grades. I chose high-interest, generally humorous books that the kids could just enjoy. I didn’t strive for any deep thinking for this activity. I just wanted the kids to experience reading as enjoyable. This turned into a favorite part of the school day for the students and for me.

Once I got my feet wet a bit in the classroom I started to develop novel studies for books where a short excerpt had been made in the basal. It is only common sense that reading the whole book is more enjoyable and leads to a much greater understanding by the student. Of course, I was careful to incorporate the skills taught in the basal in my units. I started teaching these novel units alongside the basal stories and the change between reading the basal versus the novel was amazing. I had kids who were reading at a 2nd-grade level actually focused and challenging themselves reading the chapter books that were at a 4th-grade reading level. They actually wanted to read them versus just getting through some worksheet assignment from the basal. More and more these lower level readers were chiming in on class discussions about the books and picking up age-appropriate books by choice in free time. As a teacher, I found it easier to use Bloom’s higher order questions using a novel instead of a short excerpt because you could really dive so much farther into the story and the characters.

I see similar experiences with my own children when they are allowed to read a “real” book vs. a text-based short story. They’ve never come home from school excited about something they read in a basal, but they have many times come home and we’ve had lengthy discussions about novels that they are reading!

As for the sought after test scores, I didn’t do any formal research on the subject but my student’s scores certainly did not drop but their love of reading soared! Sadly this is not a statistic that is looked at often enough.

Another huge benefit to novel study based reading instruction is the ability to really enhance the students’ critical thinking skills by diving deep with character and plot development. Sadly, we are seeing less and less critical thinking focused activities in the current “test-prep” atmosphere in schools today.

Maybe the most beneficial reason of all to use novels in the classroom is to really tap into the empathy and awareness that books can bring to students. By reading books, like Wonder and El Deafo students can learn about different disabilities and how people learn to live with an excel despite the disability. Books such as Number the Stars and Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes can be a great introduction to the Holocaust and bombing of Hiroshima for elementary students. Hatchet and Esperanza Rising are great books to dive in with a character that faces and survives insurmountable odds. The One and Only Ivan helps students empathize and think about the impact that we humans have on the planet as a whole. These are just a few examples of how a novel can get students thinking deeply about issues which can motivate them to enact positive change in our world.

I really encourage you to give novel studies a try in your classroom. I promise you will not be disappointed and your students will thank you for it!