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!