THE FIRST YEAR OF TEACHING, most teachers will tell you, is quite a learning experience.
What challenges do teachers face during that first year in the classroom? What could school administrators & colleges do to prepare teachers for those challenges?
These & other questions were asked of winners of the "First Class Teacher Award," a program that honors the nation's outstanding elementary & secondary first-year teachers. (The program is sponsored by Sallie Mae, a corporation that provides funding & servicing support for education loans.)
Their answers are presented in "What to Expect Your First Year of Teaching." This 35-page report is for people who are...
* about to take a first teaching assignment * involved in preparing people to become teachers * interested in the insights, observations, & classroom tips of award-winning veteran & first-year teachers.
***************************************** Excerpts from "What to Expect Your First Year of Teaching," by Amy DePaul, Office of Educational Research & Improvement (OERI), U.S. Department of Education (September 1998). *****************************************
Challenges ********** [One]...challenge was the diversity of student achievement & ability levels. Teachers often responded by trying to develop lessons that could reach all students, whatever their level of proficiency.
==> "The greatest difference between my expectations & actual classroom experiences has been the arduous task of balancing lessons that target the high achievers & low achievers in the same classroom.... During the first six weeks of teaching pre-algebra, I altered my teaching strategies to reach those students who counted on their fingers, those who multiplied & divided on a beginner level, & those who have surpassed all eighth grade objectives." -- Lori G. Rich, 8th grade, TX
==> "Every whole-class lesson I teach must account for James (who doesn't recognize half the letters of the alphabet) & Jessica (who is a very fluent reader)." -- Amy D. Weber-Salgo, 1st-3rd grades, NV
==> "By October, I discovered that my students' developmental levels ranged from pre-primer reading, writing, & math levels to that of third grade. To accommodate the various levels, daily planning has required extra care & consideration to ensure that each child's needs are met. I constantly ask myself....'How can I keep Gabriel, a very bright student who always manages to finish his work before the rest of his classmates, occupied for the last ten minutes while the rest of the class is still working & I'm still teaching a reading group? How can I continue to challenge & stimulate students who are at third grade reading & math levels while allowing students who are at pre-primer to second grade levels to keep their pace?'" -- Phu N. Ly, 2nd grade (inclusive), MA
How Can Principals & Administrators Help First-Year Teachers? ***************************************************
Break the isolation ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Teachers who worked in teams & with mentors, or who had continuous contact with other first-year teachers, relished the camaraderie. For many teachers, however, professional isolation proved difficult.
These teachers spoke wistfully of the need for more guidance & support from veteran teachers as well as opportunities to work closely with colleagues.
==> "I was surprised how isolated some teachers are. I believe that sharing ideas is what teaching is about." -- Colette L. Born, 5th grade, ID
==> "I felt alone. It was my challenge, my work. There was no one else to help me meet a whole array of new challenges. I had to meet them by myself." -- Catherine McTamaney, 9th-12th grades, TN
==> "We are limiting ourselves by not being able to learn from each other." -- Michelle L. Graham, K-1st grade, MN
In contrast, teachers who received the attention & support of their veteran colleagues found the experience indispensable.
==> "I wouldn't be here today without my mentor. He's a math teacher, & we bounce ideas off each other. I didn't know what to expect, but I'm glad to have a mentor who is a lot like me." -- Jeffrey Nyhius, 9th-11th grades, NJ
==> "Mentors are very important. Every new teacher should have a mentor teacher who can help her or him to break in. It would also be helpful to connect first- & second- year teachers. The second-year teachers would have fresh memories of experiences that first-year teachers would encounter & would be able to give them some forewarning & suggestions regarding how to best handle those experiences." -- William C. Smith, 7th grade, NY
==> "Mentors are great. Our state mandated a mentoring system for first-year teachers. When we met we focused on one topic or need. It helped me to get concrete ideas, to know ahead of time what to expect, & to come to the learning activity well prepared." -- Rebecca Baumann, 9th-11th grades, MI
First-year teachers who worked in teams say the experience broadened their perspective.
==> "My team of teachers met every week & shared ideas. Sometimes we switched classes & taught portions of each others' classes. I had a lot of colleague support." -- Michelle L. Graham, K & 1st grade, MN
==> "We paired fifth grade & kindergarten students together as Reading Buddies, which gave the teachers the opportunity to plan activities together & to understand each others' challenges." -- Colette Born, 5th grade, ID
In addition to creating work teams & assigning mentors, administrators can help first-year teachers by fostering a supportive atmosphere & convening teacher meetings.
==> "Have meetings that bring first-year teachers together. You find out that you are not the only one." -- Grace D. Clark, 9th-11th grades, VA
==> "All first-year teachers in my district meet three times a month. We wrote a journal every week with problems & successes. I was able to start using other teachers' ideas for my own classes. I bonded with the other first- year teachers. A total of about 80 to 100 teachers met in a school auditorium, broken into groups by grade level." -- Neal Downing, preK-6th grade, Washington, DC
==> "New teachers broke up into support groups at the same grade level. We were excited & upset about the same things." -- Michelle Graham, K & 1st grade, MN
==> "Support from colleagues. Couldn't have survived without their help. Constantly went to colleagues & drew upon their experience & expertise. I never felt alone or stranded for ideas. I learned that teachers are a generous lot." -- William C. Smith, 7th grade, NY
Schools & districts that help teachers work productively with parents & foster parent cooperation reaped generous benefits.
==> "'Community Involved in Schools' is the slogan for our entire town. It's a banner as you enter the town. Parents are very involved. Parents get upset if a teacher doesn't call. It's easier for me to call home because I know I have parent support. The kids learn that, 'Here's one person who cares about me for one third of the day, here are other people who care about me for the other two thirds of the day.' The parent/teacher/ student triangle is easier to deal with." -- Sebastian C. Shipp, 9th-12th grades, NC
==> "In our first-year teacher meetings we did practice telephone calls to parents & prepared for PTA meetings. We learned what we should discuss & how to approach different issues." -- Neal Downing, preK-6th grade, Washington, DC
Meditations on the year ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ When they looked back, teachers remembered moments of poignancy, joy, & struggle -- & sometimes the fear of the unknown. But all seemed somehow transformed, even emboldened, by their first year teaching.
What stands out is the teachers' untainted optimism, which is repeatedly put to the test & yet emerges intact. The other striking quality is how privileged these teachers feel in serving children.
==> "My first year of teaching has been full of many wonderful surprises. I never knew the average teenage girl's voice could hit such octaves. I never expected to reach a point in my life where I would yearn for my bed at 9:30 every night. I was not prepared for the moment I first heard myself ask, 'Does anyone in class not think that spitting on the floor is inappropriate behavior?' But most of all, I never thought that teaching would be such an exhilarating & rewarding career, continually pushing me in my quest to be a master educator.... My job is creeping into every aspect of my life. How many people can pick up a box of corn flakes & have it trigger an idea for a lesson plan about government regulation?... Teaching stimulates my creative juices like nothing I have ever experienced...." -- Jeffrey Breedlove, 10th-12th grades, KS
==> "Teachers are the last bastion against darkness & ignorance. The intensity of this need was my surprise, & I know of no way even Kennesaw [State College], in all its excellence, could prepare me for this life lesson. Only being a caring teacher can." -- James W. Morris, 5th grade (inclusive), GA
Veteran Teachers Talk *********************
The wisdom of experience ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Award-winning veteran teachers have supplied a set of tips to pass on to their first-year colleagues. Some recurring suggestions: contact parents in the beginning of the school year, fostering a friendly rapport before problems arise; be well prepared for class; & model & enforce rules of courtesy & respect. Here are a few samples of veteran teachers' tips:
* Consistency -- do what you say you are going to do at all times & with every child. * Model a love for learning. * Maintain a sense of humor. * Offer a variety of interesting choices of activities for kids when they finish work or have down time. * Keep an open door to parents. * Reward & praise students. * Maintain respect above all. * Learn the names of your students quickly & correctly. * Don't be sarcastic to children or correct them in ways that cause embarrassment.
Veteran teachers' advice in a nutshell: be yourself, work with parents, love the kids, love teaching.
==> "A few years ago I read what I think is the best piece of advice I ever read on classroom discipline.... The upshot was this: when teachers were behaving in ways that made them comfortable, classroom discipline was best, & the kids learned the most. In other words, teachers who liked quiet, orderly classes could not effectively fake a loose, casual demeanor. Conversely, teachers who were by nature less structured could not 'pretend' to be strict & inflexible. Their classes flourished best with some organized chaos. In other words, be yourself." -- Nancy Flanagan, MI
==> "Call each parent about the first two weeks of school to tell them one specific & positive anecdote about the child.... Send home a 5 X 8 card & ask the parent to chat with their child about the child's goals & parent goals for the child for this school year. Needless to say, they aren't often the same. Use the card to track phone calls, notes, etc. throughout the year. Great for conference use, too." -- Pat Rossman, WI
==> "I have each student complete a 'student profile' so I can learn more about each of them as individuals. This profile includes not only information for record keeping & communication purposes but also their likes, dislikes, hobbies, employment experience, why they took my class, what they expect to learn in the class, what grade they expect to achieve in the class, where they have traveled, etc. As they complete each item, I tell them my response to the item so they will learn about me as an individual as well. This activity is a great 'ice breaker' & gets the students involved right away." -- Mel Hocking, OH
==> "I have a brightly painted, antique bathtub filled with pillows as a listening, reading & just hanging out with a friend doing 'tubtime' spot. I also have a gigantic wicker rocking chair with a homemade afghan for kids to snuggle & read in & also sit with me each day during read aloud. I have a beautiful lop-eared bunny that is litter-trained that provides mega therapy for each of my kids. I have had a variety of classroom pets over the years & feel strongly that it is great therapy for all ages.... I play a variety of classical, jazz, tribal [music] as I have a very diverse population.... We spend the first 15 minutes of each day with all three third grades singing with sign language. I also have my students submit floor plans each quarter for their desk arrangements & then we vote as a class for that quarter's setups. I have had some really nifty setups! These are all pretty simplistic things but they seem to help me satisfy my students' needs for love, belonging, power & fun!" -- Julie Ashworth, SD
==> "Love them enough to risk their not liking you. Children must know that there are consequences to be suffered when they are not nice.... Classroom management how-to...just ask. Seek help. Always question...veteran teachers & we will find the answers together." -- Carol Avila, RI
==> "Everyday I find a way to tell the kids how much I love to teach, sometimes by saying just that, sometimes by saying how I'd rather be with them more than anywhere else. They know I mean it." -- Vicki Matthews-Burwell, ID
* Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 USA Fax: (618)453-4244 Phone: (618)453-4241 (office) E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org