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Diary of a First-Year Teacher

Curriculum and Instruction

Diary of a First-Year Teacher

What’s it really like to be a teacher in your very first year? Listen in as one first-grade teacher reflects on the joys and challenges of her year in the classroom.

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Barbara is a first-grade teacher at River Plaza Elementary School in Middletown, NJ. She received her Ed.M. in early childhood and elementary education from Rutgers University.

Barbara’s educational philosophy

As William Butler Yeats stated, “Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” As an elementary school teacher, I will spark the interests of my students so that they have the desire and encouragement to learn. First, children must believe in themselves. Once they develop confidence, they can then take on the world as long as they have the opportunities to do so. I will provide my students with the self-assurance, motivation and opportunities they need to make learning a priority.

Just like students, teachers vary in how they learn and share information. When I think of myself, the words “patient” and “motivated” come to mind. These qualities, I believe, will help me as a teacher. Not all children learn on the same level. Some quickly absorb information while others need it repeated various times. Patience is essential in helping children to learn so that they feel comfortable with the pace that they are learning at. This reassurance will help reinforce positive self-esteem. Also, if educators are not motivated to teach, students will not be motivated to learn! Enthusiasm goes a long way in the classroom, and I will share mine with as many students as I can.

Because not all students learn in the same manner, I will adapt my lessons to reach as many learning styles as I can. To reach kinesthetic learners, I will include various hands-on lessons so they can actively participate in learning. There will be small and whole group discussions so auditory learners can listen and learn from others. Students will also have opportunities to read aloud in class. I will incorporate visuals into lessons so visual learners can excel. Videos, transparencies and models will help the students visualize what they are learning. While I know that I cannot incorporate every learning style into every lesson, using different teaching strategies to reach these learners will help all students learn and stay focused. By using many different teaching methods to adapt to all learning styles, my students will feel positive and academically excel.

It is easy for teachers to go into a classroom and “fill a pail” instead of “light a fire.” By understanding my students and how they learn, I can guide them in developing the self-esteem and enthusiasm needed to keep their “yearning for learning” burning throughout the rest of their lives.

Week 1: the beginning

I did it! I survived my first two days of school! Woo-hoo! I had thought these two days would be the longest (and worst) days of my life, but they weren’t. I got through them. I am now officially a teacher!

These past two weeks have showed me what people mean when they say, “It is not easy being a teacher.” I quickly realized this before school even started! My principal told me ten days before school started that I had first grade, so I did not have much time to prepare. I spent eight to ten hours a day, in the disgusting New Jersey humidity, trying to pull together a classroom that would seem warm and inviting to my students. As I went from Hammets to Target to Staples and back to Hammets again, I kept telling myself that I just needed to get the bare basics done. I knew that once school started, I would have so much student work to display that I would eventually run out of space. Even though this did not really comfort me as I looked at my bare walls, I knew that everything, including the classroom and myself, would change once the students came in.

The night before the first day of school I could not sleep. I tossed and turned all night, wondering, “Will my students like me? Will I know who they are? Will I remember do to everything? Will I start off on a good note so that the rest of the year follows smoothly?” These were just some of the thousands of questions I kept asking myself, over and over, as I waited for the first day to be done and over with!

I was amazed at how fast the first day of school went by! And the second! My students were so nervous, as they left half-day kindergarten and began their careers as full day students. When I saw how nervous they were, I quickly put my own anxieties aside and eased them into my classroom and routine. By the time we made rules, reviewed classroom procedures, toured the school, completed “Getting to know you” activities and read first day of school books, it was time for dismissal! I thought to myself “If every day goes by this quickly, I think I can handle this!”

I have no idea what the rest of the year is going to be like, but for right now, it really doesn’t matter! My first two days of school were successful! I quickly learned most of the students’ names. (Thank goodness I made them wear name tags!) And aside from screwing up the lunch order, I knew what to do. I did not forget anything. It felt natural to be in the classroom with the students. I just hope that as the year goes on, it will only feel more natural.

Week 3: a stumbling block

This week was our first four-day week of school. Because of Yom Kippur, we had Monday off. Prior to this, the students had been in school for seven days. So, once again, when they returned to school on Tuesday, it took some time to get back into the routine. I knew things were getting easier because it did not take quite as long to get back into the swing of things as it did the week before. It finally feels like we are all starting to settle in!

Last week was my first real week of teaching. This week, however, brought teaching to a new level for me. The second reading story in our series is a very difficult text. The vocabulary is very complicated and is almost impossible to sound out at this point. “Wiggly, squiggly, gliding, sliding? These words are too hard for the kids!” I thought to myself as I looked over the story. And, to make the story even more challenging, it was about twenty pages long. Even though I am not an experienced teacher, I know that in the third week of first grade, children are not really able to fluently read a story as difficult as this one. But, because it was in the curriculum, it had to be taught.

Sometimes the curriculum has material that is rather challenging for students. Because it is required, however, it must be covered and mastered. I looked at the main objectives for the story and made sure that I presented them to the class in a way they would understand. We discussed action words and came up with our own class list of them. For our sight words, we reviewed them by playing sight word Bingo. This fun way of seeing the words helped the students quickly master them. As I covered the main objectives of the story, I knew that I could only cover the text the best ways I knew.

By the end of the week, not all of the students could read the story. I had notes come in from parents, expressing their concern that their child could not get through the story and was very frustrated by it. As I worked with my mentor, she explained that sometimes stories are just too hard for the children. Being that this is only the third week of school, most students are not ready to read a text like this. As she explained that some students will just not be able to read this, I began to relax. The struggle that my students faced was not because I could not teach the material successfully, but because it was an extremely inappropriate text to be mastered so early into the school year.

I want to see my students successfully reading. To achieve this, I must introduce and review beginning, medial and ending sounds, vowels, digraphs, blends and so forth. As we examine each of these concepts, their reading will improve. But I have to remember that I am not a miracle worker. Sometimes a text is going to be too hard to read, plain and simple. Instead of forcing the students to try and read every word, I can have them read the words they do know, so they feel a sense of confidence with a challenging text. As the school year goes on, their reading strategies will improve. But it does take time for them to develop. I have no doubt that in a few months, or even in a few weeks, my students will be able to fluently read this text. But for now, I have to examine what they can do and work from there.

Week 8: management and marbles

Classroom management is one of the biggest challenges all teachers face. First-year teachers especially worry if they are going to be able to control their classrooms. At my district’s New Teacher Orientation, each new teacher received a copy of Harry and Rosemary Wong’s How to be an Effective Teacher: The First Days of School (opens in a new window). It was as if we were being told from all around, “If you do not get control of your students immediately, you are ruined for the year.” Yikes! What a scary thought.

Before school started, I sat down and decided on what kind of classroom reward and discipline policy I wanted to have. Since I am a strong believer in positive reinforcement, I based my policies around this theme. On the first day of school, my students and I devised a list of rules and consequences; this allowed them to feel ownership of the rules. I also implemented a daily reward system I had used in student teaching. As long as a student does not get more than three warnings in one day, he/she received a sticker at the end of the day. When the front of a page in the sticker book has been filled, the student receives a small prize, like a pencil or eraser. This technique shows the students that it is beneficial in many ways to follow the rules.

Another system I have is a marble jar. When the entire class is behaving very nicely, when everyone is making an effort, when the rules are consistently being followed by all, I put a marble in our jar. Sometimes I give “Double Whammies”, or for extraordinary behavior, I give “Triple Whammies”. The children love to receive marbles. It shows them that I have noticed their good behavior and they know the closer we get to the top, the closer we get to a special celebration.

Well, this week we finally reached the top of the marble jar. I did not want to make it too easy for the students to get to the top; they really worked for it. To reward them for their outstanding work, we had Pajama Day on Wednesday. The students were allowed to wear pajamas to school. It was all they could talk about on Tuesday; they were so excited for their special celebration.

When Wednesday morning rolled around, everyone came in wearing bright smiles and comfy pajamas. We had everything from robes to long johns to zip-up feet pajamas that I wore when I was a child. It was adorable. The students all checked each other out, complimenting one another on their awesome outfits. “Miss Zielinski, even you have on pajamas!” the children exclaimed as they noticed my red flannel outfit. All day long, as people came into our room, the students proudly declared that we were having pajama day in our classroom. On the playground, they showed off their nightly attire, almost bragging that they were wearing p.j.’s and the others weren’t. They had earned this privilege, and they were so proud of themselves.

First-year teachers must have systems set up for rewards the second the bell rings on the first day of school. With these policies, classroom management becomes so much easier. I am lucky to say that I have not had many discipline problems with my class. True, I do have amazing students, but I also took the time to develop ways to reinforce their good behavior. Doing this has allowed them to see the positive side to behaving the right way. Now we are back to the bottom of our marble jar. But since the children saw how great it was to reach the top, I know they will work just as hard, if not harder, to reach the top again.

Week 10: the first report cards

Technically, this was a short week for me. We had off Tuesday for Election Day and Thursday and Friday for a Teachers Convention. But, before I left school on Wednesday, I had to submit grades for the first marking period, making the week feel very long. For the past 18 years, I had been receiving grades from teachers and professors, anxiously awaiting to see how I was assessed. Now I was on the other end, giving the grades, with students and parents waiting to see how I was going to assess them.

I never thought report cards would be a challenge. “Just review work in their portfolios and check test grades,” I had told myself, thinking it was an easy task. What I was not prepared for was the personal evaluations I would be making on myself as a teacher. Looking at my students’ work, I realized that their grades would assess how well they learned what I taught them. More importantly, it also assessed how well I was teaching the material. There are certain objectives that must be taught to all students. It is my job to ensure that these objectives are achieved, regardless of learning ability or style. While I assessed my students to give them grades, I also assessed myself and how well I had been teaching them.

Children come to school to learn. Teachers come to school to teach. It is my responsibility to ensure that students learn, not theirs. If a majority of my students do not do well on an assignment or do not master an objective, that is a reflection of my teaching skills, not their learning abilities. True, some students have severe learning disabilities, but in my class, there are none. And as I assessed my students for the first time, I realized that if grades are low, then that is something that I have to change within my teaching approach. Instead of analyzing the students and trying to find what is “wrong with them,” I have to see if there is something wrong with how I am presenting the material. Did I explain the directions clearly? Was the worksheet I presented visually confusing? As I continue teaching, these are questions I will have to constantly ask myself.

The first time I assessed my students, I truly also assessed myself. While I had always reflected on my lessons, I now looked at my role as a teacher differently, realizing that low grades and poor progress may not be so much the child’s fault as my own. I know that as I gain more experience, I will feel more confident in how I assess children and myself. But as a first-year teacher, I will have to evaluate myself as much as I do my students.

Week 11: parent–teacher conferences

Parent–teacher conferences. Yikes. Just thinking of the term scared me. In college and graduate school, we learned about different learning styles and philosophies. One thing we had not really focused on was how to deal with parents. Our professors told us that was something that we would learn on the job. Whether I liked it or not, it was now time for me to learn how to handle parents and discuss student progress with them.

Being a first-year teacher, I was very intimidated by the thought of meeting with parents. I worried whether or not they were going to take me seriously. I thought, “Here they are, ‘veteran’ parents who know their children very well, and here am I, a 23 year old teacher with no prior teaching experience, trying to talk to the parents as if I had done this a thousand times before.” Before conferences, I made sure that I was totally prepared. I had a portfolio for each student, filled with examples of work that would clearly present their academic development. If a parent asked me a question about his/her child, I needed to be able to answer it. The last thing I wanted to do was look like I did not know what was going on. Even though I had been assessing my students throughout the marking period, and I knew where each one stood, I began to underestimate myself once I thought of discussing that information with the parents.

As my first conference began, I was amazed at how easy it was to talk to the parents. We were both there for the same reason: to make sure the student was learning and was happy being in school. It must have been quite apparent that the children’s success was important to me, because the parents were pleased with what I had been doing in the classroom. Since I prepared portfolios, I was able to answer questions with ease. As I finished each conference, I felt more and more confident. Parents were not as scary as I had thought they would be. In fact, they were very supportive and took me very seriously. What a relief!

While I may be just a first-year teacher, I am also very hard working and dedicated to what I do. As a result, my students benefit from my effort. They are learning and they enjoy being in school. Parents also see this, and appreciate what I do for the students. Whether a teacher has been teaching for one or ten years, if he/she puts in 110% like I have been doing, then there will be success. It may have taken me eighteen conferences to realize this, but I am happy that I have!

Week 12: observation day

With report cards and conferences under my belt, I was feeling much more at ease as I came into school on Monday. Since we had early dismissal for conferences the previous week, we were now back to full days and a regular routine. But in the beginning of the week, my principal told me that he would observe me on Wednesday. “The fun never ends,” I sarcastically thought to myself, as I looked over my lesson plans to make sure that I was prepared.

Teachers are always learning how they can improve their teaching approaches and techniques. Between workshops and Professional Development Days, it is expected that we are constantly finding new ways to become better teachers. Observations are a way for another person to point out our strengths and weaknesses, highlighting the ways that we can improve our teaching style. As a first-year teacher, there is still a lot for me to learn. And observations and evaluations can help to pinpoint what I need to learn and change now.

Week 15: First-Year Teacher Syndrome

“First-Year Teacher Syndrome,” my colleagues call it. The horrible condition of being a first-year teacher as I build up my immune system. While I build it up, however, I am hit with every cold, cough and germ that enters my classroom. “You will never be as sick as you are this year,” I am told as I wonder if I am going to get through all of the antibiotics in the pharmaceutical world before the year is over. At the rate I am going at, I think I might!

Just two weeks ago, I was writing about how I reluctantly had to take my first sick days. This week, however, I knew those sick days were given to us for a reason. With a never-ending sinus infection and a newly developed ear infection, I woke up Wednesday morning, sick as a dog. Within seconds of being awake, I knew I could not go in. As I called for a sub, I knew I had to write up explanations to my plans for the sub. When I write my plans, I write them for myself, which may be difficult for other people to follow. As I laid on the couch, trying to write as coherently as I could, I felt bad for not being able to go in, but worse for myself, for feeling so unbelievably sick.

Thursday was another sick day. I was not feeling better, and I was suffering from bad side effects from my medications. Wednesday morning, when I did not go in, I had my mom drop off my plans. Since we live only seven minutes from school, it was not a far trip. I did, however, feel somewhat lame that I had a parent drop off my work, as if I was a student! Thursday, however, I did things differently. My mentor is a wonderful colleague, and she helps me in any way that I need. On Thursday morning I e-mailed her my plans, and she printed them up and gave them to the sub for me. Knowing that I have a support group like I do made me feel better about not being there in school. Of course again I missed another fun project: the making of piñatas. But as I realized the last time that I was sick, there are times when a teacher cannot make it into school, and this week was another one of those times.

Even though I woke up Friday not feeling too great, I dragged myself into school. I did not want to miss any more days, I wanted to feel better and get things back to normal. But as my students arrived and I started my day, I felt the little energy that I had being sucked out of me. The normal activities of the day were too much for me. I still was not feeling well enough to take them on. Realizing that if I stayed in school, I might be much worse than before, I decided to get a half-day sub. This made me feel horrible. I came in, I tried to get through the six hours, but I could not do it. I felt so guilty for leaving my students, again, and I felt as if it looked bad that I was not going to be in school, yet again. But when I got home and laid down, I knew I had made the right decision.

I knew being a first-year teacher would be a challenge in many ways. There is the administration, parents and colleague that you have to prove yourself to. You suddenly become responsible for eighteen young children. And most importantly, you learn about yourself as you enter this demanding yet rewarding profession. Never did I think that my biggest challenge so far would be staying healthy enough to make it into school. As a first-year teacher, you will get sick. If you are working in the lower grades, you will get sick quite often. It is, unfortunately, one of the horrible downfalls of teaching. Not only do we have to build up and improve our reputations, teaching styles and classroom management techniques, we also have to improve our immune systems. And until I actually do that, which will probably be in June, I am going to be grateful that I have sick days and great health insurance. Without those two things, I do not know how I would survive this “First-Year Teacher Syndrome.”

My principal is always stopping by my room, greeting the students and watching us do lessons and activities. Because of this, I am not nervous when he is in my room. Since this was the first time that he was observing a reading lesson, I thought I would be very anxious once he came in at 10:15 on Wednesday. But the more I thought about it, I knew something had changed in me since the beginning of the year. Now, once I am in front of the classroom, I am so focused on the children and the lesson that other things quickly fade into the background. While I was obviously aware that he was in my room for the lesson, he was not my biggest focus. Instead I made sure that as the students did partner reading, they were following along with their fingers while they listened to the text. While I presented parts of sentences for the first time, I made sure that each student was highlighting the correct parts of the sentences. Since it was the first time we were using highlighters for a lesson, I also had to make sure they were being used properly. Before I knew it, the lesson was over and we were moving into learning centers. But more importantly, the observation was also over!

Of course I am going to make mistakes as a first-year teacher. I am human, aren’t I? And yes, while it is not fun to have mistakes and weaknesses pointed out to me in observations, it is a part of this job, as it would be with any. As I remind myself that it is expected for us as teachers to constantly improve, it makes it easier for me to handle constructive criticism and learn from it. Observations are just a way to point this information out. While I am looking forward to getting the required observations done and over with, I know that with each one, I learn something new and become a better teacher in the process.

Week 18: ka-ching!

Teaching is a very rewarding profession. Watching your students learn new concepts and academically progress are reasons why people stay in the field. Teaching, however, can also be a very expensive profession. The academic success students achieve comes mostly from district-bought items. Many other resources, however, also help them, but they come out of the wallets of the teachers.

There are many items that are needed for a classroom. Word walls, file folder games, supplemental worksheets, crafts, calendars and games are all important to have in a first grade class, even though they are not required, and therefore, not purchased by the district. True, many of these items can be made, but there are just not enough hours in the day to make everything. To try and save time, I have been buying various materials and supplements throughout the year.

This week, I again went to Bosland’s teaching store. The cashier knows me by now. I no longer even need to show her my discount card. I went in there just to get calendar dates, promising myself I could only get what I really needed. I left, however, with two shopping bags, costing me about $100. While I was there, I kept finding things I knew I could use, like a reproducible winter stories book, a digraph game and short vowel poster, just to name a few purchases. To encourage positive reinforcement, I give out lots of stickers in my class. As a result, I also bought more stickers: some winter ones, some smelly ones, and even some for Valentine’s Day. Then, to help organize all of these items, I needed to go to Staples and buy more baskets and containers. Just when I think I could have everything I need, I find myself at the store, buying more things that I still need for the classroom.

Seasoned teachers have developed archives of resources. I, however, am starting from scratch. I know these additional items benefit the students, that is why I make as many purchases as I do. And it’s true, I like to shop, whether it is for me, my wardrobe or my classroom. But I think of teaching as one of the few professions where so much of what is in the classroom is from the teacher, not a company card or a petty cash fund. Every day I get catalogs in the mail advertising additional classroom materials that I can buy. All of them seem so wonderful; I wish I could buy them all. Hopefully through the years I will be able to control my purchases and have a nice sized library of extra resources. But for now, I will make sure to use all of my teacher discount cards wherever they are accepted.

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