Words from the Wise

“You should be a teacher,” I was always told. I was the bossy oldest sister, a summer camp counselor, a Sunday school teacher, an elementary school aide, and a babysitter. I graduated college in December 1986 with high hopes and big plans to instill the love of learning in every child! At the time, my district was in dire need of teachers. So I was hired on an emergency teaching credential (I taught my own class, on the condition that I would go to school at night to earn my credential.). What a perfect opportunity! I thought. This will be easy!

Until my class walked in: a first and second grade split class, with 80% English Language Learners (but most of them did not speak Spanish, which is the second language I (sort of) knew!! As I smiled and greeted them, most of them just stared at me. Many had not attended kindergarten (since it was not mandatory), so I quickly learned I needed to teach them how to write their name and hold scissors correctly!

This was NOT what I had signed up for!

My class was so restless and loud that I threatened the class that they would not go to recess if they did not quiet down. I realized this was very ineffective (since they did NOT quiet down & only a few students spoke English!) when a student asked, “What is recess?” A consequence is not very meaningful if students don’t value what they are losing! After a VERY long morning, it was time for recess. Half the class began putting on their backpacks & I realized they were planning to walk home! Even those who had attended kindergarten had only gone 1/2 day so they were all ready to leave school! (So was I!) I quickly intervened and walked them to the yard to show them around. However, much to my mortification, one of my dads knocked on my classroom door after recess, with his son in hand. He had walked home and I was so frazzled that I hadn’t noticed!! Yikes!!

The rest of the week pretty much followed along this same path. . . Each day I was frantically trying to plan “fun lessons”, but I just knew that something was missing!! And my classroom management was just meaningless threats that I did not follow through! I’m embarrassed to admit this. . . I went home and cried EVERY night until April!!

Thankfully, the local university had a fabulous program called Teacher Helpline. You could call for help, attend workshops geared to new teachers or ask for a mentor. A lovely retired teacher, Mrs. P, showed up in my classroom. Her manner was so calm and gentle, that I immediately felt calm. The kids seemed enchanted with her. When it was time for recess, she watched my class push & shove and talk while I WAITED for them to get in line (I don’t even know if they noticed I was WAITING!) All of a sudden, Mrs. P started pulling out Oreo cookies from her purse & handing them out to students who were standing in line quietly. My mouth dropped open, as I watched the entire class QUICKLY get into line!! During recess, we reflected on this occurrence, but I was a bit miffed that she would use cookies as a reward. I told her I believed in INTRINSIC rewards & I don’t want to use food as a reward. That sweet non-judgmental woman agreed with me, BUT also said that in the beginning I needed to do whatever it takes to get the behaviors I desired. Focus on the positive behaviors, and soon the cookies would be unnecessary. I did not believe her at first, but tried this little technique and sure enough, within days, my class was lined up and walking quietly through the halls!! I’m so glad I put aside my ideals for a minute to humble myself to an experienced teacher! Just watching her speak to my students and bend down to their level was such awesome modeling as I watched the positive way they responded to her!

Long story. . . but here I am, beginning my 28th year of teaching! I still love it and can now focus back to my vision of teaching ALL my students to love learning! Here are just a few words of wisdom to help those of you who are beginning teachers. Welcome to the BEST profession n the world!!
  1. Build relationships & know when to ask for help!Just because you have worked with kids before, you WILL still need help! So many teachers close their doors and suffer alone due to embarrassment or perfectionism. REACH OUT!! Not only did Mrs. P save me, but my room partner, Elizabeth, was a veteran teacher and she always had a open door. She was (& still is!!) a wealth of information. She told me which latest research and journals to read and brought me to curricular conferences! I didn’t know all that I didn’t know! Other colleagues are a great sounding board to throw out ideas and lessons. Some of my very best friends (Debbie, Claudia, & Holly) were from my first few years of teaching! Although we are all at different schools now, we still meet regularly and I value their opinions and expertise!!
  2. Develop a community of learners!Celebrate similarities and differences. Engage students in team building activities. Begin each day with a morning meeting to greet each other (like a big kid circle time) and take the few extra minutes to play team building and goal setting games. Visitors to my classroom always comment on the feeling of camaraderie and mutual respect among my students. I know it’s because we have invested the time in cultivating our community of learners! Check out my Pinterest board for lots of ideas!
  3. Plan, plan, and plan!I originally thought, “They’re only 1st & 2nd graders, this will be easy.” Kids seem to have a sixth sense when you are unprepared or not feeling your best; they can be merciless! I always try to have my lesson plans done & materials ready before I leave school on Fridays. This way, I don’t have to worry about being ready on Monday. And even if plans change (which they will), you will have an organized sense in your mind. Plan your procedures: line-up system, behavior management system, homework schedule, what to do with those early-finishers, etc.) I’ll post more detailed explanations about this in upcoming posts. Another fantastic resource is Rick Morris over at www.newmanagement.com He has fantastic, practical ideas!!
  4. Be kind to yourself! Things may not go as planned (as a matter of fact, that is a guarantee!!) Celebrate the successes and write them down! Many of you have heard of keeping a Thankfulness Journal at home; this is a GREAT idea to record at school, too! Write down all the positives of the day! Also, many teachers keep a file folder of student and parent notes that are uplifting and affirming. When you’re feeling down, these are wonderful to browse through and reread! Spend some time with family, friends, and by yourself (go for a walk, work out, do yoga, pleasure read, treat yourself to mani/pedis)! Teaching may seem like your whole life right now, but there is much more out there and when you’re rested and happy, your students will know!)
Here is my class my second year teaching. Not as rough as Year 1, but still trying to figure things out! (You can see we even tie-dyed tshirts to build community in our classroom, although not everyone wore it for this picture!) I always wondered what my students learned those first few years since I was still learning myself!
Happy ending to those rough first years! I guess I DID instill a love of learning in my students. Here’s one of my favorite pictures: my former first grade student, Justine, is now a teacher herself!! She has an engaging and print-rich classroom environment, and it was evident by listening to her students and their parents rave about her, that she is a phenomenal teacher. Remember to focus on your successes!
What tips or questions do you have, as we gear up for the new school year? I’d love to hear from you!

1 comment

  1. Awwww so awesome!!! I'm so proud of you for starting this blog!! And what's great is that you're STILL my mentor, teaching me new things...through your blog!! I love the ideas! I love it all!! Thanks for being my inspiration, teacher and friend! Xx