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Tales from the First Year: Beginning the Journey Part I

Tales from the First Year is a series chronicling the journey of seven first-year teachers as they learn, succeed, fail, and grow as educators. You will be able to read first-hand accounts of beginning teachers as they start their career during a global pandemic that will require them to teach in a virtual, hybrid, and in face-to-face environments. Our seven teachers include:

  • Amberleigh Starr: a middle school teacher in a STEM school

  • James Button: a high school teacher in a public school

  • Jessa Reed: an elementary school teacher in a public school

  • Kelley Zebrowski: a high school teacher in a public school

  • Muna Adan: an elementary school special education teacher in a public school

  • Romel Moore: a high school teacher in a charter school

  • Savannah Dalton: an elementary school teacher in a private school

Installment 1: Beginning the Journey:

We are calling our first installment of posts "Beginning the Journey." In these posts the Tales from the First Year teachers share their thinking, feelings, and experiences before they begin their first year while also detailing what it was like to be in charge of a large number of kids for the first time as a teacher of record.

Featured in this Post:

This part one post features the stories of Jessa Reed, Muna Adan, and Kelley Zebrowski. Jessa is an elementary school teacher in a public school, Muna is a special education teacher in an elementary school, and Kelley is a high school teacher in a public school.

The Seed of a Dream Finally Blossoms

By Jessa Reed

"I’m not falling behind or running late.

I’m willing to wait for it."

Aaron Burr, Hamilton (Lin-Manuel Miranda)

It took Lin-Manuel Miranda seven years to write Hamilton. I remember listening to his audiobook after I finally purchased the album, in which he revealed that he worked on the song My Shot for one year. Hamilton: The Revolution offers behind-the-scenes glimpses of a musical in the making, and I learned that what seemed like an overnight success was anything but. Indeed, I was not interested in Hamilton’s overwhelming popularity. I initially chafed at LMM’s shiny success; his muse was working overtime while I struggled to find my way. I was (am?) a developmental psychologist who felt a tug to pivot and change course. And yet, I was firmly embedded within the grooves of academia; dissertation defended: check. Postdoctoral research: in progress. Yet I envied the classroom teachers with whom I collaborated; I secretly tucked away articles about kindergarten readiness and the benefits of independent reading.

A kindred connection to LMM quickly took root. He knew what it felt like to tend to a seed of a dream, a possibility, a vision that refused to conform to timelines. As I sang along with Alexander and Aaron, I was also singing along with LMM. He understood what it was like to nurture a wild idea. I had my own wild idea - to become a teacher. I wanted to teach children, rather than study their development.

In academia, we control. We practice and pilot and tweak and re-run and make sure that our stimuli and methodology are precise and valid. A ten-minute conference presentation necessitated hours of running through slides, memorizing the words that would perfectly complement the figures and graphs. There was no room for error, no margin for in-the-moment discoveries or insights. In education, we respond. I have a roomful of students, whose active engagement in the class necessitates that I let go of preconceived talking points and instead nurture the inchoate seeds of wisdom and truth that the students share. Will I feel ready to teach a math lesson that I haven’t taught before? As much as I prepare and plan, I won’t know how my students will respond until the moment. As someone who loves the comfort of lists and lesson plans, will I have the courage to trust myself when I ad lib with my students, meeting them where they are rather than expecting them to follow a prescribed script?

How will I create connection when there are so many protocols in place designed to intentionally keep us apart? As I studied and learned how to be a teacher, I focused on how to create a classroom in which my students feel safe - to take risks, to be creative, to make mistakes. Today, I am also responsible for the physical safety of my students - to remain six feet apart, masked, behind plexiglass shields.

Last summer, I had minor surgery on my left index finger. I opted out of anesthesia; the nurse encouraged me to visualize “my happy place.” Rather than return to Kiawah Island or London in my mind, I envisioned a place I had not yet experienced - my classroom. I was leading a Morning Meeting on the carpet, children sitting criss-cross applesauce on the carpet. The space was cheerful and cozy. I was poised. Prepared. Ready to step into calling that I had been chasing for so long.

I’m now in that classroom that I once imagined. This time, there is no carpet, and our circle has a much larger circumference to accommodate six feet between students. I had anticipated that accepting the role of teacher would eliminate the questions of a student. I wonder, “Am I doing this right?” as my inexperience pokes my insecurities. And then I remember LMM. After seven years, I wonder how LMM felt when the orchestra first swelled with the notes of the opening number on Broadway. Was it relief? An ache? An amalgamation of too soon and finally, not yet and thank goodness? I wonder if feeling ready comes only once we recognize that questions do not negate our preparedness; uncertainty does not mitigate my purpose. I am a teacher, and I am not throwing away my shot.

Giving Myself Grace

By Muna Adan

“We’re all first year teachers this year.” I heard this a lot during the beginning of the school year after COVID hit. There are days that I agree but there are more days where I disagree. Teachers who have been teaching in the same building have a connection with students and the other teachers in the building. They have a routine and know the ins and outs of the school. Being in a new building, especially during COVID, you can feel very disconnected from what goes on in the building, the students, the teachers, administrators, and even the custodial staff. You are considered the “newbie”; the one teacher outside of your team no one talks to outside of student related things because they know nothing about you. It feels like you’re being judged based off of the previous teacher. I am one of four Intervention Specialists (special education teacher) in my building. My current position has had a new person every year for the past few years. I feel like I have big shoes to fill because it has not worked out for previous teachers in my position for numerous reasons. Luckily, I have a wonderful, supportive special education team and principal but there is still this disconnect. There is still this feeling of not doing enough. This year, the motto I choose to live by is to give myself grace. Giving grace is most important this year. Giving grace will help me overcome the feeling of being overwhelmed. Giving grace will help me feel like I am doing this very hard job to the best of my abilities. Most of all, giving grace will help keep my mental health in check.

I am very introverted and need time to get comfortable in my surroundings. As the school year begins, I have forced myself to go beyond my boundaries and allow myself to build rapport with the teachers that I work with in my building. I am in an elementary setting so I work with a lot of the teachers since we share students. I have forced myself to tell him a little about who I am so I can start building relationships in my building. Knowing myself, that is something I struggle with because I like to be like a turtle in its shell. In order to feel included, I have to include myself. If I could offer any initial insights as a first year teacher, I would tell you that building positive relationships with your colleagues and students is incredibly important. Just by going the extra mile to spend more time talking with my colleagues and doing more “get to know you” activities with my students, has eased my mind and helped me stop feeling so disconnected. I now feel a sense of belonging. We focus so much on content, pedagogy, and assessment, but relationships will help us lay our foundations as teachers.

I Cried on My Second Day

By Kelley Zebrowski

I cried on my second day of school--and the kids weren’t even there yet! I’m normally a calm, cool and collected type of person, but on the second day of school I was already so overwhelmed. I’ve always prided myself on working best under pressure and when I’m super busy. I had spent the summer choosing to relax and not get worked up about the upcoming school year. Should I plan for online school? Should I make lessons and prepare for labs hoping we are in person? As a first year teacher there is already so much anxiety and pressure as the school year nears, and I didn’t want to add to that by planning lessons for a variety of outcomes.

After that afternoon when I cried, I realized letting the stress get to me wasn’t going to help my kids. I chose to become a teacher because I wanted to get to know kids, build relationships with them, and help them discover their own passions and intelligence. At the end of the day, my number one focus was still to create that environment, even in a virtual classroom. By reflecting on my purpose and identifying my number one goal for the first week of school, I was able to sit down and get to planning. I created a few virtual activities to introduce kids to science and help us get to know each other. From there, my mind began to move forward and I was able to figure out my next few steps of planning (emphasis on few, being one day ahead in planning is my current goal), and ease my mind of a little anxiety.

Long story short, I had spent a summer building excitement and anticipation for an upcoming school year only to crash on the second day. It felt so defeating at the moment (isn’t that feeling supposed to come like mid-October?!), but all it took for me to get back on track was to remember my purpose and I was motivated and prepared to be the best teacher I could be for all of my students--here’s to a great first year!