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Tales from the First Year: The Steep Learning Curve

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 2: The Steep Learning Curve:

We are calling our second installment of posts "The Steep Learning Curve." In these posts, the Tales from the First Year teachers focused on a different element of teaching to share their experiences. In this post, the topics include:

  • Muna Adnan: Lesson Planning ("Trying Not to Drown")

  • Savannah Dalton: Mentoring Experiences ("A Parachute with Holes")

  • Romel Moore: Grading Papers ("Grading Papers is a Breeze")

  • Amberleigh Starr: Instruction/Pedagogy ("To Hybrid or Not to Hybrid")

Trying Not to Drown

By Muna Adnan

I thought I would be drowning. Drowning in to-do lists, lesson planning, IEP meetings, etc. Well, I am drowning, but not in a stressed out, want to cry kind of way. As an intervention specialist (a.k.a. special education teacher or IS), there is a lot on my plate. I create lesson plans for multiple groups, attend parent concern meetings, prepare and hold IEP meetings for all the students on my caseload, as well as being prepared to have a new student randomly added to my caseload. My job requires a lot of patience, flexibility, and planning. Luckily, I feel like I am managing pretty well, for the most part.

Recently, I held my first IEP meeting of the year for one of my 6th grade students. I was terrified because I had only communicated with the parent over email and because it was my first IEP meeting that I was running. I was doing all the talking and answering all the questions. It took me about two weeks to write the IEP and by the time I was done, I felt this sense of accomplishment. It was one of the greatest feelings because an IEP is a legal document that is very tedious to complete and as an IS, I have to make sure I am in compliance.

I remember when I had finished my IEP meeting, I had another student who was new to our district added to my caseload that same day. As I looked through his paperwork, I saw that he had an IEP review due in about two weeks. I instantly felt like I couldn’t catch a break. I looked at my calendar and saw that I had no time the following week to pull him to gather data and get to know him because 4th grade was testing and I had to proctor for testing. My amazing colleague was able to pull him and gather the data I needed, however that meant I had to write an IEP and hold a meeting for a student I have never met before. The nerves were starting to kick in again and I felt like I did not know what I was doing. IEPs are a lot easier to handle when you actually know the student, even if you knew them for a short period of time. Not to mention, I had no idea how I would fit this particular student into my schedule. He was not able to join any of my groups because of where he was academically and because of our hybrid schedule. Most importantly, my schedule was already full with zero wiggle room.

After raising my concerns to my team, we decided that we would share him. This meant he would see 3 different IS’ to meet his goals. I have a total of 11 students on my caseload and my maximum is 16. I often wonder how having 16 students is possible with hybrid schedules and where students' instructional levels are, but it always tends to work out. I just try to give myself grace and aim to be as collaborative as possible. The job of an IS requires a lot of problem solving and flexibility because things do tend to pile on but you just have to be able to roll with the punches. I cannot stress enough how fortunate I am for the support I have because I would probably be falling apart without them.

Quite honestly, lesson planning is probably the easiest part of my job. I am fortunate that my district adopted a scripted Orton-Gillianham inspired tier 3 phonics intervention for decoding and encoding for my kiddos, so it makes it easy to lesson plan and teach. As far as students who have reading comprehension, extra writing, and math goals, I support them in the classroom so there is also minimal planning that goes into that. I will say that without my special education team, I do not think that I would have been keeping afloat. As a first year teacher, you are trying to balance your work and real life and most times it is extremely difficult to do, especially for those without support.

A Parachute with Holes

By Savannah Dalton

Having a mentor as a first year teacher is one of the most useful, but strange experiences. As I stepped into my new role as a 2nd grade teacher, it was overwhelming to think of everything that needed to be done, including those things that I was not even aware of. I like to think of stepping into my first year teaching as stepping out of a plane with a parachute that has holes. At first I fell hard and fast, but on my way down I met my team members and, specifically my mentor, Erin, who has helped me to fill those holes. The Capital University Teacher Education Program helped prepare me in so many ways, but the reality of the educational field is that no amount of college can prepare us fully because the reality is we are all learning, every single day. Teaching is not a job that can be done alone. It truly takes a community of people and support.

The person who keeps my parachute working is my mentor, Erin. She is the only other 2nd grade teacher in my school and is my Resident Educator Summative Assessment (RESA) mentor (required for licensure in Ohio). Before Erin even knew me she was one of the first people to offer her support and guidance through the beginning steps of my career. Stepping into the school year that was dominated with fear, confusion and negativity because of COVID was something that I never would have imagined any teacher to handle with such calmness. Being able to begin planning for the school year that would go down in history as though it was any other year is one of the most valuable lessons that Erin has taught me so far. Teaching takes the same type of flexibility and innovation that is needed to jump out of an airplane with a faulty parachute and still survive. Every day and every situation requires teachers to think positively and give it their best shot.

Erin often answers my questions before I even ask them and is patient when I do have several questions I need answered. She is poised in her manner of giving suggestions or advice and is open to any suggestions I may have. She has made the transition so bearable for me as a first-year teacher that I cannot even begin to stress how important it is for a first year teacher to have a well-mannered and coolheaded mentor or person they can go to for advice. All first-year teachers do not receive this same type of support. Oftentimes being assigned a mentor is just a check in a box and while I have been so fortunate to receive a true mentor, not all first-year teachers are.

I truly believe that first-year teachers would be better supported in the long run if they were given a mentor that displays proven qualities similar to Erin’s. The ability to handle stress and be innovative in times of trial is something that I am learning not all teachers carry, especially after teaching for many years. The lack of transitioning a teacher gets from student teaching to their very own classroom is one of the factors I believe causes this. To go from student teaching for 12 weeks, or fewer because of a pandemic, to completely running a classroom is such a huge leap. Sometimes it feels as though teachers make the leap and are grasping onto the ledge of a cliff. Some first year teachers get a mentor like Erin who helps pull them up, but others are left grasping and slowly climbing up over that ledge for the next two, three or maybe even five years. To pull oneself up takes true grit, but also can break spirits and become an unbearable amount of stress to carry alone.

I think about those first year teachers who have gone before me without a valuable mentor and those who are balancing being a first year teacher and a teacher during a pandemic often. It often makes me wonder if there is a way to make that leap from student teaching to having a classroom into a step. The Tales from the First Year project is working to bridge that gap and explore the ugliness and joys that comes when teachers everywhere experience their first year of teaching.

Grading Papers is a Breeze - The Life of a Math Teacher

By Romel Moore

Being a math teacher, I don’t assign actual papers to my students. So far, I have only assigned a couple quick quizzes and one quiz called a “scrimmage” which mirrors the format of a standardized state test. The online platform we use, Canvas, has modules that were already created that essentially provides the curriculum for us. I use those modules as the focal point of my lessons, build off of them, and, in addition to the lessons, there are quizzes in Canvas already with questions similar to the examples in the lessons. It’s a ready-made curriculum. I can make my own tests or quizzes as well, with several different types of questions (that’s how I make scrimmages). Grading them is easy because Canvas automatically grades everything except for written responses and uploads; manually entering grades is simple, and Canvas is able to sync up with PowerSchool, our attendance and gradebook system. It’s an easy process to be honest.

To Hybrid or Not To Hybrid: Teacher Flexibility in a Pandemic

By Amberleigh Starr

“I’ll do this; no, I’ll do this, but what about this.” This is how my mind has been the past few weeks with planning for class each day. You see, we started out planning for hybrid delivery but had been told by administration to plan as if we were virtual and then we could add to it if we were hybrid. We had been planning to start hybrid up until a week and a half before school started and that was when the school decided to switch over to all virtual to start the year off. I wasn’t even sure where to start if I am being honest. I had never planned or learned how to teach all. On top of that, let’s add in the fact that I am the only Algebra 1 teacher in my school so I see all of the eighth graders each day and there is no set curriculum or any materials. Talk about a stressful start to the year - no set materials and not knowing how our students were going to start school.

Once we got the all virtual plan set in stone, it eased my mind on the planning front some. I wasn’t exactly sure how I was going to make learning fun and engaging online but I finally had something to work with.I found a curriculum that had some activities and notes on Teachers Pay Teachers that I liked and decided to stick with at least as a framework so that I was not planning a year of teaching from scratch off of a textbook that the school doesn’t even use. I then started to write up what we were going to do in class and tried to come up with the best approach to make class engaging.

To start the school year off while we were all virtual, I worked to make my classroom a flipped class where the students watched the notes in the evenings or during student work time and then in class we did an activity or practice problems. Overall, this seemed to go well except for the handful of students that didn’t watch the notes or come to class virtually. There were many moments of frustration where my students would email me to let me know that they were confused and not sure what to do or how to do the things we were learning in class. I would remind them about student work time and how I was available to them during that time to help them individually but then they wouldn’t come during that time to get help. I didn’t want to let my students down but I got to the point where I felt like I can’t do the work for them; they have to want it. As I was just getting the hang of all virtual learning, we had a staff meeting where we began to talk about switching to a hybrid model.

Knowing that we were going to go hybrid a week after the staff meeting brought about some new challenges with planning. Although planning for hybrid brought some challenges with it, I was excited that my students were going to be back in my classroom. While at first I thought that planning to teach part online and part in class was going to be harder, I quickly figured out a schedule for both myself and my students. I set the schedule of Mondays and Wednesdays being note days and then we would do an activity on Tuesdays and Thursdays leaving Friday as a project work day or a day where we would do some activity to wrap up the whole week.

Skip ahead a week and a half into our hybrid model and the students know what to expect when they come into class. They know when we are doing notes and when we are doing an activity. Although there are some challenges that come up with teaching both online and in person, like forgetting to post the assignment online, I have loved getting to be more creative with the activities that we are doing in class instead of the same old Google forms. I can for sure say that I love having the in person interactions with my students and getting to know them more as individuals has made my teacher heart happy.