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Tales from the First Year: The Steep Learning Curve Part 2

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 2b: 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:

  • Jessa Reed: Managing the Work of a Teacher ("Paper Clips and Post-It Notes")

  • Kelley Zebrowski: Work-Life Balance ("You Never Really Turn Off Being a Teacher")

  • James Button: Classroom Management ("Classroom Management? Build Relationships")

Paper Clips and Post-It Notes

By Jessa Reed

Over the summer, before I even had a job offer, my cooperating teachers from my student teaching placement gifted me a box of teacher supplies, anointing me with Mr. Sketch markers and my own copy of How Alma Got Her Name. Nestled amidst the tissue paper were several packs of paper clips and post-it notes. I simply thought they knew that office supplies are one of my love languages. I had no idea that these two tools would become my lifeline as a first-year teacher.

In elementary school, I had a Trapper Keeper and Lisa Frank folders. In high school and college, my D-ring binders were meticulously tabbed, with labeled sections for syllabi and readings and homework. I make my bed every morning; I’m the kind of person whose shirts are hung in ROYGBIV order in my closet, all facing the same direction. In the classic “if you give a mouse a cookie” style, one new notebook leads to a brand new system for me, color-coordinated and paginated. I buy new pens like other women buy new lipstick - “this one will change my life.”

I went into teaching with a “beginner’s mind.” How could I cultivate a growth mindset if I didn’t model one myself? I anticipated long days and longer nights as I figured out how to teach multiplication and the Constitution while upholding our health and safety protocols: six feet apart, no shared materials. I never expected, however, to struggle with organization. I just wasn’t sure how to keep track of all the paper stacks, doubled because of our hybrid schedule. The sheer volume was one factor. Corralled in folders, they could be forgotten. Left out, they become an all-too-real reminder of where I am falling short.

I so want a system - a 2020, grown-up version of a Trapper Keeper. Growing up, I learned that a good student is organized. That I could control. “You’re so smart” felt threatening. No teacher saw the 10 pm tears as I lashed out against my mother for letting me sign up for AP Calculus. Who did I think I was? Organized, on the other hand, was neat and tidy, well within my control.

If a good student is organized, then a good teacher is, too. And a great teacher would be so, naturally. And yet here I am, fumbling with problem sets and graphic organizers.

Enter paper clips.

Now, I clip together a single assignment. Here are A Group’s reader’s responses to Ome Gota’s Saturday. Here are B group’s word study exit slips. I went to Staples and found a two-drawer organizer, soft grey and Swiss-made. A group on top, B on bottom, ever-seeking alliteration to alleviate any extra burden on my unexpectedly erratic memory. When I have a pocket of time - 20 minutes while my students are at recess, 45 minutes while they are at their special, I simply:

  1. Open a drawer.

  2. Take out the first stack of papers, already sorted by subject and group.

  3. Grade.

  4. File away in the students’ mailboxes or data folders.

The system isn’t fancy, and I’m still not sure I’m proud of it. I want to be that teacher who is effortlessly organized, breezily grading with a cup of tea and Vivaldi. Right now, though, I have a lot on my mind. Did I remember to make double-sided copies of the math test? Don’t forget to email the school psychology/parent/principal back. This system works for now. I return again and again to the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”

And the post-it notes? With one classroom but two separate groups because of our hybrid schedule, I have to somehow remember which anchor chart was co-created with my A group and my B group. Which group got through the place value review on my lesson plan, and which group needs to finish it the next time they are in class? I was struggling to keep track of what belonged to which group. I wanted to somehow duplicate my classroom, or perhaps divide it down the middle, King Solomon style. Perhaps I could maintain two teacher planners, one dedicated to each group? I didn’t have a solution, but I did have post-it notes and paper clips. Until I find a better system, I simply jot myself a note “B group - hand out on Tuesday.” “A group - ran out of time on Monday. Save for Thursday.” Then, I slip them inside my rainbow drawer organizer from Michaels, the first thing I purchased for my classroom before I ever had a job offer. Now, I can open the drawer dedicated to reading, and my post-it notes are a visual Morse Code, a shorthand for me to keep track of day and group and task.

I had no idea that the paper clips and post-it notes would become my Hail Mary. And for right now? They work.

You Never Really Turn Off Being a Teacher

By Kelley Zebrowski

If you were to ask any teacher what they do when they get home from school, I would be willing to bet that at least 75% of them would answer something along the lines of ‘more work.’ The few teachers who don’t do work when they get home either stay for a few hours after the dismissal bell, or they are not first-year teachers.

Throughout these first few weeks, I’ve learned to accept the fact that my day doesn’t end when the bell rings. I typically leave school by 3:15 and head home just to give myself a change of scenery and take care of my dog. I’ll usually procrastinate for a few hours (old habits die hard) and then get to it. I’ll prep my next day’s lesson, send some emails, try and map out the next couple of days and then call it a night. All tallied up, my work day is anywhere from 8-12 hours. This type of work day pretty much means there’s no chance I’m doing anything even remotely social Monday-Friday. Honestly, even if I did have the time for something fun after doing my work, I’m so physically and mentally drained that would be the last thing I wanted to do.

Throughout my life I’ve always categorized myself as an introvert. Teaching is an extrovert’s job. Spending the day being fun and upbeat, sharing stories, listening to students talk about their lives and their feelings, and just being truly present takes a lot of energy. Don’t get me wrong, I love that my energy is used for that! But my energy is drained nonetheless. Because of this, Fridays have become my time to just not think--and I truly mean not think. I come home and watch movies or TikToks (high school students have already influenced me so much), or work on a puzzle. My brain has no capacity left for emails, prepping the next week, or carrying on a conversation with my friends or family. After Friday night I’ll feel recharged and ready to be a real person again.

Saturdays have become my socialization day. This is the time when I fit in all of my week’s worth of adult time. I try to see a few friends, maybe my family, and generally get anything done that requires me leaving my house. Some Saturdays I am still too tired to do anything but I try to force myself to have fun because I know I need it. The only problem being the days when I can’t take my mind off of work. “What are my kids going to do on Monday?” “Ugh, I have so much grading to do there’s no way I’ll finish tomorrow.” “I bet this student didn’t turn in their online assignment again; I should call home to check in on them.” You get the point. I’m able to push these thoughts aside and be there with my friends, but I always know that I’m putting “Sunday me” into a crap situation.

Teaching is a unique profession because if I don’t prepare and stay organized then I will show up at work and have 25 (or 10 this year) faces just staring at me waiting for me to do something. There’s no such thing as not prepping, especially as a first-year teacher. This makes Sundays stressful. I have no choice but to get the work done. I always have half a dozen student emails to answer, a week’s worth of grading, and at minimum I need to have my Monday prepared. I’m working on getting more done on Sundays so the rest of the week I can work ahead even further and hopefully end up having little to nothing to do by the next Sunday--a girl can dream, ok? Even if I don’t reach this goal, I’m also working on giving myself more time everyday (Monday-Friday included) to just take a breather or get outside or focus on something not school related.

I understand it’s not sustainable to work nonstop during the weekdays and have only one day of fun, but right now that’s what I need to do to feel good. Feeling ill prepared or unorganized is more harmful to my mental health than not getting to hang out with my friends for a weekend or two. I have my work-life organized in the way that feels best for me (even if the scales are heavily tilted towards work). Also, I truly love the work I’m doing! Even the parts I do at home! I have a fun weekend scheduled with my friends when I’m even taking a *gasp* day off of school, and you already know I am looking forward to my Thanksgiving and Winter Breaks to truly let my mind rest and reset. Maybe next year my scales will tilt a little more towards life and I’ll eventually reach an even balance. Till then, I’ll keep chugging along through my first year.

Classroom Management? Build Relationships

By James Button

Classroom management has been the most sinusoidal part of teaching so far. For my classes in an upper middle class high school science classroom, I feel like it has been the easiest I’ve ever seen while also being really, really challenging because of COVID-19. Since my school is in a hybrid model, I feel like because I only have half of the kids of a normal classroom (max 18), the students are less talkative and less likely to take risks of acting out. This has been really nice to step into because I am able, in my first year, to set up strategies to help them come out of their shells more. On the flipside of that, because I only see them a couple of days a week, it has been harder to build relationships to the point that I feel like I can challenge them when they are off topic. Another challenge has been when they are at home, no matter how much I communicate what should be done on their virtual day, it is a struggle to get more than a 60% homework turn-in rate. This is a strange part of classroom management because we are being asked to manage a classroom that students are partially present in, and we are not physically present. The management of online assessment and assignments has been extremely challenging.

Now add in that this is my first year teaching… I feel with my eight years of coaching experience, I have a good background of being able to control a class (or practice) with my projected voice and it is easy for me to gain attention. The thing I have been struggling with has been how do I not miss students who might not respond as much to that type of communication. Learning multiple sides of communication and classroom management is very complex.

For my classroom I have been using our online school platform to communicate with parents and students about expectations and hopes for the class, but without a face-to-face open house or parent teacher conferences, the parents are struggling to affirm classroom management tasks alongside me because they are often confused at the online platform. The classroom has extended further than it ever has. The big thing that my department chair keeps saying is, “Build relationships. You want kids to learn more? Build relationships. You want kids to turn in more work? Build relationships. You want more collaboration between students in your classroom? Build relationships. Period.” Classroom management is no different in a pandemic than it is a “normal” year. Build relationships.

I am learning more than I ever have about how I am as a person, who I am, and how that affects my job, marriage, life, friendships etc. I hope that I am becoming more of a well-rounded person and teacher, but it will all be revealed in time. It’s often hard to see the light when you’re bogged down in the weeds. Nonetheless, this has already been one of the most revealing seasons of my life and I think that I am starting to enjoy the grind and the true work that comes from hitting a lesson out of the park. “Build relationships. You want kids to learn more? Build relationships. You want kids to turn in more work? Build relationships. You want more collaboration between students in your classroom? Build relationships. Period.”