Chapter 4: The New Teacher

Remember the saying, “This is the first day of the rest of your life”? Every year the first day of school echoes this hope. Many teachers have been preparing all summer and have already been in their classrooms for weeks (without pay) setting them up. They have their class lists, materials are ready, and all are hoping for a great year ahead. Most have already spent hundreds of dollars of their own money on supplies for their room.

If experienced teachers are apprehensive as well as hopeful, new teachers are basically terrified. Many new teachers are hired at the last minute, when school districts realize that last years’ predictions are no longer correct and they are in desperate need of additional staff. This means that many rookie teachers have no time at all to think about what is happening to them before they begin teaching.

All new teachers worry about control of the classroom and being able to juggle a thousand things at once: they have nightmares of no one listening as they teach, half of the room talking, students walking around the room, one coming in late because s/he was in a fight, another needing a pass to the nurse, the intercom announcing the first fire drill, running out of curriculum with a half a day to go, the room phone announcing an irate parent; all occurring simultaneously while they are trying to keep control.

My advice to the novice educator is “relax and take it one step at a time.” This classroom is where you are going to spend most of your waking hours for the next nine months, so set it up so that you can survive. And don’t think sleep will refresh you, because teachers are notorious for dreaming about their students. If you are comfortable, your students will be. Find what works for you, be consistent from day to day, and always treat your students the way you want to be treated. Remember too, that the students are not your friends – think of them as your wards. They are under your care, and in order for them to succeed, they must have limits as well as the freedom to explore. This is a fine line to walk, and new teachers have the hardest time with this. They feel they have to control in order to succeed. New teachers either go overboard on discipline and the students feel they are not trusted, or they are lax and inconsistent. The latter can only lead to chaos and disaster. Children smell fear and they come in for the kill.

The first week is crucial to setting up relationships in the classroom; by this I mean the way students treat each other, as well as the reciprocal relationship between teacher and student. If the students can’t show consideration for each other, you are going to have a long year. Here are some ideas for setting up this environment of trust on day one.

I always began the first day with a tour of the classroom. I walked around introducing the students to my area – desk, file cabinet, computer. I told them that they could enter my area with an invitation. The rest of the room was always alluded to as our room because it truly belonged to them as well as to me. Then I kept moving around the room pointing out the bulletin board where I had posted the class rules and responsibilities in a very prominent place. (see First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher by Harry and Rosemary Wong). Here I listed my responsibilities to them and discussed how these were mutual. I owed them a safe, educational environment where I could teach the curriculum.

Student responsibilities included coming to school every day, studying the presented material, and working well with their fellow students. I told my class that the only time they would ever see me upset or angry was if anyone was treated with disrespect in our room, particularly if the disrepect was based on religion, race, sexual orientation, or body parts. For this to work I had to prove that I meant what I said, and it never took long for one student to provide me with some insensitive remark. I didn’t take the time to determine how mild the remark was—I just called the offending student on the carpet immediately so I could prove to the class that I was serious about us valuing each other in the classroom.

To prove my respect for students came just as easily. The first day of school is notorious for being very hot. I told them that they could leave the room a little early to be first at the water fountain. If I could get a drink of cold water any time I wanted to, why couldn’t I help them to one? Their gratitude was always returned.

Over the years I came up with a first-week class assignment that developed into a pretty good barometer of how our year would go. I read aloud a story about a monster that comes down from a mountain, desperately hungry and willing to eat anything and anyone. There was no ending to the story. I broke the class into small groups and presented each with a manila envelope filled with colored paper, two sheets of newspaper, pipe cleaners, tape, scissors, crayons, and markers.

Each group was to create a monster using only what was in the envelope. The catch was that they could not talk to one another. They could not use any words, and it was up to them to communicate in whatever other way they could. What I wanted to see was how well they could work in groups, cooperating with one another without words dominating the experience. If the assignment became difficult, I knew it was going to be a year of small steps forward. One year I actually had to stop the project because some students were getting into fights over group turf. You can imagine what kind of year that was.

Sometimes a teacher must go out of school bounds to succeed, and I must confess to breaking a major rule in my middle school. I did not do it to placate the students but simply because it was easier. All students chew gum. Frankly, as long as their mouths were busy chewing, they were pretty content. I allowed gum because otherwise I would spend too much valuable time telling them not to chew or having them get rid of it. It would be unbearable to watch half the class get up from their desks and perform the spitting out routine at the wastepaper basket in front of the room. Imagine also the histrionics and noise they would make. There would go half my class time.

So, the rule was that I could not see it, hear it, step in it, or sit on it. If they or I did, that would be the end of any gum. The first week, students would come into the room with an entire store’s supply of gum. Their mouths were so full, that they could barely talk. They had the freedom to chew, and damned if they weren’t going to push the limits of acceptance. But by the next week, there would be less, and a month into school, I rarely saw any gum. It seems we both got our way without too much combativeness.

All new teachers should walk into the room confident but not aloof. You need to be accessible to your students without seeming to be a potential sucker. Use humor to diffuse difficult situations, but not as a sarcastic weapon—and never tolerate anyone being laughed at. My middle school students loved to laugh, and laughter can enhance learning. It means the student is comfortable enough to learn.

Wisdom in hindsight is a marvelous tool. It obscures those early years in the classroom when you remember your students learning in spite of your inexperience. It reminds me of the day we brought our first child home from the hospital. My husband and I thought that the doctors and nurses were crazy to send this helpless creature home with such foolish amateurs. Wasn’t our ignorance endangering the life of our newborn? But it is amazing how adaptable our children are. They can actually survive the adults around them.