First Year Stories
Veteran teachers share the best, worst, and most memorable moments from their first year of teaching
PreK–K, 1–2, 3–5, 6–8, 9–12
My first year teaching was in San Francisco, where many of my students celebrated Chinese new year. Traditionally, kids get small red envelopes with money enclosed from family members. I thought it would be fun to give my students envelopes as well. I didn't want to give them real cash, so I enclosed miniature $1,000 bills inside each envelope. After school I gave one of the envelopes to our custodian, who was also Chinese. When she opened it up, she was horrified. She informed me that at Chinese funerals, people burn fake money to symbolize prosperity in the afterlife for the deceased. By giving kids fake money, I was in a sense telling them "I hope you die." Sort of like buying someone a coffin for his birthday! From then on I learned to be clear about cultural norms before I made them my own.
–Bill Singer, Sheppard Elementary School, Santa Rosa, CA
During my first year of teaching I shared an open-space type of classroom with another teacher, Linda. One day after lunch, Linda came over to my side of the room carrying a thermos. "Smell this thermos," she demanded. I turned and looked at her. I didn't know what was in the thermos, but my guess was that I didn't want to get my nose near it. Noticing my hesitation, Linda continued. "My allergies interfere with my sense of smell," she explained. "Does this smell like beer?" Sure enough, it did. One of her first graders and his older brother had made their own lunches that day. When they could find nothing in the refrigerator to drink, they divided a beer between them and brought it to school!
–Charlotte Sassman, Alice Carlson Applied Learning Center, Fort Worth, TX
One of my worst moments during my first year of teaching was during a lab lesson. I had read about cabbage juice being an acid/base indicator and found a great experiment for my sixth graders to do. I was excited. The kids were excited. We all had our goggles and gloves on and were ready to go. My assistant principal even came by for an unexpected visit-an added bonus, I thought. Everything seemed to be set up perfectly, except there was one problem. It turns out that I had used the wrong type of cabbage. I used green when I should have used red. The experiment didn't work at all! Luckily, I managed to turn the period into a "why didn't this work" session and rescheduled the red cabbage juice experiment. Lesson learned-test your experiments before you do them with your students.
–Amy M. Denty, Jesup Elementary / Odum Elementary, Jesup, GA
An incident occurred during my first year of teaching that made me realize the importance of teachers in the lives of their students. One morning while I was teaching my first grade class, the principal came to my room and asked me to come with her. She explained that one of my students, a new girl from Korea, had locked herself in her apartment and would not answer the door. Her parents had left her at the bus stop, but she had missed the bus, panicked, and ran home. She let herself in and promptly bolted the door. After several attempts to get her to open it, one of the neighbors called the school. When we arrived at the apartment, I knocked on the door and said "Jung, it's Mr. Krech." The door opened immediately. Happily, Jung rode back to school with us, ready to start her day.
–Bob Krech, Dutch Neck School, Princeton Junction, NJ
During one of my first years in the classroom I overheard a table of six children having a spirited discussion during snack time. Their conversation went something like this: "Boys have one, but girls don't." A round of nods. "They are right in the front and they stick out!" "Yeah, I know, because I've seen them. I have a dad and a brother." "They can move up and down." A giggle. "They get bigger as they get older." "They can move them when they want to." I was shocked. I hardly thought this was appropriate snack-time talk. I started to make my way over to the group to demand an explanation, but before I got there, one last remark sent me reeling. "Look, you can see his sticking out right now!" In horror, I dashed to the children's table just in time to see a student pointing to one boy's...Adam's apple!
–Mary Rose, Lake Sybelia Elementary School, Orange County, FL
I was fresh out of college with doubts about everything I did. I wondered if my students would learn anything or if I would touch their lives in any way. Midway through the year, one of my students who had struggled due to a lack of confidence answered that question. Every day at math time, her eyes would fill with tears because she had it set in her mind that she couldn't do the assignment. I would sit with her and explain, "You can do it. You just have to believe in yourself." Later, after months of saying that I couldn't draw, I drew a decent picture on the board. After class, that same little girl came up to me. "See Miss Long," she said, "you can draw. You just have to believe in yourself." My heart was touched, and I was reminded of why I became a teacher in the first place.
–Alissa Long, St. Pius Tenth School, Rochester, NY
I Wish Someone Had Told Me...
1 Appreciate the small successes from each day and let go of the rest. One way to do this is to, at the end of each day, write down on a slip of paper one good thing that happened. Put the papers into a box. When you doubt yourself or are looking for a little inspiration when returning to school after a long weekend or at the end of a hard day, read from those slips. Your own words will mean more than any advice you get from a book or coworker.
–Tonya Ward Singer, Sheppard Elementary School, Santa Rosa, CA
2 Pick one or two aspects of your teaching to concentrate on for the first year. You can't perfect everything all at once, so prioritize your goals. If you want to improve your classroom management skills, then concentrate on that by reading teaching books, seeking advice, and practicing new skills. Next year, choose a different aspect to focus on. Concentrating on one or two aspects of your teaching not only helps you hone those skills, but it can keep you from getting overwhelmed.
–Deborah Diffily, Early Childhood Education, Southern Methodist U., Dallas, TX
3 Set specific working hours and conform to them. You will train yourself to accomplish within the specified hours those tasks most essential for you to be successful. If you simply leave when your all of your work is "done," you could conceivably never leave. After all, a teacher's job is never truly finished. This strategy works out of school too. The trick to spending only two hours of your weekend on grading is to say, "I'll only work two hours." You'll soon be accomplishing in those two hours exactly what you need for the following week.
–Mack Lewis, Sams Valley School, Central Point, OR
4 Never handle paperwork twice. Take care of each item as it comes to you. Thus you will avoid shuffling through a stack of papers at the last minute, trying to meet deadlines or locate project guidelines.
–Betty Klein, Sheridan Road School, Ft. Sill, OK
5 Treat your students with respect. They will respond in kind.
–Amy M. Denty, Jesup Elementary/ Odum Elementary, Jesup, GA
6 Try to look at situations from the parents' and children's points of view. They are depending on you to provide the best learning environment, even if the students' behavior and ability to learn doesn't fit your plans. Ask yourself what you would like the teacher to do if that were your child in the classroom, and plan accordingly.
–Mary Rose, Lake Sybelia Elementary, Orange County, FL