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Reflections 37 Years Later: My First Year of Teaching

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Reflections 37 Years Later: My First Year of Teaching

By: Jennifer Lichtsinn, Ph.D.

 

I’ve been a teacher for a long time. My first teaching assignment began on October 2, 1986. That’s right, 1986, before most of you reading this were born. I started teaching shortly before my 22nd birthday. By October, the school year had started, and the class dynamics were set in my third-grade classroom. I walked in, a brand-new teacher, eager to make a difference in these children’s lives. I had made it through student teaching and was ready to be that teacher that I’d always dreamed that I would be.

When I walked into my classroom, the classroom was already set up. I noted the piles of worksheets lining the counter tops under the windows. I noted the desks in straight rows. I noticed that the children did not believe in themselves. They saw themselves as “putting in the time” each day. They were not excited about learning.  Most of the parents were not interested in what was happening and, even with a new teacher in the middle of first quarter. Few dropped in to meet me. As time when on, I had some difficulty with behavior issues. I sent a child to the office for a minor infraction. The child came back with a note “two swats administered.” I never sent another child to the office, lesson learned. I would need to develop my own ways to build a student-centered, positive environment for these children.

I began to change things in that room. I took down negatively worded posters from the walls, and had the children do artwork to decorate the room. I created a reading area for the children, and I started learning centers, which I used alternately with teacher directed groups and independent work. I allowed my children to express themselves and begin to do things that interested them. I even had a pet day when I allowed the children to bring in their pets. One girl brought in a pygmy goat to visit, and it stayed all day. She diligently cleaned up after the goat. Teachers around me thought I was out of my head to allow such things!

Even as I began changing the environment, I found myself with a reading curriculum that did not make sense. My students did not like books. They saw reading as a chore. I knew that I had learned to read by being read to by my parents. Frequent trips to the local library were a big part of my childhood. We had a reading curriculum, but the assessment system used nonsense words. Even as a first year teacher, I began to challenge these materials, insisting that children’s learning and assessment be based upon real content and especially not nonsense. I knew that children needed to read real, good quality books. I reached out to professional reading organizations. I brought in as many books as I could to build my classroom library.

That first year was TOUGH. I struggled with classroom management, helping my students get along and differentiating instruction for a variety of levels. At the time, I did not recognize that classroom management issues were at the center of my struggles, I just knew that it was difficult. I wasn’t sure that I was up to the task of being these third-grade students’ teacher. I tried various techniques, and I rearranged my students’ desks almost weekly. The internet was not around yet, so I read as much as I could. I did not want to burden my fellow teachers with my problems, but I should have reached out to them and asked them for help and guidance. I was assigned a mentor teacher in the grade level above me. She visited my class, observed me and gave me feedback on how to improve my lessons. I carefully analyzed her notes, making changes where needed. I leaned on her for guidance on the academic issues. I thought it was important, though, to be able to manage my difficult classroom on my own. I think that I thought that the other teachers would think less of me if I admitted my struggle. I wanted to be seen as a confident, ready-made teacher. I worked hard, continually working late, in the evenings and on the weekends. Yet, I struggled.

Around Thanksgiving, I caught pneumonia. I was really ill. I went to a doctor who to told me to ‘work if I felt like it’ so, of course, I took no time off. By the middle of December, I was really very ill. I finally took some time off (during which I drove the school secretary batty having her relay messages to my substitute teacher about every little thing). When I returned, I dove in, working harder than ever. Winter break happened. At the end of the break, I told my husband that I was worn out and could not go back. He gently reminded that I had signed a contract and would be expected to return.

And so, I returned. Things got better. I re-enrolled in college, in a master’s program, thinking that if I was to try to change the reading curriculum, I would need to know the research. Working on my master’s degree gave me new, educated, and interested teaching peers. They re-energized my teaching.

In the years that followed, I have followed a similar pattern, whenever I start to feel diminished in my practice, I learn something new, try a new approach and read, read, read. This has allowed me to continue to thrive in my job. My early teaching days are long past, but somethings, like good, quality, real books, has remained an important focus for me.

My advice to new teachers is this: reach out to others for support. Find out what fuels you and feeds your soul. Know that you aren’t alone. The first year is tricky – but you can do it!

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