I learned a lot my first year of teaching. I was fresh out of college, had very little teaching experience and wanted so, so badly to have the kind of impact on my students that my teachers had on me. I had lofty visions of my well-organized, fish-themed classroom (I naively thought that all great classrooms had themes), and I was prepared to launch classroom jobs in the first week of school (classroom jobs = positive class culture, right??). By the end of the first day, however, I had a disastrously messy pile of papers that I hadn’t told students what to do with, and the magnitude of teaching my 150 wonderful, critical, personality-filled 8th graders hit me like a truck.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I really struggled. I came to love and be invested in my students quickly, but I was shocked by how behind they were academically, and I deeply doubted my ability to be the person that could lead their improvement. One night at a professional development event, I broke down sobbing, and though I wish this wasn’t true, I was on the verge of quitting. Although I had previously faced adversity, at the age of 22 this was the first time in my life that I felt “on the hook” for something larger than myself. And I felt like I was utterly and profoundly failing at this most important thing. My advisor, Vic Diaz (who, ironically, now works at one of OneTeacher’s amazing partner districts), went above and beyond to help me. He spent three-plus hours at my kitchen table one night, helping me not only plan the next three weeks, but teaching me an ambitious framework for writing instruction that worked (and that was easily replicated so I could meet the ambitious goals I had set with my students). Armed with this plan and refreshed with his support, I returned to school with renewed determination and cautious self-confidence.
But of course things still didn’t go as planned. I had the content piece under control at this point (read: it was a work in progress but I wasn’t stressing about it as much), but I still wasn’t able to manage my classroom the way I needed to for my students to become the incredible writers I knew they could be. One day after school, I used the connecting door between our classrooms to pick the brain of the 8th grade reading teacher, Barb. Barb (different Barb than this Barb–apparently all the Barbs in my life have been amazing) was a 20+ year teacher who was supremely organized and one of the kindest, warmest people I’ve met. She took me under her wing immediately and was readily available for hugs and snacks whenever I needed them. On this particular occasion, she told me I needed to get my students’ attention–essentially that they were tuning me out–and I needed to captivate them any way I could. I legitimately taught class the entire next day while standing on a chair. Although this wasn’t a long-term fix, her advice was. I needed to quit thinking about what I thought I should do and start thinking about what my students needed from me. While I needed to maintain my high expectations, I had to be more nimble about how I could help my students meet them.
Over the course of the year, my students and I really hit our groove. While there were plenty of bumps along the way, I had a great team of folks to help me through them. My principal, Kenneth, was amazing–he believed in me, and though I was clearly very green, he was supportive and helped me through some tricky times. I cried in his office the first time I had to call Child Protective Services, and though he was obviously very busy, he sat with me as I made the phone call. He talked me through it when one of my most favorite students inexplicably demanded to be sent to the office and was suspended as a result, which I was very emotional about. And 3 years later, he supported me in developing a brand new curriculum and course for my students, despite the fact that it hadn’t been done before.
I would not have been the kind of teacher I was, and I wouldn’t have been as happy as I was, if not for the amazing team of educators backing me up. In turn, I was able to become a source of support over the course of my career for other teachers, whom I hope were able to do the same. Most of the lessons I learned my first year of teaching came the hard way, but they were made significantly easier because of my incredible colleagues. I learned a lot that year, but thanks to people like Barb, Vic and Kenneth, I grew into a strong teacher and my students learned a lot, too.
Nina Tinsley is the Director of Operations and Outreach at OneTeacher.
We’d love to hear about some of your colleagues who got you through the tough times! Comment with your stories below!