Like most teachers, I struggled my first year. My mentor, a veteran teacher, told me before my first day of classes to not show too much emotion, be overzealous, or do too much on the first day.
As I walked away from his classroom door, he shouted, “Don’t smile until Christmas.” I responded back with a smirk, while simultaneously trying to appear confident.
The maxim echoed in my head, “It’s always better to be over-prepared than under prepared.”
I wasn’t too worried when I entered my classroom. I spent 12 hours prepping for one 90-minute lesson, designing an impeccable five-step lesson plan, typed in Times New Roman and 12 point font. Standing in front of my bathroom mirror, I rehearsed each word I was going to say on my first day of teaching.
My handouts and name tents were laid out nicely on a table by the classroom door. My objectives were clearly written and visible on the upper left hand corner of my chalkboard, and the student desks were positioned perfectly. They allowed just enough mobility for me to efficiently redirect misbehaviors. I was told to expect a lot of those.
Even though a million thoughts were racing through my head, from pedagogical and classroom management strategies, to remembering my content, I kept telling myself, “You got this. You’re ready. You’ve read Harry Wong’s, The First Days of School: How to be an Effective Teacher.”
As I was making a few last minute changes to my board configuration, the bell rang. I quickly scurried to my door, clipboard in hand with my scripted lesson plan and student roster.
My students approached the door, and I smiled and greeted each and every one with a firm handshake.
When the tardy bell rang, I opened the class with an enthusiastic, “Good morning class,” as if the 24 ounce venti Starbuck’s coffee I drank that morning had just hit my central nervous system.
Most of my students stared back at me with a stone cold look. A skeptical student shouted out, “Is this your first year teaching?” A few students chuckled in the back.
My face turned beat red; I responded a bit too loudly, “No!” I could quickly tell from my students’ facial expressions that they weren’t buying what I was trying to sell them.
After I missed an opportunity to redirect the class back to the lesson, I tried to regain my composure by telling the joke I had prepared as a contingency plan in case I encountered a situation like this. In my script, after the joke, I had even written down “student laughter.”
No one laughed. I glanced at my clipboard and lesson plan. I did not have another contingency plan.
Over the course of the next 85 minutes, everything fell apart. My mind started racing, and I was rattled. A slew of problems unfolded. A student took out his mp3 player, and while I tried to quell that disruption, another student started to chat with his neighbor.
That one student’s question and my response to that question had triggered a chain reaction of misbehavior.
It was over. I could not recover. My plan was completely disrupted, and there was no turning back. I did not have the situational awareness that you gain from teaching experience to adapt or modify my plan off-the-cuff, let alone respond appropriately to different types of misbehavior.
The only thing I accomplished that lesson was a poorly executed icebreaker, which in hindsight, probably wasn’t the best activity to do on the first day of school. My students knew I was a rookie, and I lied to them. Unfortunately, this mistake, coupled with a poorly executed class, set the tone for the entire semester.
Later that first month, I had a conversation with my mentor teacher. He told me “Dave, you’re a smart guy, but no matter how hard you work this year, you just aren’t going to be a good teacher. The best you can do this year is to survive and not quit, and hopefully your kids will learn a few things along the way.”
I thought to myself arrogantly, “This old goat doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
Once I had developed my skills as a teacher, I had the privilege to be a mentor myself, and I observed the same naivete among the young teachers I counseled. The adjustment from student to teacher is difficult for high-achievers. Many of them are not used to failure or haven’t been in situations where all the variables that lead to success cannot be controlled.
According to psychologists Simon and Chase, “Cognitively complex activities like teaching take many years to master because they require that a very long list of situations and possibilities and scenarios be experienced and processed.”
This does not mean without teaching experience, you’re doomed to failure, or that proper training and on-going professional development are not needed when supporting and developing new teachers. Just like differentiating for students, all teachers need differentiated support and professional development throughout their careers.
During my first year, I needed someone to help me with the fundamentals of teaching. It helped early on that my mentor teacher recognized I was trying to do too much in my classroom. I was thinking about too many things, and I thought I could be a great teacher in my first year with only hard work and preparation. He thankfully redirected me to focus first on understanding my students and their academic ability, which would, in turn, help me to manage my classroom more effectively.
Once my class was under control, I could then focus on more challenging tasks such as pacing and varying the complexity of my questions during a lesson cycle.
Teachers and students need time to develop appropriately, and when you adapt to their needs, you set them up for success.