When they looked back, teachers remembered moments of poignancy, joy, and struggleand sometimes the fear of the unknown. But all seemed somehow transformed, even emboldened, by their first year teaching.
What stands out is the teachers' untainted optimism, which is repeatedly put to the test and yet emerges intact. The other striking quality is how privileged these teachers feel in serving children.
"When the bell rang at 8:15 a.m. on August 28th, a new reality entered my mind. Parents stopped by the classroom to familiarize themselves with the new third- and fourth-grade teacher in the village. Some of the concerned looks I spied on the parents' faces as they left their children were heartfelt. Breaking out in a cold sweat, I realized the amount of trust the parents were handing over to me. There was one term that entered my mind, 'in loco parentis,' a legal term meaning in place of the parents. I was taking on the responsibility of a parent! Following the first day, I expressed my concern to a fellow teacher and he replied, 'Encargada!' He explained how this is a Spanish term often said in Mexico by parents when they are putting their child's life in a teacher's hands. It means we are handing our child over to you and now you are in charge. Wow! What a responsibility. A couple of weeks passed and I was still in shock. . . . I tried to create a nurturing, educational and safe environment for these studentsthen I would be fulfilling my job as an educator, right? Surprisingly, I still felt the responsibility 24 hours a day! Teaching wasn't only my job, it was fast becoming my lifestyle."Scott D. Niemann, 3rd and 4th grades, Alaska
"I pictured an idyllic classroom; students busily scratching away at original poetry, analytical discussions of Herman Hesse and Sylvia Plath, debates which lasted far after the bell rang. I should have supposed from my interview at Hunters Lane [High School] that my experience might not match my expectations. The position available was in a room where two tenured teachers had already quit, and the students had tried to superglue their last sub to his desk. In a way, I was luckier than I knew to have had such a challenge. I wouldn't have been the first teacher to fail in that classroom. I began teaching with the idea that if I was terrible at it, no one would know. There was no pressure. I spoke to my students as I had hoped my teachers would have spoken to me when I was in high school. I did the types of activities that kept me interested, that I found enjoyable, that made materials I myself wasn't proficient in learnable, concise, and fun. Turns out, my students enjoyed it, too. By not feeling I had to, I ended up teaching better than I thought I could. My first year has been as disappointing as it was rewarding, though. . . . I have lost and found hope, reviewed and revised, and finally concluded that my presence here is much more important than I had thought it would be."Catherine McTamaney, 9th-12th grades, Tennessee
"Along with being the 'mender of hurts,' where does the mender go to get mended? Teaching is an exhausting job (this was not a surprise). I did not, however, expect to be emotionally exhausted. I suppose the easiest way out of this dilemma would be to make myself emotionally unavailable to my students and become a true teaching machine void of any feelings. The maker of excellent lesson plans and doer of fantastic scholastic deeds. I could teach those children like they have never been taught before. I have no feelings! You can't hurt me! Don't tell me your problems, I am teacher! Teachers don't do feelings and emotionswe teach. . . . Not this teacher. This teacher can't help but share in some of those emotional moments. Maybe that's why they come to me so often. I can't turn off a portion of myself when I walk into the classroom. It's either the whole Mrs. Baer or nothing. And the whole Mrs. Baer needs to learn where she can go to remain whole. Could I have learned this at KSU (Kent State University)? I sincerely doubt it. This one I need to figure out by myself."Allison L. Baer, 4th-6th grades, Ohio
"My education warned me about the kid who claims that the dog ate the homework but not about the kid who was up all night in the emergency room with her sister who was stabbed. We are taught to teach students, but not people who live in a very real, very scary world. Gangs, broken homes, violence, and fear. These are the unwritten realities of the teaching profession. I was not prepared for the huge responsibility of being a part of this safe place we call school. I came to my position with a strong background in my subject area, realistic expectations regarding student work, and a great deal of caring and drive. I never expected to be a part of what is often the only structure, safety, security, and sanity my students experience in a day. I consider myself privileged to be in a position to have such a positive impact on the lives of my students."Lisa M. Shipley, 7th and 8th grades, Missouri
"Working with my special education students has been particularly rewarding. Rosie, an autistic child, talks to me now and can say her name. Possibly she could have reached these milestones in another classroom, but it happened in mine. What greater joy can a teacher feel than to witness a child's successes?"Michelle L. Graham, kindergarten and 1st grade, Minnesota
"Eric was a likable student, and although he participated in discussion, he was often distracted. He rarely turned in assignments and had yet to turn in an essay assignment. He was friendly and responsive when I would greet him at the door, but whenever I wanted to talk about his writing, he would become distant. It was obvious that he had a confidence problem in regards to his writing skills and I soon found out why. He told me that he had failed every writing class he'd taken and that his last teacher told him, 'There was no hope,' and that she could tell, 'He didn't learn a thing in her class.' . . . I began to focus on building his confidence by giving him non-threatening writing assignments supplemented with pats on the back and extra smiles. In particular, I created situations in which I knew he could succeed. Within weeks, Eric began turning in both regular writing assignments. And every chance I got I tried to relate to him in a positive way. Not everything we talked about had to do with his work. In fact, most of our interaction was about everyday life. But I saw Eric growing. He discussed more in class, turned in assignments on time, and most importantly, began writing again."Rebecca Baumann, 9th-11th grades, Michigan
"My first year of teaching has been full of many wonderful surprises. I never knew the average teenage girl's voice could hit such octaves. I never expected to reach a point in my life where I would yearn for my bed at 9:30 every night. I was not prepared for the moment I first heard myself ask, 'Does anyone in class not think that spitting on the floor is inappropriate behavior?' But most of all, I never thought that teaching would be such an exhilarating and rewarding career, continually pushing me in my quest to be a master educator. . . . My job is creeping into every aspect of my life. How many people can pick up a box of corn flakes and have it trigger an idea for a lesson plan about government regulation? . . .Teaching stimulates my creative juices like nothing I have ever experienced. . . . Finally, there is one last bit of wisdom that I would like to pass on to colleges regarding the first year of teaching. Don't focus in on the negative side of the profession. I must have spent hours listening to first year teachers, who appeared gaunt, malnourished and exhausted, drone on about how they were 'coping.' It's no wonder that so many potentially good teachers are scared off so early. Reinforce the intrinsic rewards that teaching offers. Stress that as a teacher you will experience the satisfaction of knowing you make a difference, the ability to have a marked effect on the life of an emerging adult, and the excitement of advancing young minds. These are the things I did not expect."Jeffrey Breedlove, 10th-12th grades, Kansas
"Teachers are the last bastion against darkness and ignorance. The intensity of this need was my surprise, and I know of no way even Kennesaw [State College], in all its excellence, could prepare me for this life lesson. Only being a caring teacher can."James W. Morris, 5th grade (inclusive), Georgia
"All of my life, my career goal was to become a professional football player. After tryouts for both the National and Canadian Football Leagues, my lifetime dream began to fade. . . . I knew, however, that with the help of God, I would choose another career that would give my life meaning; enable me to give back to my people; and emerge a stronger person with a sense of purpose. What better career could there be than that of an elementary school physical education teacher, just like my father who dedicated 35 years of his life to the boys and girls of the DC School system? . . . From the first moment that I was alone with a class, there was no doubt in my mind that these students needed me, my experience, energy and dedication. Using the curriculum and other materials provided me by the DC [District of Columbia] School system, those I developed, and of course, those of my dad, I would create a meaningful instructional program and an environment filled with unlimited love and respect."Neal Downing, prekindergarten-6th grade, Washington, DC