by Jasmine, 2nd grade teacher
“Trial by fire” is the phrase I think of when I reflect on my first two years as a teacher. I had amazing professors in college as well as a great cooperating teacher during my student teaching, but none of my experiences fully prepared me for leading my own classroom. Over the past two years I have learned many things but these are the four most important lessons I learned as a first and second year teacher.
- The classroom belongs to me.
Technically, I knew this but it took a while for me to embrace that my classroom could look like whatever I wanted it to. During student teaching, I was a guest in someone else’s class and I just had to make sure I didn’t destroy it. My first year was different. I got to set the tone and the culture of my room. The hardest part of accepting I was completely in charge was accepting that I had to take complete ownership of everything that was happening in my classroom, good and bad. If my students were working well in their groups and having great math talk discussions, it was because of the expectations I had set in place. If my students were off task and playing, it was because of what I allowed. I consider myself lucky to have student taught with a veteran teacher whose classroom ran like a well-oiled machine because it allowed me to devote my time to teaching.
- “That” student is coming.
Not only did he come, but when he got there, he was mine for the entire year. All 180 days because he was never absent. I didn’t teach that student until my second year and (lucky me) I three high maintenance children in the same year. None of my college courses taught me how to deal with the student who every adult in the building knew about, didn’t care about my classroom behavior system, and was determined to do whatever he wanted.
By no means do I consider myself a behavior management expert, but I can tell you how my little friends and I survived the year and they became my greatest advocates with their classmates:
- Build relationships: I do this with every student but I was much more deliberate about them. I set aside three minutes every morning for one on one conversations. While all my other students were completing morning work, he and I would just have a conversation about anything from football to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to wrestling. Every Tuesday and Thursday, the four of us were recess buddies. They would choose a game and we would play it together. On those days, they knew they would have my undivided attention and I knew exactly where they were at all times while we were outside.
- Understand the difference between equality and equity: Let’s face it, some students need more support than others and that is fine. By the end of the year, each one of my little friends had about 20 interventions in place. Students with behavior needs should be approached the same way as those with academic needs. As teachers, we are willing to put any intervention in place for those struggling academically and we should do the same for those struggling behaviorally. I want my students to experience success and for that to happen, scaffolding needs to be in place.
- Failure is okay.
The hardest thing for me was watching my students struggle, especially in math. For my first few months, whenever I would see kids struggle, I would step in to make the problems easier. I didn’t even realize what I was doing until my post-observation conference with my principal and she told me I was doing their thinking for them. After my next LAUNCH session, I began practicing teaching from the back of the room. I stopped giving answers and began asking more questions. I also physically moved myself to the back of my classroom. The move helped my students in a few different ways.
- It was harder for them to make eye contact with me. When students couldn’t get my attention, they had to persevere through the tough problems and think through the word problem.
- It let students take ownership of their learning. They became used to explaining their answers and were able to justify their answer as well as critique the explanations of their peers.
- It facilitated more student-student interaction. So often, students liked to give their answer and wait to hear praise for being correct. When I removed myself, they began looking for their classmates to respond to their work and the math discussion that resulted were amazing.
It’s important to us, as beginning teachers, to remember that failure is okay for ourselves as well. It used to be important to me to know the definitions of any word and be able to answer their questions. I wanted every lesson I taught to be perfect, but that’s not reality. My first year I taught a lesson about addition and subtraction fluency within 20. It was the worst lesson to have ever been taught. No one in the history of teaching had ever done worse but after reflecting on the lesson and tweaking it, the next day went so much better. I’ve realized it is okay to fail because that’s only making me a better teacher.
- Trust yourself.
Even though I only have two years of classroom experience, I am a professional. I know best practices. I have ideas that will benefit every 2nd grade student at my school. I am capable of contributing to my team. I can take on leadership roles within my school. I can teach. And so can you. One thing I struggled with is knowing that I am as valuable as any veteran teacher on my team. The hardest thing for me to do as a beginning teacher was trust myself enough to contribute to my team but I eventually realized I was shortchanging myself and my students by keeping ideas and information to myself.