Sep
04

Once Upon a Time, I WAS That Newbie

Every year, at the beginning of the school year, I remember my first year in Albemarle County.  I remember it for a lot of reasons, but as our tenth day of school approaches, I remember back to when I was a newbie and I got a job AFTER school started–so the 2 established classes of 30 got to each lose 10 kids to my new class. The teachers were what I call Crozetians–which means they had been here, they knew the community and families and school volunteers and all that other stuff that good teachers know about the culture of their school. So when I was hired, the principal gave me a few days to set up my room while school was going on and I got to learn my way around a little.

I was excited to begin with the kids.  (There’s a skunk story in there, but I’ll save it for another time.) I was getting 20 4th graders and had done student teaching in 4th grade, so I felt like I knew a bit about what I was doing. Plus, I was young, confident, enthusiastic and idealistic (none of which I’ve lost, except the young part!)

I have a good memory, but as any of you who teach know, when you’ve done it for a while, the years somewhat blur together. I remember which grade I taught someone in, but probably not the exact year. However, I bet I could pretty much name almost every, if not every, kid in that class, it made such an impression on me. You see, the two teachers had total control over which kids they put in my class.  I got ten from each of them. Yep, those of you who are veterans can suspect which ten I got from each classroom.

It took me until about January to have enough experience with the other two classes through sharing math and reading groups to realize my homeroom class make up was quite different from the others. I had no gifted kids–had some bright ones, but NONE of the top kids in the grade level. I knew the resource teacher well, as she worked with quite a few of my kids. I had a disproportionately high group of free and reduced lunch kids. I had no PTO officer parents or regular school volunteers in that class. I had two kids who were stepbrothers–one’s father had married the other’s mother and the families were NOT friendly to each other. (Did these two veterans TALK to each other about the kids they gave me????) I had the kids who everyone in the school knew because of their behavior. (I still have a vivid memory and picture in my mind of one boy in line jumping up to touch the clock on the hall wall and it falling and shattering all over the floor. THAT was fun to go report to the principal as a first year teacher.) I quit sending home book orders–I never even got the minimum order, while the others classes collected hundreds of points each month with their orders. When we went on field trips, I had to scrounge for parents to join us–the other classes always took some of my allocated parent seats, as I couldn’t fill them.

But you know, if you looked at those kids on paper–reading groups, past scores, etc.,–the classes looked relatively even.  It was the cultural knowledge–the things we teachers think about as we get a new class each year to label it in our minds as “easy” or “good” –or not–that made mine different.  It’s the community things–parents who volunteer, families who are known to support their kids at home or not, parents who buy from the book orders, kids who work hard or who have a work ethic or not, talkers/chatterers, socially adept kids (or not), behavioral issues, combos of kids to put together or not, kids who eat heathily –or who are overweight and prone to teasing–and on and on.  The two veterans had to have known what they were doing when they gave me the combo of kids they did.

I had a great year with those kids anyway.  I loved them–they were my first class in this school system and they laughed with me as I learned how to run a classroom, and they cried with me–especially as I read aloud “Where the Red Fern Grows.” (I’ve NEVER read that book aloud again–I’m too quick to tears reading sad things!)  They let me teach them and they taught me. My principal let me individualize my math program and they worked through the book at their own pace, so I had plenty of time to work with kids who needed it.  These kids reacted to my enthusiasm, my forward thinking and my love to become a really cool group of kids. That’s one of my favorite groups ever, and I love hearing about what they are doing now. In fact, I get to have kids of those kids in my current school sometimes–and two years ago, I had the kid of that boy who broke that clock. . . we laughed about that incident because he remembered it too!  He remembered me NOT yelling at him, but just saying something like, “Oh, Johnny.  Please go get the custodian before someone gets cut.” Previously one of his favorite ways to get attention, he said he never tried to jump up again. He just hadn’t thought before of the potential consequences of his actions.

I’d like to believe that teachers don’t think either about what giving a newbie teacher a hard class does. I’d like to believe it isn’t deliberate. But every year, when the tenth day approaches and I know schools in our district will be hiring some teachers to take overloads off of some grade levels, I worry about those teachers coming in and what kind of class they’ll get. I hope they’ll get a fair shake, but I worry they won’t. Why do we do this to our own?  Why do we do this to teachers new to our school or our grade, or our community??

We teachers are our own worst enemies sometimes.



9 Responses to “Once Upon a Time, I WAS That Newbie”

  1.   Katie Hellerman Says:

    Thank you for sharing this story. Is it that you have some distance from the experience of your first year that you can speak so peacefully about this “challenging” group of students? What were you like in the midst of it? If you weren’t so contemplative about it from the get-go, how many years did it take you to get there? Did you ever talk to the other teachers about giving you the group of students that you got? So many questions!

  2.   Paula White Says:

    Katie,
    I made peace that year, actually, because it was what it was and I had to go in each day and deal with what I had. I didn’t ever have conversations with those teachers about that experience because the next year I moved to 2nd grade and could then deal with the issue from afar. I’m always the voice in the building who insists the class lists are made with input from all people who work with the kids–SPED teachers, GT teachers, speech, P. E. , whomever. . .

    and yeah, I’ve always been contemplative…I really don’t know how to turn my brain off!

    Thanks for joining in my reflecting!

  3.   Jacob Martens Says:

    Paula:
    What a great story. I have been teaching teenagers for 14 years and I still remember students from my first year. Thank you.

  4.   Janelle Catlett Says:

    Hey Paula-
    My first year was similar, yet different. I was the 4th teacher these 6th graders had seen … and I was hired the week before Thanksgiving! But I lasted… The only materials in my 3rd floor room was chalk, a dusty tv and a wooden paddle!! I remember the assisted principal saying to me, one year here is equivalent to 5 years else where. I did learn lots, that’s for sure…

  5.   kirsten olson Says:

    Oh Paula! Beautiful as always. What I really resonate with especially is the way each student in that first class brings up a particular “something” in the teacher–they are a mirror to some part of ourselves we have to learn about–and how every day is a walk through fire. I have never been so exhausted as after my first year of teaching. And I meet for coffee with all those students now, many of whom are teachers!

    Thank you for this.

    Kirsten

  6.   Cole Says:

    I would like to say veteran teachers do it because they’d rather it be you than them, but I imagine there are multiple reasons for giving the newbies the hard to deal with kids. It may be that it’s almost like a hazing. Maybe the veteran teachers were treated the same way and think that if they had to do it you do to. Could be just testing your abilities, if you can teach the worst of the worst and not go insane then maybe you belong at that school. I think they should start letting a cpu randomly select the children so there is no question about the fairness. As a future teacher, I’m really hoping they institute that soon

  7.   Leigh Setser Says:

    Hi Paula! I really enjoyed reading your post! I will graduate with my elementary education degree in May of 2012 and I will be the newbie so this was very inspiring for me. I learned that you always have to make things work and things won’t always go as planned. I learned that you will do a lot of learning from your students as well. I also learned do not be quick to judge. I am glad you shared this story with us, it really has made me feel better about being a new teacher!

  8.   Carly Dougherty Says:

    Paula,
    I am currently a student at The University of South Alabama. I am taking an education media course and my teacher directed me to your blog. I am very nervous to start out as a teacher. I am terrified I will be horrible, have kids that don’t care and that I won’t make a difference. I would like to hope that more veteran teachers care about what you are saying. A new teacher on their first job is already nervous enough. Why give them a group of “overload” children that you don’t want? Why make it harder for the new teacher to adjust to what is going and who they are dealing with. This post is very inspirational. I am very excited about my journey as a teacher. There are always those students that don’t have the work ethic or don’t know how to apply themselves. There are those students who don’t have the family life we wish all children had. I only hope I can make a bond with those students nobody wants like you have. Thank you. You can also read my blog about this post and others I posted. Any comments or suggestions are very welcome. I am eager to learn from Veteran Teachers.

  9.   Katie Hellerman Says:

    (Paula I hope you don’t mind that I posted this here. It seemed relevant to everyone who has been a part of this thread :)

    Carly,

    I think you outlined pretty much every new teacher’s biggest fears. I don’t mean this in a bad way, but at some points in your teaching journey, you will be horrible, you will have kids who don’t care and you won’t make a difference you will be terrified. But in the same day as one of those things happens something miraculous could happen. You could give one student a smile that changes the course of their entire life. Teaching is not a static profession. I don’t think you ever reach a pinnacle, where every lesson you teach is like a TED talk. Teaching is mysterious because its success doesn’t just involve you, it involves other people (and in way the people they interact with too). While there are things you can do to push things toward the positive, there is no way to ultimately control whether you are going to have a great lesson or not.
    The best thing you can do, is not pin your happiness on the outcomes of your lessons or the responsiveness of your students. Focus instead on doing the best job you can do and on your passion for understanding the mysteries of being a teacher.

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