A Beginning Teacher on Her First Two Years
UPDATED: AUDIO CLIP ADDED
This post is by Kathleen Cushman. Her most recent book, with WKCD colleague Barbara Cervone, is Belonging and Becoming: The Power of Social and Emotional Learning in High Schools (Harvard Education Press).
"I knew it was going to be hard," Miriam told me, describing her first two years of teaching fourth and fifth grade in a hard-pressed urban district on the West Coast. Her eyes unexpectedly welled with tears. "But it's harder than you expect."
In a few days, Miriam would be back in the classroom again, and she clearly felt committed to her profession and her school. But she shook her head as she reflected on her induction years. Nothing could have prepared her beforehand, she said, for the first raw challenge of setting up and managing a classroom on her own.
"I would pretty much dread coming to school every day," she admitted. Children's disruptive behavior was the hardest, but even the little things could ruin her day. "I didn't think," she said, "that pencils were going to be something that I'd have to think about!"
Or how to line up . . . how to walk in the halls . . . how to turn and talk to your neighbor . . . what independent reading looks like. Entering her third year, Miriam had a clearer idea of such student routines. "We spend a lot of time practicing them," she said. "All these things went wrong, so now I know what I don't want it to look like."
Meeting Students Where They Are
For the previous two harrowing years, Miriam had also been practicing another skill: that of meeting students where they are. She decided to compile not just an academic learning profile for each child, but a social and emotional one as well.
As she put it, "For a child who does not understand what's going on in the classroom, it may make sense to attract attention as 'the disruptive kid' and not 'the stupid kid.'" She began to send her class positive signals in every way she could.
At the start of her second year, Miriam had students complete a survey that told her more about them, and then she let them interview her as well. Because her students seemed more focused in the morning, she began every day with a journal prompt and took pains to respond to what they wrote. To take the social-emotional temperature of the group, she initiated a morning "community circle" of sharing.
Most effective, she said, she began giving her fifth graders "every responsibility I have that they can take on," from giving out table points to lining up peers at the door. "They can handle a lot at that age," she noted. "They respond to each other, and they seem to care more about what their peers think than what their teacher or other adults think."
Taking Time to Grow Stronger
Meanwhile, Miriam's colleagues were also reaching out to her. A very experienced teacher who had taught her students in a previous year "came into my class and held a class meeting," she said, "to show me what it could look like with that very group of students." Other teachers planned lessons with her and "let me come into their classrooms and cry whenever I wanted."
As she girded herself for her third year in the classroom, Miriam was already making plans to nurture her own health and wellbeing. "In order to be there for my kids," she reflected, "I need to be there for myself."
Maintaining her own social and emotional balance, this beginning teacher discovered, definitely affected how she relates to her fifth graders. Step by step, she was growing in her practice. "And however ineffective I feel from time to time, my work feels important," she concluded. "That gets me through."
Listen to Miriam speak about her development as a teacher during her first two years:
Photo by Nick Whalen.