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Published in Print: September 5, 2001, as First Impressions

First Impressions

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Central Middle School started off the 2000-01 school year with five new teachers, clockwise from left: Stella Crase, Erik Beck, Brian Diacont, Kristy Settnek, and Melissa DiNardo.
—Allison Shelley

In the United States this fall, roughly 190,000 men and women are beginning their first assignments in teaching, a job that one career guide recently rated as more stressful than that of a decontamination technician at a nuclear-power plant. If current trends hold, nearly one in 10 of them will teach this year only; within three years, the attrition rate will double. In the meantime, by some estimates, these first-year teachers will put in 20 percent more hours than classroom veterans as they go about their work. And they will earn on average about $8,000 a year less than other professionals with similar education levels.

But statistics tell only a small part of the story. They don't reveal the incessant struggle of trying to keep a roomful of children focused on learning. Nor do they tell of endless forms to fill out, Sundays spent grading, or parents who are too quick to question a teacher's professional judgment or too preoccupied to take a hand in their children's education. At the same time, the numbers don't show the rewards that keep the vast majority of people in teaching once they enter the field: seeing kids become more thoughtful over time, reaching the one student nobody else could, and achieving the self-satisfaction that comes from gaining competence in a difficult job.

To relate some of how it feels to be a first-year teacher, Education Week tracked five novice educators at a Maryland middle school from September 2000 through June 2001. In periodic interviews, they divulged their ups and downs and what they were learning about their craft. Here are a few steps in their journey.


Stella Crase is holding two conversations at once. One is about chemistry, and she makes her point using multiple props: a paper bag, a 2-liter soda bottle, some dry ice. The thrust of the other conversation could be distilled into two words—"pay attention"—but it consumes almost as much energy.

Nearly every sentence she utters in explaining her demonstration ends with an interjection: "Guys, I'm waiting." "Shush, Matt. Worry about yourself." "Michael, is there something really funny you want to share with the rest of us?" "I'm giving you one more warning."

She raises her index finger to her pursed lips more than 20 times in as many minutes. Regardless of the tactic, the effect wears off in a few seconds, and the class again bolsters the theory of entropy—that the natural tendency of the universe is toward increasing disorder. As Crase pours the frozen carbon dioxide into the plastic bottle and lightly corks it, a boy in the back pipes up: "What if you do that wrong, and it blows up?"

It's Halloween, and the prospect of an evening spent hanging out with friends makes it especially hard for her students to concentrate on 7th grade science this morning. But two months into her first teaching post here at Central Middle School in Maryland's 75,000-student Anne Arundel County district, Crase knows this battle against chaos really never ends; it varies only in intensity. After all, these are middle school students. They've still got all the energy of younger kids, but possess considerably more mass. And for many, their main purpose in life right now is to socialize.

"I don't have a lot of bad kids," says Crase. "They just like to talk a lot."

Stella Crase: The novice learns how to use a reading program to get students excited about science.
—Allison Shelley

This is the job that Crase left a 10-year-long career in catering management and sales for. It's being "on stage" for virtually seven hours straight, each day. And that excludes the seemingly countless hours spent outside of class planning lessons, grading, and keeping accurate and up-to-date records for more than 100 students. It's giving extra attention to a child who's just lost a parent, or one who wants to learn but is struggling to overcome the effect an early-childhood head injury has had on his cognitive abilities. It's also waiting for that evidence that your work is paying off and your students are actually understanding more than they used to.

It's holding all this together without letting the job consume every free moment of your life.

"I think that teachers deal with far more variables than a rocket scientist," says Fred Jenkins, the principal at Central, which serves students in grades 6-8. "Putting a man on the moon was a much more controlled situation than being a teacher."

Including Crase, Jenkins has five new teachers working for him, out of a total teaching staff of 60. The turnover rate at Central in recent years is among the highest he can remember, and it's not hard to see why. Teachers from the baby boom are starting to retire, and their younger replacements are quicker to change jobs, or even careers, if they see a better opportunity.

Plus, teaching is simply harder than it used to be, Jenkins maintains. When he entered the profession 30 years ago, schools didn't have to prove their worth on state tests as they do now. Back then, students with little interest in academics were often assigned to vocational tracks, and those with serious learning difficulties frequently were excluded from mainstream classrooms. "It was a matter of presenting information and giving [students] time to practice and rework," says the principal, recalling what now seems like simpler times.

Today, his first-year teachers have about a dozen special education students each mixed into their classes. Rather than walk them through a textbook, as in the old days, the teachers are expected to assess continually each child's progress and adjust their instruction accordingly. And they're held more accountable for the results.

Despite the current teacher-recruitment challenge, Jenkins is happy with his quintet of rookies. Both Crase and Kristy Settnek, who teaches geography, have held other jobs and started their own families, so they know something about how to stay organized and to balance their obligations at work and at home. Spanish teacher Erik Beck and Melissa DiNardo, who teaches geography and ancient civilization, are recent graduates of highly regarded teacher-preparation programs in Pennsylvania, one of a few places where a teacher glut means many young educators leave the state for their first assignments.

Math teacher Brian Diacont also has a lot going for him, though he's the only one of the five who lacks a full teaching license. In fact, he majored in history. He did, however, take several math courses in college and has worked as a math tutor and a substitute teacher. Jenkins acknowledges he'd rather have someone fully credentialed, but math teachers are especially scarce these days. So the principal is betting that Diacont can fill the role, provided he gets extra support. As someone working under a "provisional" teaching certificate, he's got four years to complete all the requisite education and math coursework to become licensed.

"Quite honestly, he's going to need some help, and we're going to give it to him," the principal says.

Fortunately, Central isn't the toughest place to teach. A few minutes south of Annapolis—Maryland's capital—and about four miles inland from the Chesapeake Bay's western shore, Edgewater and the surrounding community are a mix of blue-collar workers and professionals. Few are either superaffluent or extremely poor. There's no need for metal detectors. Nearly all the school's 1,060 students speak English. And while the kids often seem rebellious, appearances can be deceiving. Few, for instance, dare to use curse words in front of staff.

"For the first year I was teaching, I was hoping I would end up in a school like this, so I could learn to teach, and not just deal with behavior situations," says Crase, echoing a sentiment made by nearly all her fellow recruits. "I just want to learn how to be a good teacher."

Even at such a typical suburban school, though, there's plenty to get used to. Take the daily schedule, which itself has five variations. There are "team study days," days with "one-hour special programs," "delayed openings," "early dismissals," and, of course, the "regular schedule." To confuse matters further, some periods are different lengths for different classes of students, depending on their lunch schedules. So the school's bell—which sounds like an old office telephone played through a megaphone—doesn't always mean the end of class for your students. "Is that our bell?" is common refrain here.

The school building itself presents challenges. From the outside, Central is a hulk of red brick and smoke-colored glass that looks as if it could stand a good chance of surviving a nuclear blast. Inside, it reflects the "open school" model in vogue when it was built in the mid-1970s. Based on the concept that traditional classrooms were too confining, the architecture allows for two or more classes to be held simultaneously in different areas of the same expanse.

Erik Beck: To help balance his lifestyle, the Spanish teacher coaches track at the nearby high school.
— Allison Shelley

These days, though, teachers at Central set up sliding partitions, cubicle walls, bookcases, and anything else they can find to create the sense of separation that the school's designers tried so hard to eliminate. Their best efforts notwithstanding, the class next door is a frequent source of noise and distraction for many teachers.

"I try to tune them out, but it's hard," says DiNardo, the social studies teacher. "Four walls and a door are what you need. I don't think I'll ever get used to this."

The amount of paperwork also gets in the way. Attendance must be recorded in each class, and students need to be written up when they're late. If a youngster loses his book, forms are filled out for both the missing text and the new one. Triplicate documents are required when a student's behavior gets to the point where he or she needs a "referral" to be sent to the office.

Then there are the notices on everything—from which students will be out for field trips to which parts of the grounds are about to be sprayed with pesticides. Particularly time-consuming, though necessary, are the "individualized education plan" forms, with which teachers document the progress of special education students.

"The kids didn't surprise me," says Diacont, the math teacher. "They were pretty much what I expected. I didn't expect to have 2 trillion pieces of paper handed at me. Every time I go to my box, I don't care what time of day it is, I have something new in there."

For new teachers, the demands on their time are especially intense. Experienced educators typically have honed efficient routines. They've also created a reserve of successful lesson plans and mastered their classroom-management techniques. Freshman teachers start from scratch. Here in Anne Arundel County, the district's curriculum guides spell out the content for each course, but it's up to each teacher to figure out how to cover it all.

Even at a school like Central, where many of the veteran educators are quick to offer advice when asked, the new recruits spend considerable time engaged in invention. Teaching is both a science and an art, and what works for one teacher won't always work for another. In this first year on the job, they need to find themselves professionally, and that takes considerable effort. As Settnek, the geography teacher, observed the first week of school: "I know what the theorists like [Howard] Gardner and [Robert] Slavin say about teaching, but I don't know yet what my teaching style is."

For most of the rookies at Central this year, the typical workday looks something like this: Arrive at school by 7:30 a.m., teach five periods, monitor the halls between classes, take 25 minutes for lunch (sometimes while helping to supervise the cafeteria), and have 55 minutes "free" to plan lessons, correct homework, call parents, or give a struggling student one-on-one help.

Kristy Settnek: The geography teacher comes to the profession after changing careers and starting a family.
— Allison Shelley

Most days, the students' last bell rings at 2:40 p.m., after which the teachers might stay about two more hours, but that varies. Diacont, who began the year with the most to learn about the job, says he frequently stays until 8 p.m. to try to keep from falling behind. At home, the teachers usually do about an hour more of work before falling into bed between 9 p.m. and 10 p.m.

"There has not been one night when I can just not do work, when I can do nothing and just relax," says DiNardo, who shares her breakneck schedule with three roommates—also first-year teachers at other schools.

Amid all this, the beginners start to see some bright spots, even in the first couple of months. A "math resource teacher" assigned from the district office to assist Diacont gives him a good review, and one of his students asks him to come see him play football one Saturday. DiNardo gives her e-mail address to her 6th graders, and some actually get in touch with her outside of class about their schoolwork.

"The times when I feel this is a wonderful day is when a kid that I haven't gotten anything out of, or who hasn't been on task, all of a sudden understands what's being taught, and that's happened," says Settnek. "You know you might not reach them the whole rest of the year, but you've got them that one day."


After six days off for winter break, the five new teachers return to work with pledges to take better care of themselves. The long hours of the fall had meant each had given up something important, like exercise, parenting time, or sleep. "My goal is to stay healthy so that I can come in here every day," DiNardo says.

Similarly, Beck, the Spanish teacher, has set new boundaries. He won't let himself do any school-related work on Friday nights or Saturdays, which he calls his "recovery time." He's also started coaching winter track at South River High School, next door to Central. Although taking up valuable time, he finds the extra job actually helps keep him sane. It's forced him to be efficient with his time, and the afternoons working with older students are a welcome relief after five periods spent struggling to hold the attention of younger adolescents.

"It's like a release of everything," Beck says. "I can go over there and have fun with the kids. They're more mature, and that's a huge thing. And I can see that these kids here might be smart alecks now, but they're going to change, and they'll actually grow up in a couple years."

The five also have new teaching goals. By midyear, they're feeling fairly comfortable in their work. Most aren't caught up enough to have lessons planned a week ahead of time—as they'd like to—but they've learned they're capable of doing enough preparation, even if it takes place the night before. With some semblance of a routine established, most are now aiming to be more venturesome in their instruction.

"At the beginning, I just wanted to get through my first year of teaching," Beck says. "And I've changed in my perspective from that kind of survival mode to now where I want to focus on refining everything, and really honing my skills, and trying to do everything a little better every time."

Back in October, for instance, Beck had his 8th graders try to write letters in Spanish, but once he got them back, he realized the students would have gotten more out of the exercise had he provided more precise instructions. So when he gave a similar assignment early in the winter, he specified what kind of information had to be in the introduction, the body, and the conclusion. He also included a new cultural lesson, by attaching the completed letters to balloons. (Traditionally, Mexican children send their holiday wishes by balloon.)

Sometimes, the gear-changing takes place over the course of a day, or even within a single class. Once, while discussing Russia's financial crisis, DiNardo spent the early part of the day trying to explain how a country's economy could become so volatile. But after two periods, she knew the lesson—a mix of lecturing and Socratic method—was falling flat. So when an idea popped into her head at the start of the next period, she quickly told everyone in the class to pull out a sheet of paper, which they tore into pieces to use as credit for making investments. Within minutes, the students were moving around the room, eagerly engaged in the "irrational exuberance" of stock trading.

Melissa Dinardo: One sign that the social studies teacher is progressing is her ability to shift gears in the middle of a lesson.
—Allison Shelley

"So I think they got a better understanding of how it works, because they could get up and become involved in the process," DiNardo says. "That's what I think a lot of teaching is—you improvise as you go."

"There's so much written about education," she adds. "Every time you look around there's a new theory knocking on your door. But you do what you think is best."

For the most part, this inventiveness takes place in isolation, however. The new teachers at Central, along with their counterparts at most other American schools, have few formal opportunities to learn from more experienced colleagues. The district's budget has no money to pay for an official mentor for each novice. Extra support generally is arranged in special cases, such as the assistance that Diacont has received.

As a result, some of the new teachers have actually acquired an appreciation for the building's "open school" design. It means they can stick their heads into the next space and ask advice, even on something as commonplace as making a judgment call about whether or how to discipline a student.

Several have also adopted veteran teachers in the building as unofficial mentors. Crase, for instance, spends nearly every lunch period in the science-department room talking shop with colleague Bob Miller. Having taught science for three decades, Miller knows which concepts are the hardest to teach, and he offers advice on how to break them down into small enough pieces for young minds to grasp.

"He's got more tricks up his sleeve than I do," she says. "If I didn't have him to go to for help, I would probably be teaching by the book, and only later realize what I should have been doing."

Jenkins is trying to organize better professional- development opportunities for his staff. This year, he's instituted "collaborative-learning groups" in which teachers pick one area of professional growth—such as the use of new technology in the classroom—and pursue it in teams over a period of months. Each group researches its own topic and meets regularly to share ideas and experiences.

For some of Central's new teachers, the project has had a tangible effect on their instruction. Beck, who joined a team that's studying cooperative learning, has rearranged his classroom so that students sit in small clusters, and he's noticed that they often respond better when the class involves some group work. Meanwhile, Crase is working with a team that's looking at self-selected reading. The idea behind the strategy is that students are more interested in learning when they can choose the materials themselves. The shelves in her room are now lined with short books on such topics as the brain, sharks, and volcanoes.

After trying the approach for a few weeks, the science teacher is a true believer. Students who seem almost incapable of staying focused during a lecture now beg for the chance to read up on their favorite subject, even though they must write a short journal entry on each book.

"It's to the point where if we're doing something else, they'll say, 'Oh, why aren't we reading today?' " Crase says. "To me, that's a real accomplishment—to get them to be open-minded and positive about reading."

But for every hole in one, there are several shots when the teachers feel like throwing their clubs in the water hazard. And often, it seems, the biggest sand traps are the students themselves. Still possessed of a rookie's sense of idealism, many of the new teachers at Central want to be innovative. They strive for new ways to keep their classes lively and engaging. But often, they find, lab work or group projects devolve into chaos.

"In all honesty, some of them behave best and do what they're supposed to when they are copying notes from the overhead and reading from the textbook, which is so old-school," DiNardo says of some of her students. "And that just blows my mind."

Indeed, ask new teachers to vent on the subject of their choice, and students' classroom behavior usually wins top billing. Some students find any excuse to walk to the pencil sharpener or the trash can. They often raise their hands just to tattle on a classmate, and they question every punishment, even when meted out after numerous warnings. Says Beck: "You hear so many little, whiny comments that it weighs on you by the end of the day."

But by midwinter, the student behavior has become like bad traffic on a daily commute for most of the new teachers. It's still there, and they still don't like it, but they're learning to cope with the situation. They've devised ever-evolving systems of demerits and rewards—some borrowed from colleagues—to keep students in line as much as possible.

"The kids in the beginning would get on my case," says Diacont, "and now it's more relaxed. I can actually get through it and enjoy it."

Also by the middle of the academic year, the five teachers are no longer the most inexperienced in their building. In the winter, Principal Jenkins loses two seasoned teachers, both of whom leave for the private sector and are replaced by freshman teachers. One of the newcomers is, like Diacont, a math teacher who lacks a teaching license. The other replaces Drew Stevenson, a social studies teacher who was the source of considerable sage advice for Diacont in his first few months on the job.

On one of his last days at Central, when his colleagues hold a pizza party in his honor, the 36-year-old Stevenson notes he's sad to leave, but feels he has little choice. He and his wife just had their first baby, and he wants to earn enough money so that she needn't go back to work full time right away. In his new job in the sales department of an educational software company, he'll earn more than $10,000 above what he makes now.

"I love the kids," Stevenson says. "They're cool kids, and will, I think, become really interesting people. ... I hope I can come back to it, someday."


At 6 feet 5 inches tall, Erik Beck towers over the river of students streaming past him as he monitors the hall outside his class between periods. He scans the masses and, in a baritone voice, issues reminders to slow down. Occasionally, he takes off after an oversize middle schooler who bounds through the building like a receiver intent on making a touchdown.

Today, he spots a 6th grader who'll begin taking Spanish next year. Several weeks ago, she greeted him with a "hey, homie," as she passed, and Beck took the few minutes before the start of the next class to teach her how to say "hello," "how are you?" and "I'm fine" in Spanish. Now, he sees the chance to find out if it stuck. "¿Cómo estás?" he asks.

"Whatever," she shrugs as she passes. Beck tilts his head. Win some, lose some.

By this point in the year, though, Beck and his cohort of fellow first-time teachers at Central have noticed something that amazes them at times. Many of their students have actually learned much of what they've been taught. It struck Beck when he overheard some of his students mention that they were e-mailing each other in Spanish, even though that was never an assignment. "I just recently started thinking that, you know what, they know a lot more than they did at the beginning of the year," says the foreign-language teacher.

Sometimes, it's an entire class that buckles down and gets to work, or it might just be one kid. By May, Melissa DiNardo is feeling especially good about a student who had once been one of her most difficult 7th graders. The boy has moderate learning difficulties, but his smart-aleck remarks made him a leader in a particularly rambunctious class. At first, he rarely did any of his social studies assignments. Rather than just scold him, DiNardo made it clear that she believed he was capable of good work. Now, he's earning a high B in her class.

"That was so hard, because I had 29 other kids in here, and he was taking up all my time," DiNardo says. "But I didn't care, because I thought during those times, I may not be changing the other 29, but at least I got one kid. He's still failing the rest of 7th grade, but he's not failing my class. And that's one I'm proud of."

On balance, the 2000-01 school year has included more successes than failures for the new teachers, but they know there's room for improvement. Next year, DiNardo says she wants to find ways to react more intelligently, and less emotionally, when students act up. It's been hard not to take the many affronts personally, especially when she suspects that many of her male students do so, in part, because they've learned little respect for the authority of women.

Early in the new year, Stella Crase, the science teacher, wants to spend time evaluating who among her students is mature enough to handle lab work and who needs to be eased into it. She doesn't want to repeat an incident that took place in the winter when she tried to have her students make "gooblek"—a squishy substance that resembles something called "Gak" that's sold in many toy stores. The exercise became a disaster in which Elmer's Glue—one of the main ingredients—wound up on all her classroom counters. "It was a nightmare," she says.

For math teacher Brian Diacont, the year took such a toll that by early spring he had already decided to leave the profession at the end of the school year. The extra help he got from many of his colleagues often made the work bearable. But he never got used to all the hours that go into preparing lessons and keeping track of paperwork. And given the energy he put into his job, he sometimes felt himself losing patience with parents who either criticized his best efforts or who lobbied for a higher grade for their children. "I had a parent tell me that her daughter didn't listen to me because her daughter didn't like me," he says.

"It's just definitely not the job for me," Diacont adds. "There's too much paperwork and after-school hours. I don't mind working 50 or 60 hours here, but once I'm done, I want to be done. And that's not the case here. You're never really done with this, ever."

The others have their gripes, too, but for them, the past year has confirmed their career choice. Despite the student-behavior issues, the teachers have found they really do like working with kids. When their students are enjoying school is when they most enjoy their jobs. And while their schedules can be grinding, they know they're doing important work. "Twenty years from now," DiNardo says, "these kids are going to remember something you said to them."

It rains on the last day of school, thwarting plans by some teachers to hold classes outdoors. Instead, they run out the final hours of the year playing games or watching videos. Crase reads to her students from one of their favorite books, There's a Hair in My Dirt, by Gary Larson, the author of the "Far Side" comic strip. By now, the teachers have collected their students' textbooks and returned the materials they borrowed from the school library. Many have already stripped their walls of posters, student work, and class rules.

The no-longer-new teachers feel both relief and sadness. They get hugs from many of their students, even a few who gave them some of the greatest grief during the year. DiNardo's chalkboard is covered with fond farewells: "Hey, I am going to miss you next year," "Keep wearing those nice clothes," and "HAGS!," middle school shorthand for "have a great summer." Beck receives a couple of thank-you letters from parents, including one from the mother of a student whose father died suddenly during the winter. "Thanks," she writes, "for providing a bright spot in a most difficult year."

But there's also no denying that the teachers are ready for a break. Even a summer job will seem like downtime compared with the past nine months. Crase plans to teach art at a summer camp where she's worked before. DiNardo hopes to teach at a summer program for high school students, but not before she's had a week at the beach with her roommates.

Only a few days into the summer, Beck decides to accept an offer to teach Spanish to elementary school students in a district outside Philadelphia. He was happy at Central Middle School, but wants to move closer to his hometown. The change also will boost his salary by about $2,000. His boss at Central, Fred Jenkins, is understanding, but it hurts. He's lost two of five first-timers after a single year. He hopes he can do better in the 2001-02 academic year, when he again has five first-year teachers on his staff.

"I have high hopes for all of them," he says. "Will they be successful? We'll have to wait and see."

Vol. 21, Issue 1, Pages 48-54

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