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'Here I Am -Instant Teacher'

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Jacqueline Bernard, 24, has been teaching behaviorally disordered students for three years. Her first year was at Bloomington South High School in Bloomington, Ind. Now she is working with 6th, 7th, and 8th graders at Lincoln School in Brookfield, Ill.

On the first day, we had a faculty meeting and a department meeting, and I remember thinking, "Oh my God, here I am. Instant teacher." Although I was well prepared, it didn't really hit me until I was in there with the faculty that I was responsible for these kids and their education. It was a shock.

In the beginning, I was gung ho about making a good impression. I wanted other teachers to see that I was a good teacher and that it didn't matter if I was only 21. I wanted to prove that I was hired for a reason.

student and asked me for a pass. That was funny. But another incident bothered me. I had gotten permission for my students to use one of the computers that was stationed near my room. One day, I heard an older teacher telling the administrator that "those" kids and their teacher shouldn't be using the computers. "They're going to misuse them," she said.

As soon as she left, I assured the administrator that she could have confidence in me.

What saved me was the support from the other special-education teachers. I didn't have to hunt them out. They knew that I was new, and they really extended their hands. That's the reason I never really felt lost. They showed me what textbooks and materials to use.

Also, I was assigned to another special-education teacher as part of a mentor program. I picked up a lot from her. She had been there a long time and knew a lot of the kids I had. She helped in locating appropriate materials and getting background on kids. I'd have questions, and we'd talk about what was going on--what was working and what wasn't.

Once, I had to turn one of my kids in for smoking. She was a streetwise kid in trouble who had touched both me and my aide. We had developed a relationship. When I turned her in, she stopped trusting me. For her, that was it. I tried writing her a letter, but she threw it back in my face. My mentor and I talked a lot about that issue and how I felt.

My greatest concern was about providing appropriate goals and education for my kids. I would take a look at curriculum and take a look at individual students and think, "How long will they stay in school? If they are going to finish, what do I want them to be able to finish? What do they want?" Being able to adapt curriculum to meet individual students' needs at times was really hard to do. I wanted to give them what they would need.

I had one student who was really low academically. I was trying to stick with the regular education curriculum and I realized that it wasn't doing anything for him. He needed calculator skills; he didn't need to know how to do long division on paper. But it was hard for me to feel O.K. about adapting the curriculum. Then it was like a light bulb flashed on because I saw that other teachers--even regular education teachers--had to deal with the same problem. I got support and ideas from other teachers--they agreed. That's where my mentor came in handy again--she had a lot of survival-skill materials.

It was also hard not to take things personally. I had three dropouts that year. They turned 16 and dropped out not only because they were 16, but also because they had behavior problems and didn't want to deal with the consequences of that. Some of my students had legal problems--theft and aggressive behavior. And that was always frustrating. It killed me because I knew that they would never come back.

When I first started, I kept asking myself, "What could I do to prevent this?" I came out of college and was so excited and thought I was going to do all these great things.

I had unrealistic visions of changing the students' family. One of my goals was to call and stay in touch with the parents all the time. On the first day, I called all my parents to introduce myself, then on the third day I called to have a quick update. I told one parent that I was enjoying having her son in class, and she was shocked. She said that nobody had ever called her to say something nice about her son. I'll never forget that.

But I found I couldn't keep up. And parents weren't always available.

I spent long hours at school my first year. I would get to school before 8 and stay really late because there was so much I wanted to do. I spent a lot of time in communication with other teachers and with parents. And I wanted to have everything ready for the kids each morning. That first year it was non-stop, round-the-clock with kids. That's the way I wanted it to be.

But toward springtime it got to a point where I was taking home bags of books. My fiancé would get frustrated with me for working in the evenings. At first it troubled me because I thought my job was my life. But then, I started to internalize what he said. And other teachers told me that I had to take time for myself.

And I finally realized that I couldn't do everything myself. I saw that so many of the "regular" kids had the same problems. It's not the six or seven kids in my room; there are vast numbers of kids with problems.

I began to realize that I couldn't change the way their home life has been for 16 or 17 years. I could give them the best education and resources, but I would not have the final impact. No matter how far I stretch myself, it won't make a difference all the time. I learned that my first year and I still believe it now.

You don't have to go above and beyond every day. I think overall you do, but you can't do it every day. Now there is a specific time that I get here and a specific time when I try to leave. My time is precious. I say "no," which I never did before.

On weekends, it doesn't have to be school all the time. I play tennis and develop my interests. This year, I'm much better in the classroom because I'm taking the time that I need for myself.

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