How I Survived My First Year as a Teacher

By Jessica Shyu — May 08, 2008 3 min read

Every teacher struggles during his or her first year on the job and faces moments of doubt and confusion. There are numerous ways to get through these crises. An avid reader, I naturally turned to books for help. Here are a few that saved me.

Decoding Skills

Teaching Phonics and Word Study In The Intermediate Grades by Wiley Bevins lit the light at the end of the tunnel for me in my first year of teaching middle school special ed. For someone who managed to inspire friends and family to donate over 1,000 books over two years to my classroom, it’s pretty embarrassing to admit that for the first two months, my reading class consisted of students rolling around the floor and listening blankly to my explanations of prefixes and root words. None of the kiddos could decode words at the 3rd grade level and most didn’t know what a long-a sounded like.

It was bad and I didn’t have a concrete way to break down basic decoding instruction. Then I went to a fabulous Teach For America session where I was introduced to the won-derful world of chunking, prefixes, and sight words. Bevin’s book is great for those look-ing for a ground-up way to teach decoding to older students. The lists of high-frequency words, most common roots, prefixes, and suffixes, and chunking examples are great lists to photocopy for student centers.

Behavior Management

Hitting, yelling, profanity, sexual harassment, truancy, and refusal to do anything at all, etc., are common problems teachers face and have to learn to deal with in their own class-room. The experts say the key is to be consistent: Have explicit expectations. Follow through. Fine. I could do that. I learned quickly, however, that the real problem with behavior management happened outside of my classroom, and at first, seemed to be out of my control.

When an 11-year-old attacks another student in my classroom and threatens everyone else, that wasn’t quite something I could contain with a phone call home. The problem was that there were no clear school policies, and rarely an administrator available to uphold any logical policies we devised. As a result, students learned quickly that few consequences would be upheld outside of the teachers’ classroom (in cases where the teachers actually upheld consequences, of course). I couldn’t stand the chaos and anarchy by January.

Luckily I wasn’t the only one. I teamed up with a counselor and a bunch of teachers ready to make changes, and we initiated the Positive Behavior Intervention Supports program in our school—a process based on Behavior Management: Principles and Practices of Positive Behavior Supports by John J. Wheeler and David Dean Richey. It wasn’t easy. It took much cajoling of the school board and principals for their financial and professional support and it was still a struggle to get teacher, family, and student buy-in. But the infrastructure was developed, we started the program and we can be proud to say that we didn’t just sit around and complain: We initiated change. Change can be slow, but the impact is there.

Differentiating Novels

My next example isn’t exactly a book for teaching, but it was a lifesaver when it came to teaching special ed and differentiating curriculum effectively in reading class. I am a huge fan of Barnes and Noble’s abridged classics for young readers. With these leveled books (for example, Tom Sawyer at 2nd-3rd, 3rd-4th, and 5th-6th grade levels), my students with disabilities ranging from mild learning disabilities to mental retardation were able to engage in tear-jerkingly high-level discussions about race, author’s purpose, and morality.

At the same time, these kids were incredibly invested in deeply understanding literature they knew college students read. They began discussing these high-level concepts outside of class to impress their general ed peers. And impress them they did. Talk about developing life skills.

I have never seen so many teenagers cradle their Mark Twain novels like they did with their PlayStation 3’s (or whatever kids call those newfangled toys these days).