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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Do You Remember Your First Year of Teaching?

By Peter DeWitt — October 27, 2013 5 min read
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Truth be told, I’m not sure if I would trade in the struggles for an easier path.

Do you remember your first year of teaching? The excitement...the fear. I never wanted to be a teacher. To be honest, I barely graduated from high school, so being a teacher was something that was a far-fetched dream. If I was in Finland, I would not be a teacher because I was in the bottom 10% of my high school class, and colleges were not knocking down my door.

Fortunately for me, some life events and influential people got through to me...and I found success in school, which was the very thing I failed at through my formal years. Truth be told, I’m not sure if I would trade in the struggles for an easier path.

When I began teaching, I remember feeling as though the principal was going to walk into my classroom at any time and say he made a mistake by hiring me...or that parents were going to think I was a fraud. As each first grade student walked into the classroom I remember feeling that, although I spent weeks organizing my classroom, I was going to fail.

...and I did.

My first year and ½ was spent co-teaching at a private boy’s school. I was basically a teaching assistant, and most of the students were accelerated because they came with experiences that most students in public schools lack. Although the students were great, and I learned a lot from my colleagues, it was not where I wanted to be. I grew up in the public school system, student taught in the public school system and wanted to teach there.

However, I learned a lot from my private school experience. It was a good gateway to my next experience. The sense of community stayed with me, and I liked how I could count on my colleagues for help. Any teacher will tell you that over the years many colleagues become family, much like what I am experiencing now as a school principal. The staff I work with has become like a family to me. We have shared our greatest moments and worst tragedies together.

But I didn’t know that is what it would be like when I first started teaching.

When I got my own class it was in Poughkeepsie, NY. I had 30 first graders, and it was exciting as well as overwhelming. I walked into the situation thinking I knew what I needed to know, and on the first day I realized that I knew very little. College prepared me with a great deal of philosophy, and my student teaching experience, which was amazing, provided me with practical experience, but it wasn’t enough.

At that time, mentoring was fairly new and I was matched with someone with a great deal of experience. Unfortunately for me, his experience and confidence level intimidated me and I walked away from our meetings feeling worse than when I walked in. I don’t think that was his intention, it was just that I wanted to know what he knew but he had ten years of teaching under his belt.

Teaching is about experience and growth. No teacher knows what they need to know in their first year.

Social Networking and Reflection

Teaching is much more complicated now than it was back when I began. I used to have to keep records of writing and running records for reading, but I did not have SLO’s, LAT’s, HEDI Scores and accountability like our pre-service teachers do now. It seems so odd to think that I have been in education for 19 years. It goes by so fast.

Recently, I was on Facebook and I saw my “friend” Elizabeth had posted pictures from her last day of her first student teaching placement. Although a friend, Elizabeth played a much more important role in my life....Elizabeth is a former first grade student. She was finishing her first placement as a student teacher, and wasn’t even in my first class. How could the years go by so fast? I have kept in touch with her over the years and I have no doubt that she will make a great music educator.

Coincidentally, as I moved from Facebook over to Twitter, and #SATCHAT focused on the myths from the first year of teaching as well as asking for the advice we would give to new teachers. Starr Sackstein moderated the chat and asked some amazing questions. It inspired many reflective moments.

My first thought was that if new teachers were fortunate enough to get the chances I had, they would be so happy that they decided to enter the profession. None of the schools I taught in were easy, and some of them had high poverty rates, but I learned a lot. Everyone should take the opportunity to teach in city schools. It changes your perspective.

Secondly, I learned that kids can do much more than we think they can do, despite the fact that many of them are growing up in situations that some of us could never imagine. We have students who have realities that are very different from our own. It’s not our job to judge, but to give them something to work for, and many of these students do have grit and are learning resilience through real-life experiences that no one should have to experience.

In the End

I would never, ever trade in my teaching experience...nor will I ever regret becoming a principal. Every day we all have the opportunity to work with amazing colleagues and get the chance to have an impact on kids. Over the years many of those kids have made a lasting impression on me, and I learned that once they were in your classroom for a year, they stayed with you forever.

As a new teacher, there are so many experiences that lie ahead, and the people around you...even the ones who seem the most confident...were new to the profession and were just as insecure as you may feel. We all failed in our lessons, and we all felt as though it would have been easier to quit. No one leaves this profession unscathed, and if you take the opportunity to learn from those experiences, you will never regret being a teacher.

If you are fortunate enough to work in a building with an inclusive school climate, where the principal is supportive and provides you effective feedback, teaching will be one of the greatest learning experiences in your life.

Some final advice, the same I offered on #Satchat:

  • Don’t go it alone
  • Rely on your colleagues
  • You were hired for a reason
  • Always seek professional growth

...and prove to your students every day that you care.

Connect with Peter on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.