Teaching Profession Q&A

An Award-Winning Rookie Teacher Talks About Her First Year

By Elizabeth Heubeck — June 23, 2023 7 min read
Lauryn Merriweather
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It’s not easy being a rookie teacher.

Some end up leaving. One recent nationwide analysis finds that teacher attrition rates start at 10 percent after the first year and steadily increase to 17 percent by the end of the fifth year. But some new teachers not only survive their first year; they thrive.

In an effort to reward the stayers and persuade more newbies to stick around, the Los Angeles Unified School District nine years ago began to formally recognize and celebrate their rookies.

LAUSD partnered with the California Credit Union to create the LAUSD Rookie of the Year Program. District principals nominate first-year teachers who demonstrate “effective teaching practices and classroom management in preparing all students to be successful 21st Century learners,” according to the district website. In baseball parlance, they recognize beginner teachers who “knock it out of the park.”

This year’s 17 rookies receive a (baseball) trophy, a jersey with the number “23” emblazoned on it, and special recognition at an event at Dodgers Stadium. Before these celebrated rookie LAUSD teachers scattered for the summer, Education Week caught up with one of them.

Twenty-five-year-old Lauryn Merriweather, who spent her entire K-12 education in LAUSD, returned to the district in 2022-2023 to begin her career as a 1st grade teacher at 54th Street Elementary School. In an interview, she shared her experiences as a rookie teacher, from first-day jitters to how to keep 20 1st graders engaged on a daily basis.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How surprised were you to learn that you’d won this award?

I was taken by surprise, because the first year is tough. There’s a lot of learning going on. You’re so fresh, right out of graduate school into your own classroom. It’s a big transition. Sometimes it can be overwhelming. Just to know that I’m doing some things right, and to get that honor, was pretty big.

Talk about your journey to becoming a teacher.

When I was little, my mom had this big box with flowers on it. I would put a whole bunch of markers and papers and toys in there, set up my dolls in my room, and “teach” them stuff. My first job during high school was as a tutor and mentor at the elementary school next door. Then I went off to college and studied speech pathology. When the pandemic hit, I was graduating from college. I had to pack up everything and go home. I applied to some [graduate level] speech programs and didn’t get in that round. It was a lull period, I was trying to figure out what’s next. I became a virtual TA [teaching assistant] at an elementary school, where I saw an opportunity for a teaching program. I thought: I have to do this. It was like going back to my first love.

Tell me about your first day of teaching, and your first impression of your students.

I remember it as clear as day. I was in my classroom about to go outside and greet the students with a sign to let parents know where their children’s classrooms are. I remember grabbing that sign, going outside. I was really excited but a little nervous. I got a little emotional; my eyes were kind of watery. I took a deep breath. It was a wave of excitement.

Then the students came inside the building. On my classroom wall, I had buttons showing what morning greetings they could choose. They each pressed a button, so I got to see a little bit of their personality. Some wanted to do a little air hug, some wanted to do an elbow bump. Some were super excited, some were a little bit nervous, some cried. It was an emotional experience, that first day.

LAUSD Rookies of the Year are recognized for preparing students to be 21st Century learners. What did that mean to you?

Twenty-first century learners mean having life skills: communication, collaboration, connection. I kept asking myself, even though my students are only 6 and 7 years old, how can what we learn in the classroom mirror the things they’ll experience outside the classroom? I exposed them to things that aren’t just “1 + 1” or “read the story and answer questions.” I looked for opportunities to do projects that are fun and also relate to real life. We researched different countries. During Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month, we got to explore food, culture, and people from all around the world. I tried to be intentional about activities that provided opportunities for the students to collaborate and to interact with one another respectfully, and with kindness. I recognize that they come into the classroom with different experiences. We teach each other. Even though I’m the teacher, I’m not the sole source of information.

How did you approach classroom management?

If students are connected and engaged with the content, they’re less likely to exhibit behaviors that aren’t acceptable in the classroom. When they’re bored or not engaged, they’ll tend to act out. So I am very intentional with the lesson planning and what I’m presenting so that I can grab and hold their attention, so it’s something they want to do.

No one’s perfect, we all have our days where we’re a little tired, hungry, whatever it may be. I try to motivate them with our school store, by earning points. That’s something that gets them amped up and ready to go. I’ll say: OK, guys, how many points do you have, let’s get more points. I try to give them positive reminders, and I also try to remember how I felt when I got reprimanded as a kid. I try to be respectful of their feelings. But also be firm. It doesn’t mean I’m yelling at them or calling them out.

I also realize that we’re still coming out of the pandemic. Some of these kids haven’t been in school before. My class may be the first classroom they’ve ever been in. So I try to cater to their emotional needs while letting them learn: These are the things we can do, and these are the things that are not allowed.

Who or what did you lean on for support and advice as a first-year teacher?

After I was hired, I was immediately invited to participate in the school’s summer professional development. I got to meet and interact with the staff, and my co-workers. I was also paired up with a mentor teacher, who was also my grade-level partner. Throughout the summer, we planned together. I definitely asked my grade-level partner a lot of questions, trying to figure out: Why does she do it this way? Also, talking to my parents. Sometimes I’d bring my work home and ask my family members: Who’s going to help me with these arts and crafts tonight? Relying on family, and people from my [graduate school] cohort. Trying to make my support system as big as possible. I don’t have all the answers. There’s power in collaboration and learning from other people.

What about self-care? Did you do anything, routinely or as needed, to take care of yourself?

That’s a piece I’m still working on. I try not to leave school too late, or not to bring my work home. I did start setting an alarm for when I wanted to leave for the day. In the beginning, I was struggling to stop myself [from continuing after the alarm]. On the weekends, I try not to touch my schoolwork until Sunday at a certain time. Trying to set up those boundaries. Also, planning a facial here or there. And for me, spending time with my family is rejuvenating.

What was the biggest challenge you faced this first year?

Wearing many hats. Trying not to be everything to everybody. You’re a teacher, but sometimes you’ve got to be a nurse, a therapist, manage conflict. You’re all these things. Trying to figure out: How can I balance all this and reach out to my resources? Realizing that if I’m everything to everyone, there’s nothing left of me.

If you were to mentor a brand-new teacher next year, what would your advice be?

Stick to a routine. If you’re doing different things every day, students don’t know what to expect. There’s power in that routine and consistency. Also, allowing for students to take more responsibility in the classroom. Building student voice and choice–whether that’s through student jobs or recognizing a ‘student of the day’. Putting students at the center so they can practice their leadership skills. Also, finding balance with boundaries, with yourself, and with your colleagues. You might be asked to participate in a lot of extracurriculars at school. It’s OK to say no sometimes.

What impression did your students leave on you this year?

I’m in awe of their growth, the people they’re growing into—physically and mentally. I’m so grateful to know how much we’ve gotten to know each other, and the bonds they made amongst their peers. And I’m just very proud of them. Each of them is their own person. They’re not empty cups, empty minds. They bring so much to the table. We just have to find the right keys to unlock it.

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