Everyone says that it takes 5 years to be a really good teacher. I think this is absolutely true and motivates me to keep going to reach that milestone. Technically, I have been teaching for 5 years, but I spent my first two years teaching at a private school abroad. I don't count those years because they weren't even half as demanding as what I am facing in the New York City public schools and I didn't have my teaching degree at the time. Those two years gave me some experience planning curriculum and pacing lessons, but I didn't go "deep" into teaching. I have taught for 3 full years in the NYC public schools and am well into my 4th. The following outlines my struggles and accomplishments in each stage of teaching.
First year-- Management:
As a first year teacher, management is usually the most pressing issue. I remember a time when my first graders were violent, overly emotional, and always asking to go to the nurse. I remember when the physical set-up of the room created dangerous blind spots where kids would hide to carry out their misdeeds. I remember kids punching each other during my mini-lessons, throwing tantrums on the floor and kicking me, and interrupting lessons to say "I hate you" over and over like a broken record. One time, I called the students to the rug and asked them softly to make a circle. When I looked around the circle, one kid was covering his face and crying, when he pulled his hands away, they were covered in blood. One of the bullies in the room had kicked him in the face on purpose. I remember thinking that the kids were really disturbed and getting too involved in trying to solve all of their problems. I thought that their emotional state made it impossible for them to learn and I felt bad for them. I made it a point to visit other teachers during my preps, teachers that I really respected and admired for the environment in their classes. After seeing similar kids in other rooms I realized that the issues I was facing were up to me to solve by firming up my structures and routines.
I started with the classroom environment. I knew I had to open up the space. Those little nooks I created with the furniture that I had envisioned as quiet reading spaces for my students had to go. Even the barriers around the rug had to go as well. I needed a room with no blindspots. I had to be able to see everything that was going on at all times. One Friday after school, I stayed really late and I rearranged my entire classroom.
When the kids returned on Monday, I introduced them to the new environment and to the new rules. I remember telling them, "When I tell you to do something, there will be no backtalk, all you will say is 'Yes Ms. Peace' and you will do as you are told." I told them "I will ask you nicely the first time, but the second time, I will not be nice anymore." This kind of strict management wasn't my style, but it was a matter of safety. The kids listened and started doing as they were told. I stopped feeding into their problems and distanced myself from them in a way, and it worked. Their behavior improved and their learning improved as well. Over time, we were able to recreate our classroom community and even do fun projects together. I will never forget how relieved I felt when the last day of school finally came. I remember thinking that I couldn't take back my first year of teaching, but things would be different from Day 1 the next year.
Second Year: Basic Core Curriculum:
I had an especially challenging class my 2nd year of teaching including an emotionally disturbed child who was dangerously violent as well as a child functioning at the level of a 2 year old who would threaten to pee on books during my lessons. In addition, there was a lot of construction in the building that year and we all had to leave every day at 4:00 PM only to encounter a mess from the construction workers in our rooms each morning. I think this was one of the most challenging years that I will ever have as a teacher (hopefully), but because my structures and routines lent to solid management, I was able to handle it.
With the management down, the second year of teaching is where I really got a grasp of the basic core curriculum. I had been through the curricular calendar in all subjects for a full school year and started my second year with plenty of ideas of how I could improve my teaching in Reading, Writing, Word Study, and Math. I had solid mini-lessons in Reading and Writing and was conferring with students in both areas. I got really good at adapting Everyday Mathematics to the meet the needs of my students. I still use materials that I created during my second year. Science and Social Studies were still very fuzzy for me. I would try to integrate them through Read Aloud or Shared Reading, but I wasn't very good at either of those components of literacy.
Third year: Science and Social Studies. Intervention. Leadership.
With management in place and a good grasp of the core curriculum, I was able to focus more attention to Science and Social Studies. I integrated social studies by using related texts for shared reading and read aloud. Everything just seemed to flow together so smoothly my third year. The kids were making the connections too. It was a truly amazing year, one of the best I think I'll ever have as a teacher. My students were bright, motivated, and had exceptional social skills that year. They were readers and writers from day one and they absorbed everything like a sponge. I had two really neat kids in the room who brought the level of learning up through their conversation and general motivation to learn. All of the other kids wanted to be like them.
My kids were doing science experiments and social studies projects. They were reading and writing with incredible stamina. I was able not only to confer with them, but also to start pulling small groups in Reading, Writing, and Math. This was the first time in my teaching career that I was able to consistently work with small groups. Although I had had some training with strategy groups and guided reading groups, I didn't feel strong in my small group work. I was also unprepared. My guided reading library was pathetic and I hadn't really analyzed the books to pinpoint areas of possible struggle or teaching points.
During the extended day time I started teaching the Fountas and Pinnell "Phonics" curriculum as an intervention for my small group of students (we were already using Words Their Way with the whole group). Going through the lessons of another quality year-long curriculum was extremely helpful in working with small groups, but I certainly wasn't by any means an expert. I was consistent, however, in delivering each lesson. I wanted to see how the kids would progress with this program. After following it for a whole year, I saw major improvements in my small extended day group. They even surpassed the students that were not identified for intervention. I also had amassed a large stockpile of little baggies full of words and pictures. I had catalogued each lesson to keep for the next year.
Outside of the classroom, I got more involved in committees and took on more leadership roles. I had earned respect over the past two years for being a hard worker and for being dedicated to the students and in light of high turnover this year, I was one of the more experienced members of my grade level and among staff.
Fourth Year: Bringing it all together. Small Group Work.
Although I am only a couple of months into my fourth year, I have definitely noticed that my lessons seem to flow seamlessly into one another. I don't seem to run out of time anymore and know exactly what to do with extra minutes. Shared reading comes naturally, and Read Aloud happens every day and for the first time I am doing shared writing and language experience with my students. While my students need a lot of support this year, I feel better equipped to help them. We started Words Their Way and Fountas and Pinnell "Phonics" on day 1. Their reading stamina is still too low to pull a guided reading group during that time, so I have been working it into my extended day and added a lot more shared reading support throughout the day.
My goal for this year is to get my small group and intervention work to feel as seamless as everything else. I want to catalogue my guided reading library since I was able to order a lot of new sets of books from a grant that we got last year. I want to get my reading groups firmly in place and functioning regularly. I want my class to be a place where the children are thinking and making connections. I want them to feel that learning is fun and stimulating and that they have access to everything we do in the classroom. I want them to feel the confidence to achieve and to be responsible for their own learning. I want them to take pride in their work and to feel good about trying their best rather than trying to be perfect. I want them to take risks and to feel safe doing so. I want first grade to be one of the best years of their lives.