Reflections From First Year Teachers…

As promised, these reflections from our EDU 505 Child and Adolescent Development class were exceptional in the way these young adults not only reflected upon their first year in the classroom,but also how they intimately shared their growth, challenges and strengths from a personal perspective…

Final Reflection

My first year as an educator has been anything but boring. In fact, I would have to say that life has been quite a roller coaster ride. There have been times of outstanding joy and likewise times of overwhelming sadness. However, I learned early to accept and embrace this crazy ride, and boy, I am sure glad I did.
Throughout my first year, I have experienced immense personal growth. I came in to this profession as a bright-eyed and bushy tailed recent college graduate, ready to make a positive impact on society. In fact, the whole reason I joined Teach for American was because I had taken a class on education inequity in the United States and was completely disgusted by our current standard of education, specifically that in low-income communities. Thus, I joined the TFA army set to right this injustice within our country. Yet, all the eagerness and hope in the world could not have properly prepared me for the lifestyle I had chosen.
My first semester was hard. In fact, it was the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. My students did not trust me. They did not believe in me. In fact, they really just walked all over me. I tried everything; guided notes, labs and experiments, stations, etc. I even remember staying up until 2 or 3 a.m. trying to make these engaging lessons for my students in hopes it would peek everyone’s interest and we would finally get to do work. Then, something inside me clicked, and it was a game changer.
I realized that everything in my life that I had worked hard at I was able to accomplish. I studied hard in high school, thus I got a full ride scholarship to college. I then studied hard in college, thus I graduated with the highest honors. I worked hard at my internship, thus I was offered a full time paid position. This was the first time in my life where I was working extremely hard and giving my all but nothing seemed to be making an impact. This boggled me.
But, then I thought about some of my students. I thought about their lives. About how hard some of them work on a daily basis just to survive. It was for them that I did not give up in those first few months. It was for them that I was able to turn my classroom around. And, it was for them that I raised my expectations and earned their trust in order to create the healthy classroom culture I wanted in my classroom.
Not everything I have tried in my classroom has worked. In fact, most attempts have been disastrous. However, each time is a learning experience. So, to sum up my first year I created a list of several things that I believe are essential to fostering strong scholars. One, you must build relationships. The more you know about your students and the more they know about you the better your relationship. Two, do not demand respect, earn their respect. I believe this creates a strong positive culture in the classroom. Three, always relate the topic at hand to life. Kids love to know why what they are learning is important. (PS. Classroom crime scene is a great way to accomplish this!!) Four, as an educator, we must care for ourselves first. Caring for ourselves is equally as important as working hard for our students. I can tell you right now, I was not doing anyone any good staying up until 2 and 3 am those first few weeks teaching. Five, never go home upset. If I have had a terrible day, I never leave the school upset anymore. I stay after school for tutoring, for sports practice, or I might even hangout with coworkers. My reasoning for this is that it forces me to end my workday on a high rather than a low. And, finally, reflection and introspection is key. Reflecting on each class even just for a few minutes between passing periods really helps insure that your lesson is just getting better and better throughout the day. Also, reflecting on student behavior helps foster stronger relationships with students
While at times this career has been hard, it has forced me to grow in ways I could never have imagined. And, that is because of my students. Their stories and personalities have impacted me, in some way forced me to reach the innermost depths of myself that I did not even realize was apart of me.

Final Reflection
My Fifth Year

One year ago today, I was sitting on the Lawn at the University of Virginia, gazing with nostalgia at the rotunda that seemed to always be the backdrop of my college experience. I was writing papers, attending a cappella concerts, finalizing research, having intellectual conversations, learning in and outside the classroom, doing yoga, participating in philanthropies, volunteering in Charlottesville – all in all living the college life. I felt as though I had this “college-thing” down, confident in my abilities to juggle classes, research, extracurricular activities, and still make time for fun. Fast forward to today, I am still writing papers, attending the occasional concert, now grading papers, writing lesson plans, attending a group exercise class here and there, having intellectual conversations, learning in and outside the classroom – all in all leading the life of a first year teacher. At times I feel as though, I am treading water – trying to stay afloat until the next weekend, the next break to catch my breath and get caught up. Rarely would I say I am confident in having this whole “teacher-thing” down. Putting it in perspective, it seems unlikely that I could have this “teacher-thing” down; I am a first year starting the cycle of learning all over again. Thomas Jefferson called freshman at the University of Virginia first years because he believed learning did not end after one graduated college. So while I may have finished my fourth year in college, I am starting my first year of teaching or you could say my fifth year of a lifetime of learning.
In reflecting on where I was and what I knew one year ago, I realize that during this fifth year of learning I have grown significantly as an individual and professional. I have always been naturally an introspective person – wondering why certain things are the way that they are. Perhaps this was why I was drawn to a major in philosophy, thrilled to constantly be pondering big ethical, political, and logical questions and dilemmas. I feel that in teaching my introspection still focuses at times on big philosophical questions, such as the nature of learning in a classroom and the nature of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivations. However, the main focus of my introspection is now my emotions and the emotions of my scholars. Specifically, my “mind wanderings” and “ponderings” is on how to get my scholars to where they need to be, thinking what I can do to improve my teaching, my management, my tests, my reteaching so that my scholars can get where they need to be. But I have also been introspecting on whether on my toughest days – am I enough? Is my inexperience in education a hindrance, yet is my consistency a blessing? Is my difficulty with classroom management hindering learning, yet my innate ability to push the thinking onto the scholars promoting it? Is my unbelievable loyalty to and love of my scholars enough to keep me going, yet is their disrespectful and often brutally honest behavior enough for me to have second thoughts? These are the new introspective ponderings that I have embarked on and much like in philosophy I feel comforted knowing that each of these dichotomies might not have an answer.
Perhaps the most unexpected change is in my ability to accept not being in complete control. I love organization, the details, the behind the scenes work. I want to be able to see a project from start to finish and control each aspect, so that there is minimal chance for something to go wrong, and if there is I can troubleshoot a quick fix. In the classroom, I’ve had to learn to accept that I do not and will not have complete control. There are too many external factors entering my room at any given time – from the structural, such as document camera malfunctions and unexpected fire drills, to the personal, such as family drama and stress outside of school. While I am able to provide support from the classroom, I cannot control all aspects of my scholars’ lives and cannot troubleshoot quick fixes. My scholars are neither “projects” nor “machines” with a glitch that can be “fixed” with a new plan or a new part. They are growing and developing human beings – learning how to feel successful and confident in who they are. The problem with the metaphor of “fixing” is that it implies my scholars have no agency; they are simply acted on. As a person loving control, this concept of sharing the agency was at times difficult. But I have learned to embrace my lack of control and my role as a support system.
As a professional, I have seen myself shift the focus onto others. I now look to colleagues for advice, suggestions, and counsel. I have always been prone to seek the advice of experts, but this past year has seen an intense shift in that direction. As a new teacher, I did not feel as though I knew the correct course of action. In professional development meetings I would rarely verbally participate – partially to soak in as much knowledge as I could and partially because I did not know how useful my comment would be. I have begun to come out of that rut, starting to participate more in meetings, lending my voice and ideas to the group. This is a hurdle that I have not often found myself in. Normally, I will lend my voice when I believe my idea can add to the discussion. However, I am starting to realize that professionally I need to gain confidence in my voice as a fresh perspective and that my previous knowledge and my identity can be valuable. How I perceive a situation or approach a problem in itself could be an important step to reframing before a solution is reached. It is this realization that has only happened recently that has encouraged me to be more vocal combating the shift towards the “wallflower” at meetings. While I am by no means the “life of the professional development parties” I am making steps to see where my voice fits in.
As an introspective person, I love pondering the “whys.” Why did this behavior occur? Why did that scholar lash out? Why is this scholar consistently shy? In this respect, the most valuable aspect of this course has been the focus on the neuroscience and the actual happenings in the brain. In thinking of neuroscience I am specifically referring to three intriguing aspects of the course – the data on stress, the brain during adolescence, and focused attention practices. I feel all three of these subsets of the neuroscience part of the course apply directly to my classroom. I am using the data on stress affecting the brain and the body to reevaluate how I teach, so as not to induce more stress and to if I can combat the stress they already feel. Adding in the attention breaks the end of this year and next year will allow both my scholars and I to collect ourselves. My cohort of ladies after lunch is consistently noisy and still focused on what happened during lunch when they enter my room. There have been a couple days, where I try to have them take deep breaths with me to calm their minds. In addition, I have used breathing to calm a female scholar agitated, stressed, and overflowing with emotion after a fight. I counted down with her and had her breath with me from ten. In both instances the ladies calmed. They were no longer as focused on what was happening previously and were more focused in the moment. I am looking forward to implementing these focused attention strategies more frequently in my classroom next year. I have also utilized my knowledge of brain development while having one-on-one talks with my scholars. I have mentioned the brain only being angry for ninety seconds and then it is your choice to remain angry. This scholar stopped being angry long enough to ponder what that meant about his ability to hold control of his emotions. Having moments like this have shown me the power of teaching scholars about their own brains and the power they have to be in control of their learning and their emotions. Next year I want to teach scholars as part of the opening few weeks of school about their brain and what control they have.
In my personal life, focused attention practices have reminded me of the importance of “meditation.” I used to do yoga frequently and would use that wind down at the end to slow my breathing and just relax. The reflective and meditative events at the end of class have made me feel rejuvenated. I especially liked the practices with the chimes, and with the breathing in and out colors, visualizing the positive and the negative entering and leaving. Finding outlets such as yoga, Pilates, or other exercises that have a meditative component or building in my own calming reflective time to relax will be beneficial and necessary. This time to calm my mind allows me to slightly shut down my desire to ask the “whys” to constantly wonder “what if.” Giving my mind a rest is restorative benefit to these focus attention practices. In a profession that is high stress, remembering to take these moments to just reflect and be in the moment are crucial for my productivity and frankly at times sanity.
While these focused attention practices might also be beneficial for my professional development, I feel the understanding of brain development is vital for the future professional career. Just like my scholars it is important to remember that anger and frustration last as long as ninety seconds, unless you continue to relive the memory in your mind. In addition to reliving the anger, I have learned through this course that you can “relive” the stress, causing your brain to continue to produce the hormones associated with stress. There will be moments in any profession where you are stressed because you did not have the best performance. I feel armed in the power that I can control how much stress I feel after an event occurs. If I have a day where the lesson is not successful and I feel stressed that they did not successfully learn the material, I can accept the stress and then recognized that if I wallow in it, it will only increase my stress. I will be unable to plan a successful lesson for the following day or week, if I focus on the stress for the previous failure. Understanding how stress affects the body has been beneficial to how I have dealt with current stress and how I perceive the stress of challenges in the future.
This fifth year of learning has been wrought with the stresses of trying to overcome many challenges as I learned on the job. Yet to counteract those challenges there were the moments that made me feel successful. With the hope of ending with the positive, I want to highlight two of my most pervasive challenges first. The first major challenge has been with classroom management. At times it feels as though I have an inability to be strict, fair, consistent, etc. I have yet to develop the eyes in the back of my head – not for lack of trying. I have had scholars feel as though I am “unfair” and my assistant principal has given me feedback that I give far too many warnings. Just the other day he walked into my room, while I was teaching to leave me a post-it note that read, “limit the warnings.” This lack of truly effective management has disrupted lessons, made scholars frustrated, and perhaps even allowed a fight to occur in my room. It has been a constant inner struggle to unearth my inner disciplinarian. I have always dreamed of being the warm-strict teacher. The one who tells you that they love you, but then will lovingly tell you that you still have detention because you did not follow the rules as set in the classroom. At the start of the year, I just think I didn’t know what that warm-strict looked like in practice. It is not only about what you say, but how you say it, and to whom you say it. I have been working on all three of these aspects. I feel as though I have become better at being clearer about what I say. For instance, I strive now to say “that is one for talking,” emphasizing the reason they received the strike. I also have been more cognizant of the tone I use when issuing reminders. I try to use a calm tone that does not sound angry or disappointed more lovingly matter-of-fact (if that is even a possible combination of emotions). In addition, I have been striving to implement more positive incentives, such as class points. I also want to use a “raffle” system that my co-math teacher uses, seeing if implementing this next year boosts participation and meeting the high expectations from the start. I feel that my room needs more of these positives to counteract the many negative consequences they receive. I will continue to work on the three aspects aforementioned as well as developing new incentives to implement next year from the beginning of the year.
Another challenge I have had has been with meeting deadlines in regards specifically to lesson plans. Throughout the year, I have struggled to turn in lesson plans in a timely manner. The expectation is that we are approximately two weeks ahead at any given time. I truly understand the benefits of being ahead, the reduced stress, the added time to tweak lessons, differentiate, etc; however, I just have not been able to get to that point. I feel that creating lessons sometimes from scratch has been part of the reason for the late lesson plan submissions. But to be honest, it boils down to a time management issue. It takes a while to create these lesson plans and in the future I need to work on allotting sufficient time in my schedule and making sure to focus (perhaps utilizing my own focused attention practices). While next year might be better in terms of turning in lesson plans on time, if I teach the same subject, I will continue to work on strategies to better time manage. The goal is to begin and stay ahead throughout the year next school year.
While I have had two main challenges this year, I have also had two main successes. The first success is in regards to scholars showing their work. I teach a Math Lab class, which has a focus on problem solving – word problems. Scholars need to show their thinking in order to receive credit on my tests, on the ISTEP Applied Practice Section, and in most future careers that ask an employee to think critically. It was a struggle at the beginning of the year to have scholars show any work at all. They would give me looks when I asked them to show their work, which could be interpreted, as “is she crazy?” or “I’m not about that showing work life.” Recently however I have worn them down or ideally shown them the benefits of showing their work – less likely to make mistakes, showing me their thinking. Scholars are now consistently showing their work even when I do not explicitly ask. One day while working one on one with a scholar, I asked where his work was. He asked if he had to show his work. My response was whose classroom are you in right now. His response made me smile, “Right Ms. C’s room.” That response enough showed me that even if he did not want to show his work all the time. He understood the expectation that work had to be shown in my room on my assignments. It also shows me that there is a little room to grow in terms of messaging the benefits of showing one’s work.
The other main success of this school year has been my first period cohort. It seems odd that Spelman – my ladies’ cohort – would be in themselves a success, but they truly are. With these ladies I feel as if I am a successful teacher. We hold what I deem to be meaningful discussion when we watch the news in the morning – talking about Syria, the missing Malaysian plane, the latest technology innovation, and more. They ask intelligent questions, eager to learn more about the world around them. It is a joy to see this thirst for knowledge and understanding. While teaching this cohort I feel more willing to take risks, I am more open with mistakes (they catch at least two daily – most of them unintentional), and I feel myself. I am awkward, quirky, just the right amount of sarcastic, and able to show them I care about them. These ladies make me feel as though I am successful, like I at times know what I am doing. It is a pleasure to teach them every morning. I love watching them work well in partners, respectfully disagree (most of the time) and be invested in my incentives. (They are the only cohort that has won the prize for cohort points.) The goal for next year is that I feel as successful as I do with Spelman.
This fifth year of learning has seen successes and challenges, realizations and introspections. In hindsight, I think the most poignant realization has been my purpose. To be honest, I entered this career in teaching to see if this was the right path for me. This is very vague and holds little in the form of a drive or a passion. I merely was curious and intrigued. Yes, I believed in the power of education and wanted to foster a love of learning, but I did not really “get” the impact I could have. This led to me entering with a blank slate, where I was simply testing out what being a teacher meant. While, I wouldn’t say I was disinvested, I would say that I was more intrigued than invested. I often wonder if or how this affected my first few weeks of school, my first lessons. I did not know whether I would last after two years and frankly still am not sure where my path lies. What I do know now is that I have a purpose; I have a drive that was not previously there. This drive and purpose is both personally and externally motivated. My family has been in education – my mom and dad are both professors. It wasn’t until a professional development session when we were asked to think about our why that I finally put the pieces together. I realized that part of my why is continuing in the footsteps of my grandmother, who worked in New York City schools as a teacher and later as a guidance counselor. She had a passion for seeing the potential in her students and it is this same passion that I am starting to feel. I am hoping that I am doing her legacy in education proud. I am feeling this same passion for my scholars. There are the Treasures, Curshonteas, Chazaks, Rickys, D’Andrews, and Iyanas who are simultaneously creative, frustrating, intelligent, and need love. These scholars and the others are now the reason that I have a purpose and drive. Their success has become my drive and helping them reach their goals is my purpose.
I feel that in this short amount of time I have managed to squeeze more learning into my first year in teaching than in all my four years of college. I have learned professional knowledge, such as neuroscience strategies, lesson planning techniques, and classroom management strategies, and also learned introspective knowledge, such as it is acceptable to not have complete control and that there is a drive and a love of my scholars motivating me. As I move into my second year of education, I am intrigued to see where this sixth year takes me in my lifetime of learning.

Final Reflection

Coming into this first year, I had an idea of the type of teacher that I wanted to be. I wanted to go on a journey with my students and work collaboratively to accomplish the goals that we set together. I wanted to show them the importance of working together towards a common goal. I knew that relating to my students would be difficult, but I felt I would be able to because of my innate ability to connect with young people. All of that changed after the first 20 minutes of my first class. I realized that I had to be stricter up front, and they were not going to respect me because of my “authority” as a teacher. I realized quickly that they did not have much respect for teachers, administration, or anyone in an authoritative position at my school. All respect had to be earned, and it would be tough work to garner that gift. I realized that they wanted structure, and they wanted to come into a class in which they knew what the rules and consequences are, even if they did not react in a positive manner when redirected. I have become a much more patient and understanding person as I have taken on responsibilities that I did not anticipate at the start of the year. No matter how irritated or frustrated I become, I have to be a steady, consistent force in my students’ lives. They do not have that in many aspects of their lives, so I must be that for them in my 90 minute block.
The most helpful piece of information that was driven home during this class was the fact that my students’ lives are filled with a steady dose of stress. I generalize all of my students into this one category, but the large majority of them constantly experience stress filled situations that do not allow their brains to learn. They literally are not able to relax their brains to a point in which learning can take place. Understanding that my students come to school and my class every day with a multitude of problems has been vital to building relationships with my students. I am slower to jump to conclusions and allow my students the opportunity to express their frustrations. I want them to see me as a person that does not punish them for things that they are unable to control. I want them to be able to come into my class and feel like they are able to relax enough to not only be able to tackle ambiguous math tasks, but also become better human beings. I have definitely seen a transformation in my interactions with students. This is partly due to my growing confidence in dealing with teenagers, but it is mainly because of my developed patience and understanding. There are many days in which I struggle, but the techniques and knowledge I have acquired in this class have helped me tremendously.
Many of my fellow TFA colleagues talk about the successes that they have on a daily basis. They celebrate 80% mastery, successful Acuity results, and orderly classes. Those “success stories” do not happen as often at my school, but there is plenty to be encouraged by. I go back to work every day for students like Arionna, who has never had success in math but is making a legitimate C in class now due to her determination and hard work. I keep going back because of students like Ty’Quwan, who, despite his mother passing away first semester, comes to school every day with a smile on his face. If I can nudge one, two, or ten students off the path they are on now and onto a more successful one in which graduating from high school and pursuing a meaningful future is attainable, then I will deem my work successful. The challenges and issues are innumerable, but my resolve and dedication to students like the two listed here cause me to continue to be a successful problem solver.
I have always been one to want to have control. I never wanted to miss class in college because I did not trust others to take quality notes or relay the information. I am a bit of a perfectionist and strive for success always. It has been a challenge adjusting to my students not pursuing that success as I always have. I spoke with my priest after the first month of school about my struggles, and he brought clarity and peace to the situation. I realized that I could not force my students to do anything; they have a free will just as I do. I can only support them and provide them with opportunities to make good decisions. I am not in control, but there is One who is, and He has a plan and purpose for not only me but for each of my students. The control that I so desperately desire is not to be had at all times, but the gift of faith will benefit me and my students as we continue on this path towards something great.

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