A Deer in the Headlights: My Life as a Beginning Teacher

In my first days as a teacher, I was motivated by a strong belief that I would make a positive impact on the lives of children. I was eager, excited and scared silly. During the first few weeks of anxious preparation for my grade two class, I started to feel overwhelmed with the multitude of things I needed to know and do before my students walked through the door. The mammoth curriculum was terrifying enough! Then, there were the student record files I needed to read, the set-up of my physical classroom, long range and unit plans, expectations to sign-up for committees and clubs....and, and, and. There were also all the acronyms I kept hearing in staff meetings: IPP, AFL, UDL, just to name a few. I was literally a deer in the headlights! The Roy Rogers quote, “Even if you are on the right track, you will get run over if you just sit there”, seemed very relevant to me at that time.

Fortunately, I remembered the advice of one of my university professors. She advised us to make friends with everyone in the school, including the janitor and school secretary. She advocated for collaborative practice and that every single person that works within the school is an integral part of the secret to student success. She also stressed that there was no such thing as a dumb question. The only dumb thing would be to not ask any. This advice was very important in surviving my first year and well beyond! I rolled up my sleeves and reminded myself that Rome was not built in a day...nor would my skills as a teacher! Determined to do a good job, I set to work. I embraced the idea that I was every bit as much a student as the ones I was preparing to teach. I adopted this mind-set early on and hold fast to it twenty something years later. As a beginning teacher, success can be found in the development of supportive relationships, a keen desire to learn and a willingness to seek out help when you need it.

In order to feel successful, beginning teachers require intentional and focused coaching and mentorship to develop their pedagogical knowledge, skills and talents. Ideally, this support is built into the culture of the school. It is equally important for the beginning teacher to have an attitude of vulnerability, with a desire to do better, to learn more and seek out support when necessary. This brings me to tell you about Gert, our school librarian when I started out in my inaugural year of teaching. With a blank stare and feeling of helplessness, I stumbled into our school library looking for books. I didn’t have any books of my own to create a wonderful, enriching and inviting classroom library and no money to buy them. She asked if I needed any help. I asked her if she could help me find any fiction and non-fiction books about water for my grade two science unit on liquids (oceans, lakes, fish etc.). She not only helped me, but she loaded up an entire cart for me. It was extraordinary! Every month, Gert would load up a cart with anything we talked about or anything the students in my class were particularly interested in. We would brainstorm the kinds of things I was focusing on teaching regarding literacy skills, social studies, health and more. Gert was a wealth of information. Later in my career there was Tracy! Oh my! A published author with gifts and talents galore! She helped with art, music, school celebrations, talent shows and guided author sessions with our students. And later, Leona! Leona, the computer wizard and walking encyclopedia! The one who knew, through observation and casual conversations in the library, which students were struggling with friends or with courses that the teachers did not realize. I just have so many amazing examples of learning from my colleagues. When teachers have the opportunity to begin their careers under the umbrella of nurturing relationships that guide in their understanding of collaborative structures and processes, the continuum of supports and assessment practices that provide us data and evidence they can find true success.

My saving grace when I started teaching was meeting Kristine, the grade one teacher across the hall from me. She seemed to sense my fear and panic, and immediately set about comforting me with laughter and empathy, retelling her own experiences as a new teacher. She handed me a box full of bulletin-board borders and said I would be welcome to use them throughout the year. She knew I wouldn’t have enough money to buy everything I wanted for my classroom. When I asked her about long range plans, she told me to start with planning my first day, not to worry about the whole year just yet. She emphasized the importance of setting up classroom routines, expectations and relationships with my students. She assured me that planning would come soon, and that I would have a team to help me with it. Over the next couple of weeks, I met my fantastic grade level team, got to know our school janitor, librarian and secretary. Not only had I found friendship, I also had coaches, mentors and guides to help me understand and navigate my new role. By the end of September, I had a new family at school and so many people I knew I could reach out to for support.

Experience is nurtured by a commitment to ongoing professional development throughout a career. Many schools set aside time for this growth for beginning teachers through guided reflections, conversations, modelling and mentorship in the first year. My number one mentor in my career was amazing at nurturing learning on his staff. Each month, he scheduled time to meet with the beginning teachers after school for one hour with a set agenda. It kept him connected to their needs, but also allowed him to offer ongoing professional development in a supportive forum. He was also able to keep the ‘pulse’ of his new staff and determine what supports they were needing more of. Finally, he recognized how much new staff were able to contribute to the school culture when they were given a voice to do so.

I have observed that the most successful beginning teachers are the ones that are always at my door (and other teachers and administrators) with a list of questions. They want to find out how to meet the needs of their students. Most importantly, they have not been afraid to say they need help or are frustrated over how to address a student’s behaviour or learning needs. While there is rarely an easy button or a quick fix, student success is achieved with a diligent commitment to collaboration.

I still am guided by a strong belief that I am part of a career that has made a difference in the lives of children. I have had the privilege of working with extraordinary people who are lifelong friends and mentors. There are still mountains of things I would like to learn and I am on an eternal quest to become better every single day. There are still times when I feel overwhelmed, and it’s not always sunshine and roses. However, it’s a journey worth pursuing and I’m blessed to have a supportive team to share it with.

What about you? I would love to hear from teachers regarding their own experiences as beginning teachers. Email me at colette.sylvestre(at)jigsawlearning.ca to share your stories or tweet me your reflections at @ColletteSylvest. I look forward to hearing from you!

I also will be introducing an online course to help support beginning teachers coming into the new school year. I’m hoping this course will provide you with some foundational understanding that will help you on your journey.

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Author: Collette Sylvestre