Reflections on the first day of teaching

I’ve been thinking about classroom teaching today, and the first day of school. As an online teacher, I don’t have a classroom, and, in Oregon, our online students enter and leave courses on their own timelines. While there are definitely three or four days at the beginning and end of each semester when large numbers of students start or finish a course, we are never having that whole “first day of school” experience. This is good and bad. Nothing binds us together with our students as a “class” – a bonded unit- better than the shared experiences within the confines of a classroom, beginning on that awkward first day, when the students are on their best behavior (and we are alerted to get extra referral forms from the office in the blasted years when we discover we have a class whose first day of school good behavior is terrifying and the thought of how they will act in October is not to be borne.) Nothing is really accomplished on these first days other than walking students through the 4th or 7th or 8th recitation that day of class policies and the school’s attendance requirements. Well, that, and sheer survival, and an escalation of the back to school nightmares suffered by teachers. You know the ones. Every teacher has them. We all have our own cycle of anxiety dreams, and they tend to start a couple of weeks before school starts, and intensify through the first few days of classes. You’d think that once school actually starts, they would die out, but no. The fact that classrooms are never quite perfect, and I have never done quite enough organization probably fuels the ever-present sense that I am a fraud and everything will fall apart the moment that students arrive which pervades my dreams. (And believe me, after 14 years of classroom teaching and another 5 teaching online, National Board Certification, awards, and rave reviews from administrators and the respect of my peers, I am still pretty sure that I don’t know what I am doing and that any moment, everyone is going to find out.)

Anyway, this train of thought rambled and shambled along its bumpy track, and got me thinking about every teacher’s true to life teaching nightmare, which is the first day of student teaching. Many years ago, as a teaching fellow at the Oregon Writing Project, I wrote a piece about my first day as a student teacher. For your amusement, I attach it here.

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“On My Way”

I arrived at school and tried to look nonchalant, while rapidly reviewing my lesson plan for the eighty-seventh time that morning. My attempts to feign calm failed.

“Are you all right?” asked my mentor as he bustled up.

He looked calm. Of course, he was calm. He didn’t have to teach that day. I gulped and conceded that I was just a little nervous. He grinned and said breezily, “You’ll be fine,” as he disappeared to attend to first day of school business.

The minutes of prep time simultaneously dragged and flew by. I reviewed my lesson plan yet again, rehearsed my introductory speech, and checked my handouts for the umpteenth time.  The time for the long trek to the classroom was fast approaching. I verified that I had my seating chart, attendance sheets, grade book, pencil, lesson plan (though it was by now memorized), and hand-outs. I would surely lose them all if I kept pulling them out of my files, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself. Oh, God. It was time to go.

The long walk down the echoing and still empty halls felt ominous. My mentor laughed and said, “Relax, your honors class is first.” I did not relax. I could not relax. Terror overwhelmed my tenuous feeling of excitement.

In the classroom, I wrote my name on the board, made neat stacks of all my papers, and taped up the seating charts. Students began to trickle in, buzzing with first day of school introductions and summer news. Through my head whirled all the advice given to me by my sister, also a teacher. I could still hear her voice explaining, “The very first impression you make, in the very first second of the very first minute of the very first day, sets the tone for the entire school year. But it’s not that big a deal. Don’t worry about it…too much.”  I stopped scrutinizing my classroom decorations with a lurch. At that very second, students were arriving, and I stood in the middle of the room like a block of wood. I simply had to impress these students with my control of the situation or they would discover I had no skills. And then I would be done for.  Unfortunately, I had never felt less dazzling. “Do something!” I yelled to my brain. Ignoring the sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, I stepped forward and managed to utter, “Good morning. There is a seating chart. Please find your name on the chart and take your seats.”

Surprisingly, students complied, although I noticed some confusion. I had drawn the chart backwards. My sinking feeling increased. I hurriedly showed students where I meant for them to sit. In the bustle, the students had not yet paid much attention to me. So far, so good.

The juniors settled, and the ticking of the clock got louder. The pounding of my heart drowned it out. The students finally began to notice me with curiosity. Their schedules read “English 11 Honors – Mr. Gottesman.”  Who was this woman? The ticking of the clock grew unbearable, and I glanced at the time. One minute left. I panicked. Thoughts of running away flitted through my head as I desperately tried to fix a look of composure onto my face. Too late!  No time left to bolt. Whirr. Click. The minute hand fell into place. Time for class to start.

My mentor walked to the center of the room, while I stood awkwardly by the desk, wondering what to do with my feet. “Hi, I’m Mr. Gottesman,” he announced. “I’m supposed to be teaching this class, but we have Mrs. Karp-” He pointed at me. I straightened up and squelched a desire to wave. “- She’s a student teacher from Pacific University and she’ll be teaching this class. You’ll be in good hands.” With that, he left the room.

Aghast, I turned slowly in the sudden silence to look at the class, praying that my mouth was not hanging open. Thirty-four pairs of eyes stared at me silently from closed faces, eyeing me slightly suspiciously as they momentarily withheld judgment and weighed whether this person would be new teacher or fresh sacrifice. My mind went blank, lesson plan completely forgotten. Hands trembling, I picked the plan up from the desk and reviewed my notes again.  I took a deep breath and, voice shaking, whipped through my fifteen minute introduction in three and a half minutes flat. Oh dear. Can sixteen year olds smell fear?

“Forge ahead,” I told myself, “and don’t fidget.” I explained to my students that I was going to hand out a questionnaire for them to fill out. The students continued to stare at me blankly. They did not appear to blink. As I turned to the desk to pick up my handouts, I wondered if sounds had actually come out of my mouth, or if the students were still waiting for me to say something. At least they weren’t talking and appeared to be paying attention. One small achievement, at least.

Walking toward the first row, bearing my handouts in an undoubtedly funereal fashion, I wondered “What if they simply refuse to write? What if they just sit there for eighty minutes, their blank looks turned to defiance?” Maybe that would be the time to run away. The students in the first row passed the papers across and back. Okay, maybe this would work after all. Soon, each had a questionnaire. With bated breath held tight, I watched as the students began to write.  They wrote a lot. They were honors students, after all. I exhaled. A small flicker of hope began to melt the icy fear in my stomach. I walked back to my desk – my teacher desk – pulled out the chair, and sat down. My imaginary terrors dissolved under a sudden startling jolt of power. I stifled hysterical giggles and relaxed. The bridge had been crossed. I was on my way.

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14 thoughts on “Reflections on the first day of teaching

  1. Ok, I am so relieved that your first day of student teaching was not the day of this slice and therefore not the day of rushing to the ER with your child for falling over backwards! Hope he is okay. Love these words from your sister – “the very first second of the very first minute of the very first day, sets the tone…” – no pressure there!!

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    1. Yes, I realized later that in my haste to post my semi-finished slice and leave, I made the title and description pretty confusing. My son is okay, thankfully. Except for a big goose egg on his head and some interesting bruising on his back, no harm was done.

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  2. I felt your fear and worry as I read your piece. Being an elementary teacher, and having had my mentor teacher with me for the beginning of my placement, I cannot imagine going it alone on day one, especially in front of teenagers. They scare me. LOL Glad you got through that day, and it sounds like you’ve done quite well. Thanks for sharing this piece and for being so reflective!

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    1. I had the trial by fire kind of student teaching experience. My “mentor” was retiring at the end of the year, and had checked out some years before. When I observed his classes in the spring, he just showed them old movies (and one memorable day, a random episode of “Dawson’s Creek”) and did not teach at all. When I started student teaching, truly on the first day of school, that two sentence introduction was his entire contribution to the class. Then he disappeared to the English office and read novels for the rest of the term. To make matters worse, that Honors English 11 class was brand new, so I had to invent the entire curriculum from scratch- by myself!

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  3. I taught overseas with NO preparation courses for nearly four years before I got a MAT and started student teaching. I hated student teaching so much! I doubt I could re-create it as well, because I’ve pretty much avoided thinking about it for the last 20 years.

    In the interest of transparency- is it possible we worked together at FGHS for a year? Just based on your last name, university, and so on.

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    1. Student teaching with four years of overseas teaching under your belt would be just awful! You would already know a lot, but get treated like you were clueless! And yes, we must have taught together. I taught at FGHS from 1998-2012! 😀 Small world! (Although I went through Pacific University’s Eugene program while my husband finished up architecture school at U of O.)

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      1. PS I probably could not write this piece now, at least not with quite so much emotion and detail. I actually wrote the story at the end of my first year of teaching at FGHS, and my student teaching was only the year before that. I had planned on weaving it into the new piece a bit more, but, you know…emergency room trip…

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    1. Yes, I am! I was lucky enough to be accepted as a teacher participant after my first year of teaching, then to return a few years later as an “experienced” teacher intern for the project. I also spent a few years as a member of the long term planning and brainstorming idea group with the OWP leaders and Kim Stafford. I have great affection for and good memories of the project.

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      1. Working with Kim Stafford is great, and always makes me feel like such a writer! One time I said something interesting enough that he took out his little notebook and wrote it down. I was super excited for about a week!

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