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Walk in like you own the place: Reflections on my first year of teaching

By: MK Jarvis

Every good teacher reflects.  We ask ourselves things such as what went right or wrong with a lesson, how could we tweak our classroom management, or could we possibly stop eating the donuts the 6th grade team insists on bringing in every Wednesday.  I’ve just completed my second year of teaching, and this summer I’ve been thinking a lot about how I survived the last two years.  A great administration and wonderful co-workers (with or without donuts) are definitely at the top of the list, but there have been a few master educators who have given me great advice.

My first year of teaching was phenomenal.  I’m not bragging.  I’m was as surprised as anyone that I made it through in one piece, believe me.  I heard from so many other teachers how their first year was their worst year. They told horror stories from the trenches: crummy, unsupportive administrations, back-stabbing co-workers, and misbehaving students and all their shenanigans. At times during the year, I was embarrassed that all those things weren’t happening to me. I had landed in a middle school with a stellar admin, helpful, friendly co-workers, and misbehaving students and all their shenanigans.  Hey, two out of three, right?
So how did I survive among those rotten little middle schoolers? I owe my survival largely to my principals and my team. They made life so much easier.  They paid attention to me and any problems I had and supported me when things seemed to be going awry.  However, I know there was something more to my survival.

When I was thinking through what I might want to write for this post, I kept coming back to the reasons I had had such a great first year.  Certainly, the staff at my middle school were heroes, but what else had made it so?  What experience had I brought to the table that made my maiden voyage into teaching so much different than other new teachers?  I’m sure it was the master educators I met in the beginning of my journey.  The wise words they imparted, whether it was off the cuff or in response to a crisis I was having, have stayed with me.  On many days and in many situations, I have found myself remembering them or repeating them to others.

I read somewhere when I first started taking classes for my certification that teachers were the most generous people.  They were willing and happy to share experience and wisdom they had collected along the way.  I found this to be so when I met my first master teacher.

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Mrs. Gillian (rhymes with chillin’ or villain depending on how you behaved in her class) had 30 plus years of public school teaching to her credit and was currently teaching struggling writers at a local university where I was working as a writing tutor.  When I decided to finally take the plunge into teaching, she appeared like a guiding angel with all the advice a burgeoning teacher could want or need.  I had thousands of questions and “what if” scenarios for her to address. She never seem to tire of my inquiries and often stayed awhile after her classes to help me with assignments and projects. One of the things I was most nervous about was actually being in front of a room full of students.  I’m not a bashful person, but thinking of all eyes on me really freaked me out.  Would I buckle under the pressure?  How would they react to me as a teacher and a person?  Would they be compliant?  Would they boo me off the stage, throw spit wads at me, or ignore me completely?  Her advice was simple:  “Walk in like you own the place.”  She was simply telling me to put my shoulders back and my chin up, but the words she used were so much more commanding. She told me I should act like I know what I’m doing, and if I’m convincing enough, the students will believe it and buy into it.
A few days before school started, “walk in like you own the place” became my mantra.  I practiced how I would walk into the room, what I would say, and how I would say it.  The first few weeks were difficult, but that technique helped immensely.  My knees didn’t buckle.  I kept my shoulders back and my chin up.  I could have been nominated for an Oscar.  At the end of the year, one of the students asked me how long I had been teaching.  When I told her just a little over a year, she didn’t believe me.  Perhaps my next career will be acting.

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Similar to the famous athletic shoe slogan, “just teach it” means what it says.  Take the bull by the horns, get on with it, jump in with both feet.  I had to throw out timidity and pull up my big girl pants and teach.  Again, I was lucky enough to meet up with a veteran teacher with years and years of experience.  Mrs. Williams took me on as a student teacher, and while we sat in her immaculately clean portable classroom with rugs on the floor, curtains on the windows, and encouraging quotes stenciled around the top of the room discussing what I would be teaching during the next six weeks, I hinted at lesson plans she might have in mind.  She took mercy on me and offered her plans for the week ahead and the materials that went with them.  While I looked it over and asked question after question, she simply stated, “Just teach it.  Get up there and teach it.”  So I did.  I swear I can still hear my steps to the front of that portable echoing off those clean, white-panelled walls.  The kids were staring, waiting for me to speak.  Mrs. Williams watching, but trying to look busy and unconcerned.  The first part of the lesson was a rubric, so I handed it out and started going over it.  Something happened.  Something beautiful.  I knew I was in the right place at the right time doing what I had always wanted to do.  Magic.  I folded the rubric in two and advised the students to only concern themselves with the 3s and 4s on the rubric because who would ever want anything less than an excellent mark.  The students folded their rubric and relaxed a little, Mrs. Williams did concern herself with other things, and I just taught the lesson unafraid and with joy.

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Mrs. Dow, master teacher and butterfly enthusiast, had a penchant for snazzy sneakers and velour track suits, had flawless classroom management and graded papers faster than any teacher I had ever observed before or since.  I often think of her paper grading prowess when I am slogging through stack after stack of essays exhibiting deplorable writing skills and sloppy handwriting.  How did she do it?  At first glance her room seemed a bit messy and disorganized, but I quickly found out it was only an illusion.  She was über organized and knew exactly where everything lived and belonged.  Mrs. Dow had been my son’s ninth grade English teacher and the assignments he had been given in her class were both challenging and engaging.  My son complained about how difficult the work was, so I knew she had to be an excellent teacher.  I wanted to meet her.  I wanted to student teach with her, so I went to the school and asked her if she would consider having a student teacher lurking around.  She agreed.

By the end of the first day, I was mesmerized.  Everything in her class ran smoothly.  Students complied with requests, completed assignments and turned them in, students listened to instructions and went to work.  What magical spells had she cast upon these children?

A couple of weeks into my stint with Mrs. Dow, I had given back papers that I had graded.  A student approached me after class and said she hadn’t received her paper back, but she was sure she had turned it in.  I assured her I’d have a look on my desk to see if her paper had accidentally been shuffled into another stack.  At planning, I looked everywhere for the paper and did not find it.  I asked Mrs. Dow what she did when she lost a paper.  Our conversation went something like this:
Me: I think I lost so-n-so’s paper.  It wasn’t in my stack when I returned the graded papers last period.  What do you do when you lose a paper?

Mrs. Dow: (brows raised, chuckling) Don’t ever let them smell blood in the water.

Me: (growing fearful, beginning to sweat) What do you mean?

Mrs. Dow went on to admonish me about what I should and should not ever say to a student and one of those things is “I lost your paper.”  She told me that most of the time the paper is still in the student’s binder and they would eventually find it.  Did the student find her paper?  Yes, she did.  Have I found in the short time I’ve been teaching that more times than not the paper is in the binder or the locker or the backpack or perishing in the no name basket?  Yes, I have.

On the surface, this advice seems to tell me I have to protect or defend myself against student treachery.  In a way, it is, but more than that, it tells me I have to stay organized.  I have to be careful with the trust the students have in me and do my darndest to do right by them.  The advice tells me to stay on my toes and do what is required of me to the best of my ability.

These tidbits of advice are a little zany, I admit, but I’ve applied it all and it’s worked for me.  I plan to always remember the words of the masters.

WVCTE is wondering do you have words of wisdom, no matter how crazy, that have carried you through the school year?  Encourage us by leaving us a comment, Tweeting us your thoughts @WVCTE, or connecting with us on Facebook!

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