The First Hour, Days and Years
Tomorrow marks the beginning of my 24th year of teaching, and despite the many years that have passed, I remember well my first day as a teacher. In truth, my clearest memory is of the first hour of my first day as a teacher.
Incoming students had to locate their name and room number on lists taped to the walls around the school, and then find their way to their homeroom class. Some students arrived early and waited in the hall outside my classroom, even though the door was open. It seemed nobody wanted to be the first to enter the room, but when the first bell rang, they slowly started to filter into room I shared with the tennis coach, a veteran of more than 30 years in the profession.
At that point, I didn’t even have 30 minutes of experience to call on.
After the tardy bell rang, the principal came on the speaker, gave the standard boilerplate first day greeting and made a few announcements. When that ended, I, the newly certified teacher, had to speak the first words I’d ever say to a class. With little confidence in my voice, I announced I was going to start by calling roll.
Taking attendance at the beginning of the period is what teachers do, and I had performed this task many times as a substitute, but this was different. For the first time I was calling out the names of my students, ones for whom I had a great and continuing responsibility.
About 10 seconds into calling the students’ names, I realized the paper I was reading from was not steady, making it more difficult to read. I paused, looked down at my hands and realized I was holding the class roster as if I expected someone to come along and rip it out of my shaking hands at any moment.
Suddenly embarrassed, I quickly moved the paper down below the top of the desk, my nervous hands now out of student view. I looked out at the class of 14-year-old faces and none of them showed any recognition of my nervous faux pas. Instead, what I saw in their faces was an uneasy self-consciousness combined with a dash of teenage ennui.
In my own self-consciousness, I had forgotten something that should have been front and center in my mind. This was my students’ first day of a new school year, and of even greater consequence, this was their first day in high school.
The previous year they had been 8th graders, the top of the heap in their pint-sized intermediate schools, but now they were a collection of little fish in a much bigger pond. They had come from many different schools, but they were now thrown together by the school’s boundary lines.
As the days passed, I started to become comfortable in my new role and was enjoying the interaction with my classes. Every lesson was a learning experience for me, and hopefully for the kids too. About 6 weeks into my first semester, I was relatively satisfied with my performance as a rookie teacher. I knew I had some notable weaknesses, but I felt like I was improving bit by bit as the weeks passed.
Then I gave my first exam. I had spent the entire previous day reviewing everything that would be assessed, and I felt confident the scores would prove my hard work to be successful.
The scores on that first test were a mishmash of good, barely passing and awful grades. The good grades were expected, but the many low ones were a shock.
I remember talking about those test scores with my mentor teacher who was a witty, nice guy and exceptional teacher.
“Bob”, I said, “sometimes I wonder if these kids are learning anything at all.”
My mentor patted the side of my shoulder, flashed a wry smile, and said “Believe me, Allen. You don’t want to know.”
I now know that he was trying to help me to come to grips with a problem common to all teachers, but at the time, my hopes and dreams of being a highly effective teacher, were, if not crushed, then crumpled a bit.
Later in the first semester I heard someone, a supposed educational expert, make the claim that it takes 5 years to become a good teacher. When I heard that I remember feeling a bit dejected. I wanted to become a good teacher right away.
Mentioning this to my mentor, he assured me I was a good teacher. He reminded me that I knew the content, made a concerted effort to make the class interesting, and genuinely cared about my students. In saying I was a good teacher he graciously neglected to add “for a first-year teacher.”
At the time, I wasn’t sure I believed him. Serious doubts about my abilities as a teacher had taken up residence in my mind, and they proved hard to evict.
Coming to Grips with the Job
In the middle of my first year, a student I’ll call Madalyn, informed me she was withdrawing from school and moving to another city. I was very disappointed to hear the news because she was one of my best students and, at her young age, she seemed more mature than her peers. Mostly, I knew I’d miss her because she was a fine person, one of those kids who brighten teachers’ days simply by walking in the door.
When I asked her why she was moving, she told me her parents were splitting up. Hearing that, my heart broke a little for her.
I told her I was so sorry for what she was going through and she assured me the separation of her parents was long overdue. That might have been my first glimpse into the hidden baggage some kids carry around with them every day.
I finished out my first year and came back for a second, third and fourth year. Little by little, I accepted the notion that becoming a good teacher was going to be a much longer journey than I ever envisioned. Still, I looked back at my early days on the job and felt regret for not having been as effective and patient as I should have been.
A few weeks before the end of my 4th year, I received a card with a postmark from another city. It was a graduation announcement, and it was from Madalyn. She enclosed a photo and I marveled at how the reserved 14-year-old I once taught had become a smiling, beautiful young lady.
After looking at the photo I pulled the announcement from the envelope and noticed a handwritten note.
“Thank you for everything Mr. Reding. Nobody could have had a better World Geography teacher than you.”
To say I was stunned is a vast understatement. I knew I had many deficiencies as a teacher, especially in that first year, but apparently those didn’t matter so much. The concern I had for her had been more important than all the innovative teaching methods in the world.
After 12 years at my first school, I interviewed for my first job in CCISD. I told the principal that after many years in education, I had concluded that teachers must love their students first and teach them second.
There’s a tired old educational cliché that goes, “Your students don’t care how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
While I am sick of clichés, the core of that statement is profound. It is also easily forgotten in crush of the daily life of a teacher. Perhaps that is not surprising. Our days are filled with objectives, activities, grades, deadlines and question after question, often all in one period. Then the bell rings, and the race to fit it all in begins again.
Putting the Big Rocks First
As a child I remember someone at church teaching us an object lesson using big rocks, gravel and sand.
The goal was to fit all of them into a one-gallon jar. When we tried to put the gravel and sand in first, we couldn’t fit all the big rocks into the jar, but when we started by putting the big rocks in first, we found that all the gravel and sand fit perfectly within the jar.
Maybe that’s a picture of how we can best teach our classes. When I think about this, it seems totally impractical, but I’ve tried the educational version of putting the sand and gravel in first and have always been disappointed with the results. Still, It seems to be my default setting.
After trying that approach again and again and getting much poorer results than I expected, I’ve always had to reflect on my teaching strategy and ask myself, “How’s that working out for you?”
The Truth about Shoelaces
One day, about 10 years into my teaching career, I walked into the teachers’ lounge and let out an exasperated sigh. One of my friends, a retired NASA engineer who later became a math teacher, asked me, “What’s wrong?”
I told him my shoelaces were constantly coming untied, and I was sick of it. Without missing a beat, my engineer friend said, “You’re doing it wrong”.
Now, I might not have been a rocket scientist, but I’d been tying my shoes for more than 40 years.
“What do you mean I’m doing it wrong?” I asked indignantly.
In response, he asked me to show him how I was tying my shoes, and after I did, he once again said, “You’re doing it wrong”.
He told me the way I was tying my shoes was causing the knot to be unbalanced, and that was the reason my shoes kept coming untied.
He then instructed me to make one simple change to the way I first combine the laces. It seemed very odd at first, and in the beginning, I was tempted to go back to the old, routine way of tying my shoes. In time, the new, improved knots became second nature and to my great satisfaction, my shoes stayed tied.
No matter where you teach, I’m sure you are surrounded by some great teachers. Some of them are older veterans of education, but some are just starting out and they already have some great things to share with their colleagues. We can learn from everybody.
My first reaction to almost any suggested change in teaching methods is skepticism, but I am constantly reminded that I need to be open to new ideas. We all want our students to have teachable hearts and minds. We should expect no less from ourselves.
Any time I need a reminder of that all I need to do is to look down at my shoes.