Reflections on First-Year Teaching from Sister Sledge (not the singing group, but the other ones)
The first year of teaching can be tough under normal circumstances. When I reflect back on my first year of teaching 7th and 8th grade Language Arts at Hyattsville Middle School in Prince George’s County Maryland, twenty years ago, I felt like I struck gold. I inherited the former Department Chair’s classroom: the largest classroom in the school with a built in office, and she left everything behind. She was retiring from a long career and gifted me with every resource she accumulated over the years. I was a kid in a candy store. I had a great mentor teacher right across the hallway, and having grown up in a family of educators, I had easy access to veteran teachers, starting with my mom. I was set up for success.
Fast forward to today, in what often feels like we are living through a post-apocalyptic horror film, I’ve often uttered, “I can’t imagine what it must be like to be a first year teacher in the pandemic environment, or much worse, a first-year principal!” This year, one of my Fulcrum partners asked me to support a first year teacher in her school. This principal is committed to wrapping as much support around this teacher as possible, given the uniqueness of this school year. As I began to prepare for my work with this teacher, I also reflected on the fact that my family of educators is growing as well. My younger sister, Casha Dees, is a first year teacher at Henderson Collegiate Middle School in Henderson, NC, teaching writing to a wonderful group of 5th graders. A career changer, after leaving the Air Force, her path led her to the classroom. I had the opportunity to spend a week with her, and as her slightly annoying big sister, of course, I peeked into her virtual classroom. I listened to her engage her virtual class of 5th graders in the writing process. Afterwards, we chatted about her experience as a first year teacher during the pandemic, and here’s what she had to say:
So how is your first year of teaching going, particularly in a remote setting?
HC is a rigorous school and is committed to providing exemplary instruction. So, it was tough for me to get acclimated to how the faculty does things, the structures, the timelines, the meetings. It’s intense, and even more so in a remote setting. There is so much information to digest in such a short period of time. It has definitely been overwhelming. I’m trying to process everything.
First year teaching in a “normal” setting is challenging, and I imagine it’s even more challenging in a constantly changing pandemic environment. Do you have mentors and coaches to help you navigate the demands of teaching?
Well obviously I have you! I also have two of my college professors that I’ve really connected with: Dr. Berry-McCrae and Dr. Stephanie Frigo at North Carolina Central University have been great mentors and not only do they inspire and nurture my love of grammar and writing, they also are really encouraging and give sound advice. I also have an Instructional Coach, Katie DeLaurence, who is amazing. She takes the time to break things down for me. I’m a visual learner and benefit from a hands on experience, so the remote professional developments can be challenging for me. Katie constantly checks for understanding. She sends me screencasts of her going through processes, she FaceTimes, she walks me through everything so I can really lock in an understanding of everything I’m expected to do at my school. It’s super helpful.
You mentioned your own learning style. When you’re planning lessons, how do you plan for student engagement in a remote setting? How do you incorporate the different learning styles of your students?
My background is in public relations and marketing, and I’m also an artist (photographer), I tap into those strengths to bring the lessons alive in the remote setting. As I’m learning the students, I’m also learning about their interests and trying to make connections between what we are learning about and their interests to “make it stick.” I also try to think from their perspective to help with engagement. At our school, there are also the expectations that cameras stay on, students are sharing using the chat feature, they are engaging on the Nearpod platform, so that I can assess whether or not they are really grasping the concepts.
How are your students coping during remote learning?
I think the students new to the school are a little stressed as they are getting acclimated to the expectations and culture, but the returning students understand that even though the learning is happening in a different environment, the expectations are high. Overall, students are adjusting well. We check in with the students and families frequently, and most students are pushing themselves and doing the best that they can do in the online environment.
Fast forward to mid-June, and you’re wrapping up your first year of teaching, what would a successful first year look like?
I want my students to excel! I care that they are promoted to the next level, but more importantly, I want them to develop a love of writing. I want them to see how they can use this skill in different areas of their lives and that they are exposed to various career opportunities where writing is necessary. I want them to develop an interest in writing beyond the classroom.