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How a Rough First Year Became a Career

This post has been published simultaneously at Education Week Teacher as an installment of the CTQ Collaboratory column.

Your first year of teaching is kind of like your first truly gruesome photo from a high school formal dance. The excessive hair gel, the unfortunate choice of tux or dress, the slightly demented grin into the camera. We look back and laugh, but we shudder first. 

Most of us wish we had selective amnesia about that first year. The various star charts, table points, and sticker systems, implemented and abandoned in the same week. The projects that started off great and then wobbled off a cliff. The times we were too nice and regretted it. The times we were too mean and regretted it more.

I have plenty to be ashamed of from that first year, which eleven much better years since haven’t managed to dim. My fashion sense, which made Pee Wee Herman look like a GQ model. The time I yelled at a student before we had even entered the building for the day, which prompted a passing parent to reprimand me with, “You don’t have to talk to her like that.” (He was right.) But of all the mistakes I made, the most profound was this:

I was more preoccupied with my day than with the kids’ day. 

Nervous and elated, underprepared and overwhelmed, I was stuck in my own point of view: How was the knot in my (ghastly) tie? How loudly was I talking? Where was I standing? What did the other teachers think of my unconventional seating arrangement (slanted rows like the Council in a sci-fi movie)?

It took me a few months to flip that focus. What mattered, I eventually realized, were questions like these: How much did the kids get to talk today? How much did they get to move around? What did they get the chance to do, think, and create?

Once I made that shift, two things happened.

First, I became a lot less self-conscious. It didn’t matter if my slacks were too baggy or my voice was too high. It wasn’t about me. It was about the students. It was about Jahlissa, and Xiomara, and Anthony. It was about Ivan, and Carlos, and Tionni.

The second change is that my teaching got a lot better. The lecture portion of my lessons shrank from 25 minutes to five minutes, so the kids could do less passive listening and more active exploring, writing, and thinking.

I stopped thinking up all the brilliant, passionate things I would tell them. Instead, I started thinking up questions to help me discover what brilliant, passionate things they might have to tell me.

Along the way, I learned the most important lesson a teacher can learn: I really liked these kids. I liked their jokes. I liked their laughter. I liked the way even the toughest mohawked fourth grader would hold his little sister’s hand when he walked her to kindergarten.

How had I missed that? 

I had missed it by focusing on that curse of our educational system: compliance. I had missed it by seeing these 32 fourth-graders primarily in terms of their obedience or disruption to my many rules. I missed it by asking dumb questions that only had one right answer, instead of good questions that made me truly curious to hear what the kids would say.

I missed it by lingering in that self-centered state that gets knocked out of you once you become a teacher or a parent and realize that it’s no longer about you.

Teachers lose a lot, once we make that shift. We lose sleep. We lose time for our interests and hobbies. We lose about 50 pounds of ego.

But we gain something, too. We gain a delight in our students’ company. We gain gratitude for the honor inherent in being the only teacher that child will ever have for fourth grade, or sophomore English, or kindergarten. And we learn that no matter how skilled we may become at teaching, no matter how much we impart in a given year, the kids will always teach us more than we teach them.

There is a hard-won humility in that lesson. There’s a blessing, too.

23 Comments

Craig commented on September 3, 2013 at 2:12pm:

ummm...me too

It was a long time ago, but I have vivid memories of the same sort of thing!  One of the things that sets our profession apart from most others is the phrase, "My first year".  As a teacher, it sets that wonderful, frightful time apart from all the other years, doesn't it?

If you really care about kids and you want to be a great teacher-this is a pretty darn good blueprint.

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on September 3, 2013 at 9:46pm:

Yep.

You're right, Craig--there's something fundamentally different from other professions in that cycle of discrete units that are the school years.  So much of teaching seems to be about connecting the parts to the whole, and until you have completed that first year, it's hard to have a sense of the whole. 

Thanks for writing.

Joe Fatheree commented on September 19, 2013 at 4:32pm:

Never Forget-Just Don't Repeat

Craig,

I agree with you. Justin did a wonderful job of painting a picture of the woes of that first year of teaching and what an educator needs to do to climb to the top.  However, there was one line that I struggled with that I think is worth pointing out.  It goes as follows:  "Most of us wish we had selective amnesia about that first year."  I don't know that I necessarily agree with that.  It is true that I bumbled and stumbled along during those first couple of years.  The school of hard knocks is hard on its students.  At one point, it looked like I was trying to become the valedictorian at Hard Knocks U.  

I have thought about those first couple of years as I have grown older.  Like many of the people on this forum, I thought I was prepared to take on every challenge that was thrown my way.  Boy, was I wrong.  But how could I have been so wrong?  That is a question I have asked myself many times.  I worked hard as an undergraduate and had a great student teaching experience.  However, I found the learning curve was straight up once I walked into my own classroom.  Why?  Well, one of the reasons was that I had absolutely zero support.  One of my first jobs was to work with low-level readers in a high school ELA class.  I never saw my department head, principal, or really any one else during my first couple of years.  The Internet was only a thought. Online resources did not exist. There was no collaboration.  I was left on my own little lifeboat with no resources as I worked to help inspire a group of kids who absolutely hated school.  However, it was those kids who inspired me to keep trudging on.  Together we searched for answers.  It was through that journey that I learned how to teach.  

I have no desire to go back and relive my first year of teaching.  My students deserve better.  However, I don't want to forget that year either.  I don't want to forget my professional responsibilities as an educator.  As a veteran teacher, I have a responsibility to work with and mentor novice teachers.  I don't want either them or their students to go through the struggles I did.  Many of those issues were completely avoidable if only there were a little direction from someone who had already traveled down that road.  My goal is quite simple...decrease new enrollment at Hard Knocks U sec 101.

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on September 20, 2013 at 10:56am:

Beautifully said, Joe.

Great point, Joe.  That year is part of us, and we carry it with us.  The strange thing is, I was pretty happy that first year--from December on, I could tell I was getting better every week, and the kids were often a delight.  I had the camaraderie of Teach For America corps members, too--for all its flaws, I think TFA has figured out how important that support of peers can be. 

Now that we're better at this profession and have a little perspective, we're in a good place to support newer teachers to make sure that even if the first year is hard, it's hard in a good way, and they have the support to come out the other side both effective and fulfilled.

Brianna Crowley commented on September 3, 2013 at 3:28pm:

You've done it again...

As always with your writing Justin, you have both inspired and challenged me in that poignant way you have with words. I think I am in the midst of my own student-centered revolution...in my 7th year of teaching. It's been incremental over the years--learning the difference between scaffolding and spoon-feeding; learning to WAIT...truly wait...for my students to formulate their own answers; learning how to provide them with as much choice and voice as possible. 

You are right--it can be difficult to be student-centered in a system that values conformity and performing to a bell schedule (can you tell I work in a high school?). I'm being asked to monitor my students' clothing choices, language, forms of self-expression, music...When I see all of those as distractors to the transformative power of true learning. I do understand the need for some commonly agreed upon group norms, but our schools reach beyond that--back to an industrialized era where conformity seemed to lead to a modicum of prosperity. 

I notice my transformation in small ways--instead of preparing a polished presentation to "tell" students how to do something, I craft specific questions and then allow them to show me what they already know. I let them teach each other more. I care much less about the when of learning and much more about the whys and hows. Thanks for confirming that I'm on the right track--knowing I have so much more of that humility to learn. 

Brianna Crowley commented on September 3, 2013 at 4:10pm:

PS- I cross-posted this

I cross-posted this on GOOD.is. See the link below:

 

Share Your Story: How a Rough First Year Became A Career

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on September 3, 2013 at 6:06pm:

Thank you, Brianna.

Brianna, I love your reflections.  I think they point to why it's so critical to see teaching as a career, rather than as a step in a career ladder.  That incremental, gradual development that you talk about is so different from the idea of teachers as computers that can just be loaded with the correct software (a new phonics program, a workshop on Common Core) to meet district needs.  It's an art, and while that up-front content we get through conventional PD is important, what matters more is the honing and reflection that you describe so beautifully. 

Thanks for making the time to read and respond, for the kind words, and for the repost on GOOD--it's much appreciated. 

Sandy Merz commented on September 3, 2013 at 10:54pm:

Oh yeah

That was a time, huh?  Your first year teaching.  I was a lot smarter then than now.  I knew everything in fact.  Got my butt kicked every day, got my ego whipped out of me until there wasn't any left.  But alon the way, learned to find meaning in each day, and laughter, too.  I'd say my biggest lessons were: 1. Don't wait until October to smile (who ever came up with that anyway) 2. Bad behavior isn't personal 3.  Sincerity is the best form of classroom management (they can spot a fake a mile away). 

Today I watched a first year teacher from the window in her door while I waited before going into ask her something.  She was years ahead of me in my first year.  I swear, even though I couldn't hear a word, I got it all. 

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on September 4, 2013 at 10:39am:

Amen, Sandy.

I like your 3 rules, Sandy.  I'm curious to what extent you feel you're in a position to mentor new teachers, either through a formal structure or more informally.  I see mentoring and collaboration as the cornerstones of getting better at this craft.  You have much wisdom to share, my friend.

Jessica Cuthbertson commented on September 3, 2013 at 11:30pm:

Thank you!

"And we learn that no matter how skilled we may become at teaching, no matter how much we impart in a given year, the kids will always teach us more than we teach them."

Word.

Thank you, Justin...for putting students at the heart of this post, and therefore at the heart of the conversation, and for forcing all of us (first year teachers, year 10 teachers, or 30+ year teachers) to hold up a mirror and ask ourselves -- who was our classroom about today?  

I've learned so much since year one, but still have days, moments and entire lessons that give me pause (and probably always will).  Days when I know kids did not talk, create, think, question, and do enough active learning.  Thanks for providing this anchor for teachers to come back to -- so that we can continue to worry less about our teaching and more about the learning and the individual and inspiring learners we get to work with every day.

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on September 4, 2013 at 10:43am:

You made my day, Jessica.

Jessica, thanks for the very kind words.  I see a parallel to that "check-in" with parenting.  To give one example, I'm only reprimanded/corrected by others maybe once a month.  Yet I reprimand/correct my 5-year old daughter's behavior dozens of times a day.  It struck me the other day how hard/exhausting/annoying that must be for her. 

Kids in some ways have very little control over their lives--that's why I see best practices like providing plenty of choices and building in productive group work as being so critical.

Thanks for writing.

Julie Hiltz commented on September 4, 2013 at 12:40pm:

Well Said!

No matter where we are in our career this is something that we can all benefit from. A gentle reminder that no matter what challenges we have, we are here for one reason: the kids. As long as we keep that in mind we can and will do amazing things- and so will they.

 

Susan Graham commented on September 4, 2013 at 3:38pm:

A painful lesson remembered!

Oh Justin, this brought back memories of my student teaching way, way back in the day. My field is Family and Consumer Science, and my classroom was the clothing construction lab, a room with six huge tables, fifteen sewing machines, a dressing room, and a wall of full lenght mirrors. (Think Project Runway)  In my innocence and enthusiasm, I did my first unit of independent teaching on Personal Relationships with a class of high school seniors based on:

  • My knowledge of content acquired on those human relation  textbooks I read in class
  • My knowledge of students that I had know for about 10 days
  • My skills grounded in my experience of having dealt with parents, siblings, friends and significant others
  • My understandings gleaned from experiences as a someone with parents, siblings, friends, and boyfriends

I figured this would be easier than trying to manage independent sewing projects or a food lab in the kitchen. With all the enthusiasm of a 21 year-old almost teacher, I made up some magazine-type personal questionnaires, found a cool new filmstrip with a record (it was 1971, okay?),  put up a snazzy bulletin board, and typed up some nice handouts and worksheets. I encouraged them to ask lots of questions and offered really thoughtful answers based on my knowledge and experience. I remembered to look professional, project my voice, make eye contact, give positive non-verbal signals, and not lean over student's desk (skirts were very short back then and teachers didn't wear pants to school--at least not the female teachers!)  At the end of the unit I made up this little form to collect feedback because I was sure I would find some real jewels in there to share with  my supervisor.

Here's what one girl wrote that has been seared into my memory and makes me cringe 43 years later. She wrote:  "Why did you keep looking at yourself in the mirrors?"

  • Oh.
  • I thought it was all about me.
  • She thought it was all about her.
  • Lesson learned.
Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on September 5, 2013 at 11:41am:

Love these stories!

Susan, you brought this first-year story to life so vividly. It's remarkable how much we remember from that first year, while the others (at least for me) start to blur.  Maybe 'seared' is the right word...  ; )

That learning curve flattens out, but it keeps going--I have less severe cringes about things I did in my 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th year, and I'm sure a decade from now I'll cringe at things I do now in the classroom. 

We're works in progress, huh?

Thanks for this wonderful post.  I just wish you had captured it all on video... (or film strip, at least.)  ; )

Julie Minkel commented on September 4, 2013 at 3:58pm:

How a rough first year....

Justin, Once again you have reaffirmed my faith in humanity...You have offered, so simply, the way to move from being a stressed "policing" classroom manager to a delighted educator...It is humbling to learn it is no longer "about us," until we ultimately realize we and the children with whom
we share our days are a part of something much bigger. To foster wonder, curiosity, and confidence in a child is a lifelong gift from which we will all benefit.

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on September 5, 2013 at 11:44am:

Thanks, mom.

You definitely fostered that curiosity, confidence, and wonder in me, mom.  You got me thinking about a future blog post on the ways in which parenting our own children overlaps (and doesn't) with teaching our students.  In many ways, I think classrooms would benefit from applying the tenets of good parenting--boundaries but compassion, truly listening, shifting the focus to consider the child's point of view, and that fusion of responsibility and delight.  I owe much of the good parts of my teaching to the good parts of our childhood.  Thanks is too small a word, but...thanks.

Bill Ivey commented on September 5, 2013 at 5:28pm:

Did you catch...

... Bill Ferriter's extraordinary blog on what he has learned as a teacher from being a parent? Just as moving as your comment above - and pretty much the same theme. :-)

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on September 6, 2013 at 11:32am:

Teacher-Parents

Thanks, Bill Ivey, for the recommendation--Bill Ferriter's a great thinker and a great writer, and I'll check it out today.  I love talking about teaching and parenting with friends/colleagues who are both.  My friends often assume I'll be more critical of my daughter's kindergarten teacher because I'm a teacher.  While I do find myself biting my tongue to keep my internal monologue internal ("But there's all this research that teaching math in the morning is better for young kids..."), I generally find the opposite effect--that I'm more grateful for her efforts and expertise because I realize how difficult it is to, say, have 20 five-year olds quietly working at literacy centers beginning the 2nd week of school.

Thanks for writing.

Ann Byrd commented on September 5, 2013 at 10:54pm:

Not-so-fond memories, but...

Justin,

Thanks (I think) for the walk down memory lane. If I had been more concerned about my students and less focused on ME during my first year, I may not have had to fight off nausea for the first six weeks of school. Some of what I reacll from the fall of 1983: Ridiculous lesson plans created by my sleep-deprived brain that would take five hours to actually do instead of the 50 minutes I had; scared to death I would call a student by the wrong name and embarrass myself (nope, did not think about what it would do the student's ego - I am now ashamed to admit); and being scared to death of the school secretary, who seemed to have more power than the superintendent!

I don't think I began to comfortably make the tremendous shift of "being ALL about the students" in year two or even three. But at some point along the way I realized I was teaching MYSELF and doing a lot of homework and thinking MYSELF - and leaving my students out of it for the most part. Once I was able to "flip that focus" you so eloquently describe, I became the teacher that I wanted to be but was never satisifed with being static in my practice. It was all about uncluttering the content by focusing on my relationships with the students - and making sure they knew that THEY mattered to me. I changed my answer to the common question of teachers. "What do you teach?" "I teach high school seniors." (At least I did after my first three years. Until then I was teaching English Language Arts.)

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on September 6, 2013 at 11:43am:

Becoming a different kind of human being

Ann, I love your thoughtful comment/reminiscence.  (Is there a word for 'reminiscence that makes us shudder?'  Probably some 18-syllable word in German.)  Reading your insights, it strikes me again how fundamentally teaching changes you as a human being.  When I look at your tremendous work through CTQ, for example, I see that same focus on others that you gained through the kind of teacher you became.  You're quietly lifting up teacher-leaders, rather than students, but I see the same tenets at work--quietly using your own brilliance and expertise to guide teacher-leaders toward discovering our own potential. 

There's a great line applied to Tolstoy's work that "The mature human being sees herself/himself not as the main character in the novel, but as a supporting character in someone else's story."  I think of that line relative to three examples:

History: We hear a lot about Martin Luther King, Jr., and for good reason, but not nearly enough about the hundreds of "ordinary" African-American women who organized the marches, the boycotts, and the crowds for his speeches that made his impact possible.

Teaching: I love Barnett's line about "the profession that makes all others possible."  People talk about our job as "shaping" students, and there's some truth to that, but we also unlock their own truth for the kind of life and profession they want to have.

Parenting: I remember vividly the first performance I went to where instead of watching what was happening on stage, I watched my daughter's face as she reacted to what was on stage. It's a fundamental shift.

Jon Eckert commented on September 6, 2013 at 6:30pm:

So true in so many ways

Justin,

Your observations about your first year and Ann are so true. I need that 18-syllable German word to describe my shuttering. Ann does still lead this way - in fact, she is the one that pointed me to this post.

I will be sharing this blog with all of my pre-service teachers in class on Tuesday night. Thanks for this.

Justin Minkel Justin Minkel commented on September 7, 2013 at 1:15pm:

John Holland's brilliant blog post

In case you missed it, John has a wonderful post on this very same topic from an early childhood perspective.  Love the way he frames empathy as being rooted in imagination.

Here's the link: John's piece

Cindi Rigsbee commented on September 9, 2013 at 12:14pm:

Thanks for the memories...

Wow, Justin! Were you THERE my first year?!! You had me at "The times we were too nice and regretted it. The times we were too mean and regretted it more." My first year was 34 years ago, and I haven't forgotten ONE minute of it.

Enjoyed your post!

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