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Diary of a First-Year Teacher: Setting Goals

August 26, 2015

Shelby Denhof


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I’m thrilled to introduce Shelby Denhof, who will be letting us follow her first year of teaching in a series of written and video diary entries. To see all entries in the series, click here.


I’m writing this from my own desk in my own classroom. Mine. I was offered a 7th grade English Language Arts position three weeks ago and this is my first time in my classroom.

From my chair, I see bare walls, clean marker boards, and rows of desks. When I open drawers and cupboards, I find remnants of the teacher before me: three pads of sticky notes, a handful of paper clips, and a file cabinet stuffed to the brim with who knows what. I have a lot of work ahead of me, but sitting at this desk feels like a success in itself.

I’m about to start my first year of teaching.

A lot came before this. In college, I worked in a number of traditional and nontraditional learning environments: I’ve been a sixth-grade camp counselor, an after-school P.E. teacher, a literacy tutor, an intern with the Lake Michigan Writing Project, a German instructor. I set out to garner as much experience as I could working with kids before graduating. For student teaching, I had the privilege of working with the person I consider to be my long-time mentor and role model and I taught English and German at the high school level. After student teaching, I was immediately hired as a paraprofessional for a high school in Grand Rapids, Michigan. There, I worked primarily with kids labeled “at risk,” as well as special needs students and English language learners. I learned more there than I ever did in college.

All of these experiences taught me something and helped form who I am as an educator, but few prepared me for working with middle schoolers. This will be a new adventure entirely.

Since I began writing this entry, I’ve begun to fill my shelves with books for my students to read. I wrote a quote on the board. I organized a cabinet. Like I said, there’s a lot to do, and that’s not even with the curriculum.




It’s taken me a long time to decide how to arrange my desks. I don’t enjoy rows because I find that rows aren’t conducive to group work or sharing with peers in any way, but I’m going back and forth on how to clump the desks together, debating between stations of two, stations of four, or creating a horseshoe-shaped arrangement. For now, I’ve committed to creating stations of four, making it easy to do think-pair-share activities, share journals, and play games, which I love incorporating in my lessons to get kids actively learning and participating. My biggest doubt about this setup has to do with classroom management. With the desks being so close together in their groups, I have a fear in the back of my head that kids will find talking to their peers irresistible or maybe even share work. For now, though, I’m going to give this setup a try while I figure out what works best for me and my students.

I’m overwhelmed with the number of hopes and goals I have for my first year. I want my kids to read more, write more, and speak more. I want to make learning more interactive with in-class debates, discussions, and games. I want to incorporate articles of the week and journaling to propel meaningful conversation. I want to embed service learning into what we do as a class. The list goes on.


But I need to take a breath. I’ve been told before that beginning teachers should focus on doing one or two new things really well instead of doing many new things haphazardly. Now, I’m a “go big or go home” kind of person, but that advice speaks some truth to me. When I was student teaching, I gave it my all; the classes were mine to do what I wanted with them and my cooperating teachers gave me an absurd amount of freedom. I put everything I had into making those classes rock, consistently working thirteen hour days, and I’d find myself crying out of stress at least once a week. Best case scenario would be a few tears on Sunday evening, feeling overwhelmed with planning and grading. Worst case scenario would be a time like one weekend where I received a minor injury that required stitches; the whole hospital process backed up my schedule so badly, I couldn’t do any of the work I needed to to survive the week (or, that’s at least how it felt), and I became a bucket of tears. Any small hiccup—stitches or not—was a threat to my fragile, inefficient system. The heavy pile of obligations was too much at points because I was working just days ahead of my students. Now, student teaching really was a big success for me, but is that lifestyle sustainable? Heck no. And I’m not going to let myself get like that again.

Therefore, time management is my biggest goal for the year. I need to make the clock my boss and cut myself off from working at a certain point. If I have a lot of time to work on something, I won’t stop. I desperately need to get better at creating quality lesson- and unit plans and grading within a reasonable amount of time. I’m also giving Saturdays back to myself—one day a week with no school obligations. We’ll see how long that lasts, but it’s a solid step to keeping me sane this year.

Just as important for my sanity, I need to maintain the mindset that I have value, even as a newbie. I’m the only first-year teacher at my school in a sea of seasoned professionals. That intimidates me. Thoughts run through my mind if they’ll accept me and take me seriously. At low points, I question what I have to offer.




The thing is, though, when I really think about it, I have unique experiences, most coming from working with at-risk youth. My principal highlighted how excited he is to have me on the team because of my youth and enthusiasm. The superintendent mentioned how thrilled he is to have me on board because I offer the opportunity to expand German in the middle school as well. Many times, what seems normal to me can be completely new to my more experienced colleagues. I already saw that when I shared the reading comprehension strategies I use with students to members of my department. As a new teacher, I have a completely different perspective than those around me and I think that kind of diversity in thought is going to be valuable to the school. I just need to trust myself with my ideas as well as be open to the advice of others.

Now I’m back at my desk, nearly invisible under piles of books and folders and dusty supplies. Outside my window, I see two boys skateboarding on the sidewalk. I wonder if they’ll be students of mine in just a few short weeks. I can’t help but smile at that thought. So much needs to happen between now and the first day of school, but I feel oddly at peace. I’m about to leave my classroom for the day, but I’ll be back tomorrow. I shut off the lights and take one last peek at my room before closing the door. ♦


If you’re a new teacher, the Cult of Pedagogy New Teacher Checklist will provide a structure to follow as you progress through the school year. To download a free copy, just sign up for my mailing list. You’ll get the checklist, plus all the other free downloads in my Members-Only Library. (If you’re already a subscriber and want this resource, just check your most recent email for a link to the Members-Only Library!)



  1. I admire that you are writing and reflecting–what a model. I’ve come to firmly believe that this is what teachers should just do–it should be an expectation as natural as taking a breath. Also, embrace the talk and chatter. Middle school learning environments are messy…and noisy…and wonderful. Turning and talking is some of the best prewriting and/or revision young students can engage in.

    • Shelby Denhof says:

      Thanks for your kind words and for taking the time to read and comment on my article, Brian! I’m pumped to be working with middle schoolers for the reasons you mentioned– their energy, enthusiasm, and excitement. I’ll be sure to take your advice and let them collaborate often with their peers.

  2. How brave you are: live broadcasting your first year as a teacher! I’m looking forward to it. As part of the intro, can you give us a little info on the school and context? Admittedly, this is less personal but it helps us understand your challenge Is your school suburban, rural, or urban? Title I? Demographics? Does your class have an EOT or other standardized test that your students, and you, will get measured on? Are you a common core state? Smarter Balance or PARCC? You know, just the basics. thanks.

    • Shelby Denhof says:

      Here’s a bit about my district: it’s a large suburban district outside of Grand Rapids, MI. Michigan is a Common Core state and our testing is based off of Smarter Balance. My students will be taking a test through Discovery Education this year, which affects part of my evaluation. I have a lot to learn still about the testing done in my district, plus we are in a transition phase from MEAP to MSTEP and from ACT to SAT. My school district really is awesome, though. There’s so much community support and we have excellent administrators. I hope this provided at least a little bit of insight for you! Thanks for taking the time to read my article and ask questions.

  3. Ahhhh! This is so awesome! Ah! I know that person!

    What wonderful writing, Shelby. Keep it up. I’m looking forward to reading tons of these. And: what a great mentor you have in JGonz!

    • Shelby Denhof says:

      Thanks for the kind words and support, Dave. Hope you’re doing well!

  4. Nice reflections! I had varied experiences before teaching, then I left after a few years. I’m headed back into my own classroom after some time off, and it feels exactly like you’ve described.

    • Shelby Denhof says:

      Thanks for the support, Jeff. Good luck this year being back in your classroom!

  5. mary ann says:


  6. This was a great post, Shelby, and great idea, Jennifer.

    Writing weekly reflections has been the best professional development activity of my teaching career, and it is insightful and comforting to hear many of the same thoughts I have as I enter my fifth year of teaching as you prepare for your first.

    Your goal of time management is a wise choice. There are many times still when I feel that I spend time working because I feel I SHOULD be working, not that I NEED to be working. A well-rested, sane teacher is better than an over-prepared, stressed out one, in my opinion.

    Looking forward to more of your posts!

    • Shelby Denhof says:

      I totally relate to feeling like I should be working instead of needing to be working. I feel like I even fell into that trap today! I also can spread myself out too thinly by tackling multiple projects at once instead of one at a time, which (for me) makes me less productive. These are all things I’ll definitely be working on this year so I can stay sane! Thanks for taking the time to comment, Gerard. Good luck with your school year!

  7. Ruth says:

    Dear Shelby. Oh my. I remember that feeling, and I think that I needed to remember it right now. On Monday, I will be heading in to school to begin my th year. Even though I don’t have that glorious sense of the unknown, the adventure that I had as a brand new teacher, I know it’s important to find some adventure even in the known. You reminded me of what that feels like. I, like you, can’t wait to meet my students. We are so lucky to be in a profession that allows us to have a “clean slate” every single year! Even when it’s old hat, those dear students will be as new to you as this first group will be. You’ll remember this class forever!

    Shelby, I hear the edge of fear too. Teaching can also be a terrifying career. I still have crazy nightmares after every single vacation. But I’m reassured when I remember that I have my systems in place — I’ve worked hard for a long time to develop procedures that work and that help me stay organized. That will come for you, too. Until it does, you may feel overwhelmed sometimes. Don’t beat yourself up! As you said, you can’t focus on everything at once. Getting to know the students and preparing lessons that work are more important right now.

    Here is a terrific book that helped me to get organized and to budget my time (a bit) more wisely: The Together Teacher by Maia Heyck-Merlin. You won’t have time to read it for a while, but when you do, you’ll find lots to appreciate.

    And those desks? Don’t sweat it. You can move them whenever you want to — sometimes I move mine two or three times a week, depending on the activity.

    All the best!

    • Shelby Denhof says:

      Wow, Ruth, what a thoughtful comment! I’m happy to hear that my post resonated with you on so many levels. I love what you said about each year being exciting because it’s a clean slate. We have such fun jobs. And thanks for the book recommendation! I’ll have to check it out; budgeting my time isn’t my strong suit just yet! Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment on the first post in this series. Keep an eye out for the next installment 🙂

  8. Huntar Martin says:

    Hi Shelby!
    I stumbled across this website on Pinterest and then found your blog series. I graduated from Hope College and have some friends who graduated from Rockford! Small world! Anyway, I am also going to be starting as a first year teacher next week and can totally relate to wanting to “go big or go home” and resonated with the idea of focussing on one or two things at a time. I will be keeping up with your series and wish you the best of luck!

  9. B. Sarv says:

    I have been teaching for 19 years and still get the thrill as if it was the first. I owe a lot to my mentors. A few weeks ago I read a blog by @justinaion reminding new teachers they are not alone. I shared it with the new members of the department I head. So, to use Justin’s phrase, remember you are not alone. Ask for help if you need it. @learnmath4us

  10. Hannah Reames says:

    Hi, Shelby,

    I’m doing a discourse analysis of first-year teacher blogs for my Master’s thesis in English. Just out of curiosity, is your school Title 1 or low-income?

    Love your voice that comes through in your writing as you retell your experiences. I’m a 7th grade writing teacher and found your posts relatable to my experience.


    • Shelby Denhof says:

      Hi, Hannah. Thank you for such kinds words. In regards to your question: no, my school is not considered low-income or a Title 1 school. Good luck with your analysis and please reach out to me again if you have any questions. My email is

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