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. ♦