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Diary of a First-Year Teacher: Looking Back

June 19, 2016

Shelby Denhof


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This is the final installment in a year-long series of written and video diary entries by Shelby Denhof, who is letting us follow her first year of teaching. To see all entries, click here.


I’m not the best with details. I’m more of a “big picture” kind of person. I struggle with names, remembering faces, and recalling important facts. Heck, I can’t even tell you what I had for breakfast yesterday (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration). But I am confident I’ll never forget this first group of students. Every beautiful, silly detail of this year has lodged itself into my memory and will continue to be a source of wisdom and inspiration for years to come. I can feel it.

Boiling down this momentous year into a succinct, bullet-pointed list of lessons doesn’t even come close to covering the depth of knowledge Year 1 gave me. However, there are a number of things that stand out to me as the most important things to share:

What I’ve Learned

Relationships are everything.
This isn’t exactly new, but it always bears repeating. Every kid needs to feel valued and listened to for them to buy into what’s being taught. What’s great about that is is that it’s easy to give. At the end of the year, many of my students told me how much they appreciated that I greeted them every day, or smiled at them, or addressed them by name, or asked about what was going on in their lives. To me, those are simple things, things I don’t even think about. But to them, it made them feel special.

Look to the students for direction.
Leadership doesn’t come from the top and trickle down. My students dictate what I do. I need to look to them for guidance on what’s working and what’s not and adapt to meet their needs, not the other way around.

Be firm with behavioral expectations.
“You need to scare me if you want me to do something,” one boy, Dominick, told me frankly. “When I’m messing around, you tell me to stop, but it’s not scary. You need to freak kids out a bit to get them to stop.”

I took this to mean that there need to be consequences that are consistently followed when misbehavior happens. I thought that because I have good relationships with my kids, they would respect what I say. That’s definitely not true and was naive of me to think. I let these certain students go on ignoring my rules for far too long, and by the time I started doing something about it, it was too late. Their misbehavior was a habit by then and it became a power struggle. I resented these students for a long part of the year, but looking back, I shouldn’t have ever let it get to that point. The year ended on a strong note with most of those kids, but having some more consistency with discipline is my #1 focus for the upcoming year.

Grow some thick insulation.
I’m a sensitive person. I care a whole lot, and that’s a good thing. That’s what makes me me. However, I can’t let myself be completely open to every hardship someone is going through. This is something I’m still struggling to accept. When I’ve shared stories with older teachers about difficult situations my kids are in, many respond to it in a cold and callused way. Why don’t they seem to care as much as I do? I’d ask myself, angered by their lack of compassion.

What I realize now, though, is that they almost have to respond that way. If we open ourselves up to every bad thing, it can destroy us. There are a number of times when I’ve been emotionally wrecked by some of my students’ experiences and that puts me in a place where I can’t work or think properly, ultimately cutting me off from others and preventing me from being a good mentor and teacher. It’s really difficult navigating that line between being open to these hardships, but emotionally detached enough to stay strong at the same time.

What I’ll Do Differently

Set the bar higher.
I didn’t expect seventh graders to be capable of much at the beginning of the year. I figured their immaturity was inevitable and their academic and social understanding of the world would be, quite frankly, low and embarrassing. Boy was I wrong. They will rise to meet any bar I set, and will do so eagerly (most of the time).

Always have a Plan B (and C, and D).
My biggest rookie mistake was sometimes not having enough to for my students to do. I’d think that there’s no way for kiddos could finish the activity I planned in an hour, yet a half hour into class I’d have half a dozen kids up in my face relentlessly asking, “What do I do now?” That kind of free time can lead to absolute destruction and chaos. It’s good to have lots of backup plans and activities, especially for the more advanced kids who crave a challenge (as long as it’s not just busy work).

Don’t put things off.
Specifically, grading. Grading is the worst. Somehow I would let it pile up and then I would get all stressed out, which would prevent me from actually getting it done in a timely manner, and then I’d repeat this stupid cycle the next time something big was due. Don’t do that.

Grading aside, another thing I put off for far too long was incorporating service learning into my classroom. My students proved to me time and time again that if I’m passionate about something, they will be too. My classes and I did a number of drives to collect needed items for nearby organizations, and that was satisfying for a while (for our first drive, my students collected over 650 articles of clothing for a group that works with children in the foster care system!), but I knew taking kids out into the community to volunteer would be much impactful for them. For a few weekends in a row, I met up with students at the local Ronald McDonald House to cook elaborate meals for the families staying there. My students who participated kept saying it was the best thing we did all year and are begging me to open that up to 8th graders next year so they can do it again. It’s a shame I waited until the last month of school to do this. Next year, I’m going to set aside one weekend a month to volunteer with my kiddos.

What I Wish I Knew From the Start

Put yourself out there.
Many times this year, I caught myself making excuses as to why I shouldn’t do or ask for something. I’d say, Well, it’s just my first year here. Maybe I can do that next year. I considered speaking at a local conference, but convinced myself no one would want to listen to a first year teacher. I eventually joined an environmental group that connects schools with the local community, but I put it off for so long that I was only able to go to one community event. I didn’t join earlier because I told myself it wasn’t that relevant to what I teach (which was wrong). I regret not pushing myself to go more out of my comfort zone and for using Year 1 as an excuse for delaying my goals.

It’s okay to say no.
Saying no to everything is obviously a bad plan, but there are times when it’s a good idea to turn something down (yes, even to superiors). With that said, being a team player is immensely valuable because A) It makes you friends, and B) People do more favors for friends. However, if I’m trying to balance my work/home life and also trying to accomplish my own personal and professional goals, there’s not enough hours in the day to do everything. Something has to give. I think people can be accepting of that after I prove that I’m still helping the ‘team’ out in my own way.

Middle schoolers really are smelly.
I thought spring was a beautiful time of the year until I began teaching 7th grade and all the armpit smells started coming out after spring break. It doesn’t hurt to have a few travel-size deodorant sticks in the room for those emergency situations (that is, when I feel brave enough to even tell them they stink).

Kids write more and better when they can type.
When one of my coworkers shared this revelation with me, it felt like the epitome of a duh moment. Of course students will be more willing to naturally edit their writing if it’s easier to do so. As simple as it sounds, I didn’t realize that until three-fourths of the year had passed. I started having my students type their responses to the assigned Articles of the Week and the quality skyrocketed.


Nearly a year ago this time, I got the call from my principal offering me the job. I was out to lunch with friends and had missed the call. I walked out of the restaurant to listen to the voicemail simply asking me to call him back. I was so nervous, my hands wouldn’t work. I dialed his number nearly a dozen times before I hit the right numbers. Fast-forward a week and I was seeing my classroom for the first time. My principal gave me a tour, even showing me the view I have outside my windows. I was uncharacteristically silent, awed by the reality that this was actually happening.

How has a year gone by already?

While I might not be good at remembering all details, the events surrounding these lessons play vividly in my mind like a movie. I can hear each word said, see every expression, feel every emotion again. Those memories are here to stay. This year was too important to forget. ♥



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. Absolutely lovely and full of wisdom. I am not surprised. Cheers to you, Ms. Denhoff. I am so glad you went straight into the beautiful fray.

  2. Leighann Miling says:

    Thank you for the advice! This coming year will be my first year teaching as well and I loved hearing your thoughts!

  3. Kylie says:

    I’m a third year teacher in Australia and most of what you said resonated with me. It’s brave of you to put your experiences (particularly the lessons learned the hard way) out into the public domain. I also think that writing this diary entry is a fabulous way of reflecting on your teaching & learning – I’ll now be doing something similar at the end of the semester. Thank you!

  4. Congratulations! Yes, I still remember my first group of students, way back in 1993. Your lessons learned are all super important, and in some cases will be things you learn over and over throughout the years. I love that you are volunteering with your kids. When I was a single, non-parent teacher, I took students hiking a bunch, and it did so much to help me see the whole person, and to create goodwill with entire families. I hope your trip is terrific.

  5. Krystal L. Smith says:

    Great post! I wish I would have chronicled my first year of teaching in a blogging format! (I have my first year teaching portfolio, and it is extremely thick!) You will always have this to reflect on! Your lessons learned are insightful and useful to any new teacher!

  6. fira says:

    Wow, i can relate to your story so much, i was like picturing myself as i read it. 🙂

  7. Johnette says:

    Hi Shelby! I am so happy that you survived your first year of teaching! Was it not the most beautiful experience? I have taught for quite a while and absolutely love my “calling.” I agree with you that you can’t respond to all of the bad experiences that students enter your classroom with; however, you can shower them with your unconditional love. Trust me, it pays to build trusting relationships with your students…no matter what age group. I knew immediately that you have a dedicated passion for your calling. Just wait! Year two will be even more amazing! May God bless you! 😇
    Ms. A in Texas

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