Time to Learn

The first year of teaching can be an exhausting nightmare. Here's how one teacher not only survived but stayed true to her vision of good teaching.

By Kelly Dawson

My alarm had not yet gone off, but I was wide awake. My stomach was in knots and I knew I would not be able to eat breakfast. I longed to turn over, go back to sleep, wait for the alarm, hit snooze.

But there was no way. It was a school day, September, my first year of teaching.

I was teaching third grade at a bilingual school on Milwaukee’s south side. Those who had hired me and placed me in a fast-track alternative teacher certification program had been eager to get me into the classroom. But on mornings like this, I felt I’d been misled. I was spending six hours a day in my classroom and nearly another six hours planning, rehearsing, and worrying. Even sleep became an extension of my job, and I searched my dreams for the perfect combination of compassion, creativity, and classroom control.

Needless to say, I hadn’t found the magic formula, either in my classroom or in my dreams. I worried that my teaching career was going to be short-lived.

I dragged myself out of bed and called a friend. My worries poured forth: I am no good at this. It is too hard for me to learn the things I need to learn. There are so many jobs that would be easier and pay better. Finally, I called the question: Should I just walk away from this whole thing?

I had been a teacher for less than a month. My friend’s advice proved wise. The job of a first year teacher is hard enough, he said. Don’t add to your difficulties by beating up on yourself. Let up a little so you have the time and the space to become a good teacher.

I took the advice. I stopped thinking I would conquer the profession in my first few months on the job.


Yet my fears persisted. The kind of teacher I wanted to become was fairly clear in my mind. But it seemed to have nothing to do with the reality I experienced every day.

I knew I wanted to build a classroom community in which students feel safe, both emotionally and physically. I wanted each student to be able to bring his or her cultural background and experiences into the classroom and to feel important and valued. I hoped to create an atmosphere of respect and cooperation. I wanted students to “behave themselves” without feeling threatened or burdened by punishments. I was also committed to high academic expectations, and helping each student learn and progress. I wanted to infuse an anti-racist, social justice perspective into my classroom and hoped to share my own activist background with my students. I wanted to encourage my students to think critically and to learn to take action to create a more just world.

I taught in a two-way bilingual classroom (with both English-dominant and Spanish-dominant students) and I knew it was going to be a challenge to meet my students’ diverse cultural and academic needs, especially in reading and language proficiency. I knew that as an Anglo teacher in a classroom of Latino and African-American students, I would have to examine my actions and interactions through a critical lens. I knew I would have to listen to parents and to other teachers, especially parents and teachers of color.


Reality soon set in. I struggled with discipline, organization, and curriculum. I felt disillusioned when my students seemed more comfortable with an authoritarian style rather than one which emphasized self-discipline. I found little support for teaching about social justice and anti-racism. Administrators, colleagues, and classmates in my certification program were willing to listen to my ideas, but did not respond as enthusiastically as I had hoped.

Faced with trying to do and learn everything at the same time, I sought advice from as many people as I could. I heard different messages and it was hard to know who to listen to. Some educators told me that I needed to use borderline-authoritarian classroom management techniques. Once I was “experienced,” they reasoned, I could vary them. My teaching style reflected my ambivalence about the advice. Some days, I tried to understand why certain students were misbehaving. I talked with students, showed compassion, called home, held conferences. Other times I became tired of this and allowed myself to follow a veteran teacher’s well-intentioned but flawed advice: “With this group, you’ll just have to act like a drill sergeant.”

I felt that part of the discipline puzzle would be solved if I could just offer my students good, engaging lessons. And yet I was overwhelmed by the task of choosing the content I wanted to teach. Again, the advice and expectations were traditional: follow the curriculum. I was sent to inservices on the basal, Power Writing, and our district’s new math series. I could see some value in each, but also saw gaping holes. The social studies curriculum, in particular, seemed worlds away from what I wanted to teach.

The assessment program was equally circumscribed. Our district requires lots of standardized testing and test preparation. School administrators handed me a stack of Target Teach materials in October and told me to administer four practice reading tests before the actual reading test in March. They expected me to tabulate the results of each practice test and re-teach the specific testing skills that my students lacked.


I spent the fall sorting through the various expectations and figuring out where and how they related to my own goals. As first semester ended, I had made little progress in teaching social justice issues. But I had experimented with creating a positive classroom community and an organized, disciplined environment. I had also begun to pick and choose useful pieces from my school’s reading, writing, and math curricula.

One example was my evolving reading program. Like many teachers, I had little access to multiple copies of books outside of our basals. In the beginning of the year, I had followed the advice of administrators and my mentor in my certification program. I used my teacher’s guide faithfully and trudged through the basal story by story. By mid-semester, I had scrapped this plan and was picking selected stories. I also dropped many of the suggested lessons and invented my own. Instead of dutifully teaching the Three Little Hawaiian Pigs, which felt like a superficial attempt to put a multicultural spin on a traditional tale, I chose to teach more true-to-life stories such as Halmoni and the Picnic, about a Korean immigrant girl and her grandmother, and Chicken Sunday, a story built around inter-generational, cross-cultural friendships. I helped students compare the cultural backgrounds of the characters in Chicken Sunday, and discussed why Halmoni might feel shy about having her classmates meet her grandmother.

It was not exactly where I wanted to be, but it was subtle progress. (It seems ironic to me now, 18 months later, that I spent so much time fretting over such things. I know I have to provide an organized, disciplined classroom environment, and administer state-mandated standardized tests. But I do not have to act like a boss, follow a prescribed “teacher-proof” curriculum, or agree to excessive test-prep activities. As a professional I have the authority to do what I think is most beneficial to my students.)

Part of the confidence I needed to take even small steps in advancing my vision came from conversations with colleagues. Although I continued to feel overwhelmed by the traditional nature of my professional training, I pulled together a loose cadre of teacher friends and coworkers and talked with them regularly. In particular, teacher friends who I had long known through political activism offered encouragement and support.

Pulling together a supportive group of colleagues during one’s first year of teaching can seem like just one more burden, but I found it worth the extra effort. There was no one place where I found support. As part of my alternative certification, I attended class twice a week with new teachers going through the same experience I was. I collaborated with colleagues at school. I attended events held by education activist groups such as Rethinking Schools.


It wasn’t until January that I realized I was not going to become the kind of teacher I wanted by following traditional advice. I didn’t want to wait much longer to teach about issues of racism and social justice. Perhaps this was the first time that I had enough of the basics in place to spend significant time working on my own curriculum. Or perhaps I realized that the time would never be “just right.”

In preparation for our school’s African-American history program in February, I taught a unit on the Civil Rights Movement, drawing ideas from a Rethinking Schools article by Kate Lyman (Vol. 14#1, Fall 1999). (I had been floored to learn that my third-graders had very little understanding of the concept of “rights.”)

Our studies centered around the Montgomery bus boycott and the integration of the schools in Little Rock, Ark. We discussed racism, discrimination, justice, rights, mass movements, and freedom. Students wrote and performed a play about the bus boycott. They researched famous people of color who had fought for change. For the first time, I felt I was attempting the kind of teaching I wanted to do.

I was also acutely aware of the unit’s limitations. It focused on the changes brought about by the Civil Rights Movement, but downplayed the racism and injustice that continue today. Our studies highlighted the achievements of a few well-known leaders but somewhat overshadowed the importance of thousands of other participants. And despite my fledgling awareness of different theories of multicultural/anti-racist education, I did not manage to include activities that helped students themselves become activists in fighting racism.

Despite the weaknesses, I learned a lot teaching that unit. One important lesson: teaching about something real and important is more effective in creating an orderly, disciplined classroom environment than acting like a drill sergeant.

Just as I was beginning this unit, my mentor said she wanted me to work on discipline. She insisted that I needed to be firmer and more consistent with my students. “You aren’t going to like doing it,” she told me, “but you have to do it.”

I agreed with my mentor that my discipline had been inconsistent. I felt this was partly because I had not been teaching the quality of lessons my students deserved. During the Civil Rights unit, I was able to offer lessons that I believed were worth their time. I also felt fewer qualms about consistently applying our classroom rules; rule enforcement stopped being a series of punishments for bored students and instead became a prerequisite to accomplishing serious and relevant learning.

The moment was sweet, but it didn’t last long. By March, the third grade reading test was upon us. My teaching was derailed for three weeks as I coaxed, prodded and bribed my students through their first experience with a standardized test. Going into the testing, I thought my students were well-prepared. But nonetheless the testing process was grueling.


I felt very official as I followed my test administrator’s script: “You may now begin the test.” Immediately, two students began to cry. I made a beeline for one of them and our teaching assistant headed for the other. After 15 minutes of sweet-talking, trips to the drinking fountain, and pats on the back, all of the students were working on the test.

I walked around, looking over students’ shoulders and trying to maintain a positive outward appearance. Inside, I worried. I was not overly concerned about how students would do on the test, but wondered how this stressful experience would affect the confidence of several students who didn’t have a lot of self-esteem to lose. Even though I prefaced the test-taking with weeks of “this doesn’t really tell people anything about who you are,” some students felt great pressure to succeed.

I didn’t receive the results of the reading test until almost the last week of school. The principal presented them to my partner teacher and me with a comment of congratulations — our students had done well. I fought the urge to be proud, forcing myself to remember that the test was not a particularly accurate or useful measure of students’ reading skills (or of my teaching skills). I smiled, thanked my principal, filed the result sheet away, and went on with my day. My students and I had gone through a lot and the final chapter felt anticlimactic.

There was no let-up after the third grade reading test. Evenings and weekends, I still struggled to find the energy to attend classes and complete my certification program. Before I knew it, I was staying up late to finish my last round of report cards.


What did I accomplish during that whirlwind of a first year?

My uncertainty at the beginning of the year and the conservative advice I received made for a slow start. It took time to pull together a group of people whose advice I accepted and trusted, to sort through the demands of my school and district, and to feel confident enough to assert my own vision. It took some experimenting to see that discipline is not a question of bossing students but of providing interesting, challenging material and helping them meet the challenge.

I caught glimpses of myself doing the kind of teaching I wanted, but it wasn’t much to show for a whole year. I reminded myself of the advice that had served me well all year: don’t get too down on myself; maintain high expectations but take time and space to develop my skills.

I learned that it was easy to become isolated in my classroom and that it takes extra energy to connect with other educators. Equally important, I learned that without such help, it is difficult to grow.

I began to form stronger alliances with educators in other schools with a commitment to social justice and anti-racist teaching. I became active in community organizing around education. (I had long been active in struggles around global economic justice, immigrant rights, indigenous rights, and other issues.) I attended school board hearings and became active with the Coalition for Responsible Assessment in Milwaukee. I began to participate with Rethinking Schools. All of this took time. But I felt I had no choice but to fight the funding cuts and excessive testing that, on a daily basis, threatened my ability to be a better teacher.

I am now finishing my second year of teaching (I transferred to a different school my second year). I often feel the way I did on that September morning my first month of teaching: dissatisfied and worried that I am not making enough progress. While keeping a critical eye on my own practice, I have also begun to think more critically about teacher education programs. Even though I am now certified, I still need ongoing professional training. Like many new and veteran teachers, I need help with effective teaching methods, curriculum, classroom organization and discipline. Like all teachers, I need help examining my biases, developing culturally competent practices, and being a teacher that works against racism and classism in our schools instead of reinforcing it.

I often feel that these responsibilities fall squarely on my own shoulders and that there is little support from the educational system. This, I think, is what leads so many new teachers to drop out Whenever I feel overwhelmed by the lack of support, I fight the urge to leave teaching. Instead, I try to speak up about what teachers need to succeed.

As I struggle towards my vision of good teaching, I remind myself of what I have accomplished so far. I am less isolated and have close ties with other progressive teachers. I am more confident about developing curriculum and a teaching style that reflect my politics. I still need time and guidance, but some of the conditions are in place for me to someday become the teacher I want to be.

I have a long way to go. But I’m on my way.

Vol. 15, No. 4

Time to Learn

Teaching and Cultural Competence

Lessons Learned

Race and the Achievement Gap

Resisting High-Stakes Tests

Ohio Teachers Give Tests an ‘F’

Nationwide Protests Target Tests

Nationwide Protests Target Tests

Vouchers, Accountability, and Money

Learning to Read ‘Scientifically’

Bush’s Bad Idea for Bilingual Education

Learning From Ladakh

“The Case of Cultural Destruction”

Ladakh Situations

‘For My People’

Radical Equations

Questions Are The Answer

Haiku and Hiroshima

Paper Cranes and Peace

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Kelly Dawson (skoolied@yahoo.com), an editorial associate of Rethinking Schools, currently teaches fourth grade at La Escuela Fratney in Milwaukee.