Transitioning from college to the real world brought with it a series of emotions from sheer excitement and determination to fear and doubt. I have known that I wanted to be an early childhood educator since the time I was playing school in the basement with my younger sisters. Fast forward to the present; I am graduated from Illinois State and have landed my first teaching job. After becoming extremely proficient in the lengthy online application process for a number of months, I received an interview for a preschool position near my hometown. Upon arriving, I learned specifically what the job would entail, including that it was for a self-contained special education preschool classroom and I would be working alongside three therapists to offer support for the students in my classroom. While this was not a classroom I first envisioned myself in, I was excited for this opportunity to learn more about the special education world. After being offered the job in August, I accepted and soon entered the first classroom I would be able to call my own. As we enter the spring semester of this school year, I have learned and grown an immense amount professionally. Here are some of my biggest take-aways from my “freshman year” in the real world as a teacher.
Have trusted mentors
I owe much of my first year success to the people who took the time to help guide me through my first year of teaching. I am fortunate enough to have been hired into a school that has offered multiple levels of support. I was matched with a “teacher mentor” who happens to be the preschool teacher in the room next to my own. This allowed me to have someone I knew it was okay to go to with any questions or advice, without feeling that I was overstepping or taking time away from their day. If I had a question that my mentor couldn’t answer, she would direct me to someone who could. While this co-worker was assigned to me as my official mentor, the rest of the preschool team also offered much insight as we met weekly as a team to discuss lessons, specific needs of students, and things going on within our district. In addition to my wonderful preschool team, I had the great fortune to work with a team of therapists that instruct the students with me. This included a speech pathologist, a physical therapist, and an occupational therapist. They offered insight on how to better my teaching to meet the needs of the specific learners present in my classroom. I was extremely nervous taking over a classroom where not only the students’ needs were so high, but this was most of my students’ first time ever stepping into a school. It has been my goal from the beginning to offer a high quality learning experience for my students. With the guidance of the many mentors provided, I felt more at ease when trying out new strategies and lessons with my amazing set of kids. My suggestion to all new teachers is to ask if a mentor program is offered at the school you are interviewing at and what levels of support will be offered. It truly makes a huge difference in your first year experience.
Improve with feedback and self reflection
Piggybacking off of the tip to find a trusted mentor, fellow educators or administrators are great resources to help polish your teaching abilities. I am constantly searching for feedback to reflect upon in order to improve my teaching. Many recent graduates fall into the mindset that they know everything there is to know about teaching, with their new diploma and fresh teaching perspectives in place. While I am confident in my ability to utilize my knowledge on teaching practices and philosophies, I entered this year looking to improve every step of the way. I began the year by trying to reflect on the strengths and weakness of each day or week. I also thought about what goals I would like to achieve by the end of the school year. By writing these things down, it helps to guide you in focusing on your areas of weakness and working to improve them. In addition to reflecting independently, I asked my principal to come in and observe me. I also visited surrounding districts’ classrooms that were similar to mine to see how their classrooms were set up and organized. Then, I asked the therapists in my room for any feedback on my teaching and how to improve, since they see me teach every day. These are some examples of how I am working towards making my teaching more intentional. As a teacher, it is crucial to view yourself as a lifelong learner and always be looking to improve your teaching abilities.
Take note of the small victories
I started writing down what I call “Little Triumphs” which is just what they sound like; a friendly reminder that it is the small successes throughout the school year that make the biggest impact in the end. Some entries I have included:
“Sam* didn’t cry during dismissal for the first time all year.”
“Jack* initiated play on the playground with a new peer without teacher prompts.”
“Sarah* accurately addressed all teachers and peers by name when greeting them today.”
From an outsider’s perspective, one might think these are not noteworthy accomplishments that would cause a teacher to be jumping for joy. However, as your students’ teacher, you learn their strengths and deficits. After working with them day in and day out, it becomes extremely rewarding when you witness one of these little triumphs that help students move closer to their goals. I enjoy sharing these little triumphs with parents, in order to celebrate the steps our students are taking towards greater successes, socially and academically. When a school day seems to be going terribly off track or I’m feeling discouraged about my ability to get through the day, I simply look harder for the little successes that are taking place all of the time or look back in this notebook to remember all of the wonderful occurrences I have already had the honor of witnessing.
Everyone’s freshman year of life is filled with many trials and tributes. I feel very fortunate that my first year of teaching has been a rewarding one and has solidified my choice to pursue this career. It has fueled my excitement for working with young minds, but has also increased my desire to learn even more about the diverse learners I can come into contact with in order to better educate them. The best piece of advice I have received in regards to anyone’s career path came from a supervisor at ISU; to paraphrase, she said that you may think success looks like a straight path up, but it is actually a disorganized, squiggly line full of unexpected twists and turns.
This already holds true to my own timeline, as I accepted my first teaching job in a setting I never imagined myself in and ended up finding that it was an even better fit than I could have expected. To all educators who are just starting off, never forget the reason you started. You are making a difference with every conversation you have with a child or parent, every effort to change your lessons to fit the needs of your kids, and every morning you show up to work with a smile on your face ready to greet those young minds.
*Names were changed for the privacy of the students.
This post was brought to you from Miss Julia Spencer. Julia is a 2015 graduate from the ECE program at Illinois State University. She is currently teaching at Pleasantdale Elementary School in the special education early childhood classroom. This is Julia’s first post on the ECE Teacher Talk blog. Welcome, Julia!