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  • by Blaine Helwig

The First-Year Teacher’s Cry – “Help! I Need Somebody. HELP!”

I was a first year teacher – TWICE in the same school year.

I was hired as a second grade teacher, and I taught that grade level for a total of 3 weeks. Then, the school district’s central office ‘economically leveled’ all elementary schools by downsizing campuses with low student enrollment numbers and relocating those teachers to another campus based on higher than anticipated student enrollment. Consequently, my second grade class of students was evenly distributed to the other teachers’ classes on my grade level, and I became a fourth grade teacher at another elementary campus in the district.

It saved me from the finishing that difficult first year in second grade that I had already started. I had made the common rookie mistakes in my second grade class, and by the end of third week, my student management gaffes and inefficient classroom routines were all too apparent to me. I was also fully aware of the arduous task that lay ahead in trying to rectify my mistakes. Suddenly, at my new campus, I was a first year teacher again – for the second time! In practical terms in setting up a classroom with rules and student expectations, I was a second year teacher, and I vowed not to repeat my initial errors in my new fourth grade classroom.

A Teacher’s Job Compared to a Campus Administrator’s

Generally, a school teacher has an easily defined job. A teacher needs to create and establish a safe classroom setting that ensures students are socially and academically prepared for the next grade level. In short, the teacher needs to successfully press each child to reach their social and academic potential for one grade level of learning. A campus administrator’s primary function is also not difficult to define. The principal must support teachers in their classroom, so teachers can successfully accomplish their primary task.

Entry-Level Teaching Assignments do NOT exist

Teaching is a unique professional field. There are no entry-level work assignments in comparison to almost all other professional fields. In engineering and accounting, for instance, an entry-level professional can slowly be trained – time is not a factor. However, a first-year fifth grade teacher has the exact grade level assignment and responsibilities on the first day on the job as their grade level colleagues that possess double digit years of teaching experience. Consequently, the existential reality of the teaching profession is frequently characterized as ‘sink or swim.’ It is for this reason that external assistance is absolutely essential for beginning teachers.

Effective Classroom Assistance to a First-Year Elementary Teacher

The first priority of an entry-level teacher is not pedagogy or academic content. Of course, those two elements of student learning are critically important; however, they are inevitable outcomes of clearly defined structures in the classroom. The ten (10) item list below is intended to provide a sequential priority ordering of the fundamental steps an administrator may take to support first-year teachers to better ensure a successful and productive school year.

  1. Assist the elementary teacher by breaking management tasks into discrete chunks of importance. For example, the teacher must be aware of the need and importance in creating a dismissal list that indicates how each child is getting home – a bus rider, walker, child care or a car rider. This list should be developed prior to dismissal time to ensure student safety is ensured and the process is orderly.

  2. Support the efficient creation of the classroom’s physical environment - Primary. For instance, early childhood teachers should have assistance with establishing efficient student traffic patterns as well as centers and manipulative placements in the classroom; whereas, an intermediate teacher should focus on placing desks and tables so if students possess learning disabilities, basic academic issues or behavioral considerations, they are in close physical proximity to the teacher.

  3. Support the efficient creation of the classroom’s physical environment - Secondary. The classroom appearance should be tidy, purposeful and engaging. A poster or an anchor of support should be hung on a wall if and only if it possesses a specific and deliberate learning intention.

  4. Support the efficient creation of the classroom’s physical environment - Tertiary. Assist the entry-level teacher with the pragmatic use of a ‘working table,’ so manipulatives and handouts are organizationally placed on the table to shorten transition time between lessons as well as heighten distribution efficiency during daily core lessons.

  5. Assist in the establishment of simple classroom rules – three to five rules that must be consistently and fairly applied from the first day of school to the last day. See Related Blog, “Classroom Rules – Why, Which Ones and How Many!” at The New 3Rs Education Consulting website for more information.

  6. Guide the teacher in developing and understanding the importance of consistently practiced entry and exit classroom procedures. For example, as students enter the classroom in the morning, a highly structured procedure is established prior to the start of the first core lesson. Additionally, at the start of the school year, a first-year teacher should allow ample time to establish highly structured exiting procedures (including dismissal) to promote safe and orderly student behavior. Finally, in elementary schools, the teacher will need to establish clear hallway and bathroom expectations as students’ transition to recess, lunch, library and dismissal pick-up points.

  7. Assist the teacher in creating a method that captures the students’ attention prior to beginning any core lesson. See Related Blog, “Class, Do I have your Attention?” at The New 3Rs Education Consulting website for more information.

  8. Guide the teacher in understanding the paramount importance of simple lesson structure at the beginning of the school year. It is highly recommended that core lessons be limited in scope and implementation to simply designed, structured lessons with few student movements. In doing so, the teacher’s classroom control is both established and maintained. As the teacher develops confidence and expertise, core lessons can easily be dynamically expanded.

  9. Provide an entry-level teacher with a seasoned, competent, and empathetic mentoring teacher. The teacher should assist in providing pragmatic advice, counsel and lesson plan development of core lessons throughout the school year. It is also recommended that a monetary stipend be paid to the mentoring teacher for sharing their many years of institutional knowledge.

  10. Assist a first-year teacher in the mental preparation to deescalate or handle potential disciplinary interactions that are atypical. For example, if an incident occurs in the classroom that is unusual, the teacher should be prepared procedurally to seek assistance from either a colleague in an adjacent classroom or a campus administrator.

Other Actions a Campus Administrator Takes to Support the Novice Elementary Teacher

The campus administration should consider providing additional steps to support and heighten the probability of a first-year teacher’s classroom success. First, the principal should ‘stock’ the entry-level teacher’s classroom with students without known discipline issues. In doing so, the beginning teacher can focus on developing pedagogical skill expertise without becoming overwhelmed with student misconduct. Second, the campus administration should be physically present in the novice teacher’s classroom throughout the day for the first month of school to assist the teacher in specific and timely pedagogy tips, classroom support and instructional modeling. This level of continual support provides a positive professional relationship between the campus administration and the novice teacher.

Both teachers and the campus administrators possess the same education goal: to ensure students are socially and academically successful in the classroom. If entry-level teachers are left to their own devices – without a structured plan, support and specific action steps from colleagues and the schools’ administration – it is almost inevitable that the efficacy of their mutual and collaborative education objective will be dramatically lessened.

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