I am in the process of collecting stories, advice and information from teachers during their first years at the job. Enjoy!
Layce Nichols essay ” What is a girl like you doing THERE”
Lacye Nichols is a first year high school teacher who has quickly learned that it is easier to apologize than ask for permission. Originally from Alabama, she has somehow found her way up north and has quickly learned how to master driving and biking in the snow. She has been working in clay for the past 10 years, mastering decals and covering her work in gold glitter.
for more information visit her school website: tj-nichols.wikispaces.com
“What is a girl like you doing THERE?!” A stranger spoke those words to me when I told him I was the new ceramics teacher at a certain high school with a very negative reputation. Obviously, I had no idea what he meant and just answered him with a glare. Fast forward to the 12th week of the second semester and now I understand. You see when you are a first year teacher there is no handbook, nothing in writing that tells you what to do when other teachers don’t know your name, admin tells you that you are just a “ceramics teacher, your class is the bottom of the totem pole, and get off your high horse”, how to handle disgruntled parents in a way that will not result in a major conflict, or how to properly react when a student decides that you are their worst enemy and proceeds to cuss you out in front of a guest. No, these are all things that nothing can prepare you for except for experience. Before I started teaching high school, I was a substitute teachers in a high poverty neighborhood in the inner city school district I am currently working for, before that I worked for the DOD. My student teaching experience was at an affluent K-8 school. A school in which I had an amazing mentor, but the school was not realistic to what my experience would be. The school had money. Lots of it (even though it is in the same school district I subbed in, and am currently teaching in). Needless to say, even though I am highly qualified in ceramics and have been a practicing artist for the past 10 years, I was not experienced with dealing with high school students and the bureaucracy of the teaching world. I learned very quickly how to handle certain situations, and am continuing to learn how to be not only a better teacher, but also a successful mentor (something ALL students need).
My first semester was full of students walking out of my room, cussing me out, lunging at me ready to throw a punch, claiming I was racist, I was breaking up verbal and physical fights, and my upper level students were refusing to do the assignments because “the last teacher didn’t make us do this.” My first semester was also full of smiling students who would not leave my room because they wanted to perfect their piece, students who would write me letters about how they were inspired to be not only a better artist but a better human being, students would bring me a snack if they knew I was having a rough week, and a group of kids got together to buy me a birthday cake (and one brave girl got in front of the entire class to sing “Happy Birthday” to me). Close to my birthday I lost a “brother” and I shared my grieving and tears with my students. We spent days not touching clay, but openly discussing life and how we can be strong during times of difficulty. One day I just sat at my desk and bawled in front of my worst class, telling them I couldn’t continue, knowing that I never got the chance to tell my friend I loved him before he was killed in action. Students who cussed me out the day before were hugging me and bring me tissues that day. You are a human being, just like they are and they need to see that. I would forget that I was a human being, and in my mind I had to be the best teacher. I tore myself both mentally and physically apart that first semester trying to be the best. It ruined my friendships, my health, my interactions with the students, and almost ruined my relationship with my boyfriend. I almost quit during Thanksgiving break. I just couldn’t handle the abuse from some of the administration and the students anymore. It wasn’t until I randomly found a note from a student in which she stated that she wants to become a high school ceramics teacher and it was all because of me. That note made me feel strong, and convinced me that these students needed me and wanted me as their teacher.
My first year has been full of ups and downs, and I have never been more exhausted in my life. I have also never been more proud to tell strangers what I do for a living, because I do have the best job in the world, even though my school is one of the toughest in the district. I have amazing students who have incredible stories to share, my students are my inspiration, and I love joking with them while teaching them my passion. My friend, you are scared and freaking out on the inside (I still am). Let me help you with some friendly hints.
- Get to work a few minutes early. Lock your door and sit in silence with a cup of coffee. Relax before students begin to come in because once they walk through that door it is go time.
- Share a funny story. Each Monday I show my students random cat videos, or tell them about something funny our dog did. They now get angry if I forget to do this. It just starts the week with a smile.
- Allow your students to know you are a human being. If your pet died, share your grief with them. If you got engaged, tell the story of how it happened. You will be surprised at the inspiration you will give your students when they understand that you are human and don’t live in the dungeon at your school.
- LISTEN. Listen before you talk. You will gain respect when you have open ears.
- Learn about your students. Memorize their first and last name, schedule, check their attendance periodically, talk about their fashion, where they work, learn about what their parents do, etc.
- Pick a time to go home AND GO HOME AT THAT TIME! I have open studio hours on Mondays and Thursdays until 4 pm sharp. Every other day I go home at the hour stated in my contract no matter what.
- ALWAYS REMEMBER YOU ARE A GREAT PERSON AND ARE LOVED NO MATTER WHAT SOMEBODY SAYS TO YOU. Kids can say horrible things and will do anything to make you upset. If a student is giving you a hard time it is perfectly ok to calmly tell them “this conversation is over and can continue during lunch.” Then turn around and walk to a student who makes you smile and compliment them. Their smile will automatically make you smile. For each student who “hates you” there are a minimum of five students who look up to you, look forward to your class, and cannot wait to see YOU. I struggle with this still to this day.
- When driving home, say aloud two positive events about your day. When somebody asks about your day say the positive. During my first semester I would go home and only complain about my day. My boyfriend finally told me that he could not take the negativity anymore and it was ruining out relationship. FOCUS ON THE POSITIVE AND WRITE IT DOWN.
- SAVE EVERYTHING YOU ARE GIVEN. I have drawings, letters, and cards from students hanging behind my desk. During a hard day I read the letters from students, and my students love talking about artwork created by their peers, and little kids.
- Find out who is in charge of your PTA immediately. Before school started I knew I needed a few materials for the studio in which my budget couldn’t afford. I sent out a mass email to the faculty and PTA asking for these items. I also hand out letters to parents during any conferences stating a list of things that could be donated. I have had everything from 10 gallon buckets, spray bottles, newspaper, drying cleaning bags, and yogurt containers donated.
- Make connections with parents and share the positive and concerns you have with their student.
- The janitor is your best friend. Bake him or her cookies.
- Make time for you. If exercising is your thing then make sure to exercise, bake cupcakes, do yoga, paint your nails, go to the batting cages. This is SO hard, but SO important.
- DOCUMENT EVERYTHING. Conversations with parents, students, admin, incidents, and taking pictures of student artwork.
- If a student gets into an art show send an email to the entire faculty inviting them to the show. Attach a picture of the work.
- Have assistants and give classroom jobs. Students feel good about helping. My students make the studio slip, glazes, clay, clean and organize tools, repair tools, load and unload kilns, and a few know how to fire the kilns as well.
- HAVE VERY HIGH EXPECTATIONS AND HOLD ALL STUDENTS TO THEM. A lot of kids dropped my class in the beginning because I would not allow them to just make whatever they wanted, and treat the studio with disrespect. Now there is mutual respect and it is a safe and caring environment.
- Set clear and precise rules and do not falter. If no cell phones are allowed in your studio, then take them away. If you allow one student to get away with breaking a rule, everybody will.
Your first year is going to be intense. It will be scary. You will not sleep or eat, and your dreams will be about the classroom. Do not give up. Just remember, if you can inspire one student a day or even during the entire year you have succeed. It gets better each day. The student who was ready to punch me is now my best student. Remember to laugh and smile. Have a student tell you a new joke each week. You are a teacher for a reason. It is hard to not get exhausted and forget about what inspires you, but focus on one student a day. End each class with a word of wisdom. When the bell rings I tell each class to “smile at a stranger, hug somebody, or tell somebody you love them.” You can do this. BREATHE.