In 2004, I received my doctorate in American Studies. Upon graduation, I moved to Arizona for job opportunities and the warm climate. Six months after my move, I noticed a series of Rio Salado Community College advertisements regarding alternative paths to certification.
Immediately, I called the Phoenix Union High School District (PUHSD) about the necessary steps needed to gain employment as a teaching intern. I successfully passed my AEPA subject examination, received a letter of intent from PUHSD, and enrolled in Rio’s Alternative Path to Certification program. I was entering a whole new world, and I was excited to begin the journey.
Seven years later, I can clearly see the blunders that I made during my first year in a high school classroom. After reading Tony Danza’s, “I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had” — an account of Danza’s first year as a “rookie teacher” at Philadelphia’s Northeast High School — I realized that others could benefit from my year of hard knocks. By this point of the first quarter, the newness of being a first-year instructor has started to wear off, and some may be struggling to find balance. If you fall into that category, please view the following advice as the means to regain (and retain) the euphoric high that you experienced during your first week of school:
1. You are not Erin Grumwell. A significant number of teachers enter the profession thinking that they are going to be the one who leaves a lasting impact on America’s educational system. Many educators have watched “Freedom Writers” to the point where they visualize themselves picking up where Grumwell, the protagonist in the movie, left off. Although Grumwell is an actual person, we must understand that a percentage of “Freedom Writers” was fictionalized. In August 2007, I made the mistake of arriving on campus thinking I was going to be the No. 1 person who was going to change my students. I walked onto campus with my 3-inch heels, designer handbag, and new dress. My aim was to do exactly what Whitney Houston sang about — “Teach (the children) well (in order for) them to lead the way.” I expected to have instantaneous results. Immediately, I learned that I was wrong. New instructors, you are not going to walk into a classroom and have your students automatically fall in love with you. Put away the “Freedom Writers” DVD and realize that you will need to create your own story.
2. Sit down. As a child, my paternal grandparents continuously told me, “Gal, SIT DOWN.” I was a loquacious adolescent, and I had the tendency to march to the beat of my own drum. I had forgotten about their verbal command until the 2007-2008 academic year. After my first semester of teaching, I realized that I could not do everything, and it was imperative that I “sit down” and take some notes from the master instructors. For those who just entered the teaching profession, please understand that although you have a degree, and you have read countless articles regarding how you can teach to transgress in a 21st century classroom, the ink has not completely dried on your diploma. You do not know everything. Instead of entering a campus thinking that you are the revolutionist needed to have children, parents, and your peers embrace the current trends in education, take a moment and establish a rapport with your colleagues. Also, find a mentor that will become vested in your success. Visit his/her classroom, and do not be afraid to lean on him/her for guidance.
3. Be prepared to fail. You are going to have it out with your students. I did on my very first day of teaching. I came into the classroom as if I was “Fame’s” Lydia Grant. You cannot force your students to leap if they do not know how to adequately walk. My advice for you is to slow your roll. My former students said this to me by the second week of the school year. Also, perform daily assessments. Ask yourself, “What worked? What caused my students to withdraw?” This is when you are going to find yourself embracing many roles. You will become a parent, sibling, and counselor for some of your students. Rather than saying, “You need to do this. You need to that,” listen. Listen to your students’ stories. From this information, you will be able to glean who is ready for the immediate challenge, and which students can be motivated, but baby steps must be taken.
As you revise your first year teaching strategies, consider reading the following books:
Bell Hooks, “Teaching To Transgress.” This book is a must-read for teachers. If you would like strategies for helping your students become active learners, this is the book for you.
And Danza’s, “I’d Like to Apologize to Every Teacher I Ever Had.” His account of his first year of instruction is a book that both novice and master instructors should read. For those teachers, who are transitioning to education from another career and elect to read Danza’s text, I highly encourage you to do so with a highlighter nearby.
• Dr. Cicely Denean Cobb is an English instructor at Desert Vista High School in Ahwatukee Foothills. She specializes in American studies; multicultural children’s and adolescent literature; and the usage of digital literacy in English classrooms. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.