“Let’s get all our first day wiggles out,” Mary Young told her class of roughly 30 first graders at Denver’s Gust Elementary, the largest school in the district. As the students vibrated around the room, Young joined them, getting her own first day wiggles — and jitters — out.
Monday was Young’s first day as a teacher — ever. Two hours in, things were going smoothly. No one spilled too much juice or milk during breakfast and only a few students shed tears during the goodbyes with parents.
Not long into the morning, she already had an idea of what the dynamics of her classroom might be. One student who cried when his mother left had smaller breakdowns throughout the day. Another was unable to sit still during reading times and distracted Young and the other students.
What was less clear was how many students she’d have by the end of the week. Passing each other in the hall, Young and another teacher compared notes. Her colleague had one new student arrive before the morning ended. Young had three.
And Young was quickly beginning to understand the challenges she’d face in order to get all her students working on grade-level. When asked to find their nametags at the start of class, several were unable to identify their own names. Just four could read at grade level.
“[My principal and I] had that conversation of what it would be like,” she said. “I didn’t know it would be that low.”
Young is one of nearly 700 new teachers hired on for the new school year in Denver, many of whom were hired to fill the needs of the district’s rapidly growing enrollment. If national trends are true here, most of them will also be in their first year of teaching. Experts say the challenges Young faces are typical of new teachers: daunting classroom management, enormous academic hurdles and a sense that they may not be as well-prepared as they’d like.
In fact, Young was more prepared than most to enter the classroom. She spent a year working in classrooms as part of her teacher training program and is transitioning out of a career as a social worker. Her mother and her mother’s friends, all teachers, had warned about the challenges and came to help her get setup in the week before school started.
“Being a first-year teacher is really hard,” Young said they told her. But they also said, “It’s not going to be perfect and that’s ok.”
Still, there were some challenges she hadn’t prepared herself for.
“I’ve started a list of things I needed to know,” Young said. That list included learning what exactly a scope and sequence for classes are — and how to use them. She’d never encountered the idea of having to teach to a district-mandated lesson day by day for the year.
The list also included one that will shape the next two years of her teaching: how to instruct students who don’t speak English.
Denver teachers must be certified to teach English language learners within a year of starting in the classroom. But that doesn’t help Young in her first year, while she works on getting the certification.
Many of Young’s students speak Mandarin or Spanish as their first language and only four could read at grade level. Students are scored on an 18-level scale for reading proficiency and several students who scored in the lowest tier will have to jump a reading level every two weeks all year to reach grade level.
She received a half day of training during the district’s new teacher induction, but that left her with just a short list of tips: move slowly, work in small groups and give them the start of sentences to complete themselves.
That experience is typical for many teachers, said Lynn Kepp, the vice president of the New Teacher Center, which helps support early career teachers.
“The preparation, even if it’s an excellent preparation program, may not perfectly align with your student demographics,” said Kepp. “You could be a nanny but when you have your own kids, nothing prepares you.”
Still, Young was hopeful about the year, based on what she saw on the first day.
“I was surprised by how much they talked,” said Young. Most students enthusiastically answered her questions about their favorite colors and favorite foods, including several of the most struggling kids.
That’s her goal for the first few days: create a warm environment where students feel comfortable sharing, talking and making mistakes, so that the hard work of getting her students to literacy can happen.
For example, Young and her classroom aide will be distributing the free breakfast that nearly all her students qualify for, due to their family income level.
“There’s something very powerful about being the person giving them the food,” said Young. And she tried to quickly learn and call students their names.
She has also tossed out the “stoplight” discipline strategy that most teachers in the school use, which she called “public shaming.” Instead, she is using more subtle cues to allow students to calm themselves, including a chair called “Australia,” a name taken from a children’s book, where students can go if they need a quiet moment.
She’ll plans to use herself to destigmatize it for her students and to take the biggest piece of advice her fellow teachers gave her: “Just breathe,” because the hardest work still lies ahead, experts say.
“[First-year teachers] are super excited about the first day,” said Kepp. “As they begin to go through the first year, and they face these complexities, they start to feel overwhelmed. [They] feel alone.”
Soon, Kepp said, she’ll have to make tough decisions as the challenges of trying to get her students on grade level. Most first-year teachers benefit from extra support, mentoring and professional development.
The key for even the most prepared teachers like Young, Kepp said, is having someone there when you don’t meet your own expectations.
“That’s why you need people there to realize you’re doing ok,” said Kepp. Those relationships Young will have to start building to make it through the year. She has started to reach out to other teachers for help with English language learners and the school has assigned her a mentor.
But for now, she’s focused on building relationships with her students.
And they’re excited to reciprocate. Students jostled to sit next to her during class meeting. During independent reading, students called out to her to show them what they were reading. One student, summed it up when asked how she felt about the first day, “I’m excited to meet my new teacher.”