My First Year of Teaching was Nothing I Had Envisioned

At New Teacher Center, we are working to change the odds for students by providing educators at every level with the support necessary to succeed from their first day to their last. Here’s a story of how one of our mentors aided a bright new teacher in Los Angeles by helping him overcome common struggles, try out new approaches and ultimately bring his lesson ideas to life.

Zachary CoteBy Zachary Cote

My story is probably not so different than many other teachers. I grew up with some incredibly strong teachers, and they inspired me every day. Their passion was one that I wanted to share, and I felt like teaching was the best way to share a passion for a certain subject. For me that subject was history. I dreamed of becoming a teacher and having the same impact on my students that my teachers had on me. I was very excited to finish my credential and take a job at Stella Middle Charter Academy in Los Angeles as a 7th grade history teacher in 2014.

While my credential program was really thorough, I definitely wasn’t fully prepared for the transition to teaching. When I first got in front of a classroom it was simultaneously exciting and nerve-wracking. I was lucky enough to be a part of a comprehensive mentoring program from New Teacher Center, which really helped ease the transition. I remember asking my mentor, Will, when I first started, “How do you actually teach the material?” It felt like the theory in our credential training didn’t translate to actually interacting and working with students.

Since my school was in Los Angeles, one of the challenges I faced was having a lot of students who were performing below reading level. Many were from households where Spanish was the only language spoken at home, and they needed a lot of extra help to get up to speed. About 15 percent of my students had Individualized Education Programs, which created additional work and the need for more individual attention. I spent a lot of time learning how to build relationships with students that were from very different backgrounds than myself that first year.

One of the things I really needed to learn that first year was time management. Learning how to get what I wanted to fit into a class period and keep on track was trickier than I had anticipated. Will helped me learn how to create the structure needed to communicate the “big ideas” I envisioned for the class. I had the misconception that if the material was interesting then kids would naturally be engaged, but I quickly learned that kids had a very different view on what was interesting than I did. My biggest struggle was definitely classroom management.

My first year was so challenging I found myself wondering “Why did I become a teacher?” I really wanted to be able to be creative and find ways to both challenge and inspire my students. We had a unit on medieval Africa, so I thought it would be fun to have students create a PowerPoint travel brochure for specific regions in groups of four. I gave them 22 different topics ranging from weather to sights and experiences to choose from, instructing them to choose six of these to turn into slides. I introduced the project in one day, expecting them to work on their own for two weeks in their groups. The project that was meant to be a fun and exciting experience was an epic failure. To start with, I didn’t know in advance that many of the children in the class had limited computer skills, most of them had no idea how to use PowerPoint and about 50 percent of the groups failed to save their project every single day – losing all their work. The group dynamic also meant a lot of children were unclear on their role and ended up goofing off. I didn’t tailor the project to my students, I tailored it to my vision. I had given the children too many choices and not enough structure or direction to lead themselves. All I did was create this insane confusion in the classroom.

“I would say the biggest thing I learned that first year was structure, and I have my mentor to thank for really helping me develop this skill.”

To top off the experience, I was so confident that it would be a resounding success that I invited my principal to come for my formal observation on the presentation day. The presentations were disorganized and riddled with inaccurate information. The children in the class weren’t interested in paying attention to their classmate’s presentation and didn’t even fill out the evaluation forms I’d given them for each group. My principal was very gracious about the experience, but it was a really humbling moment for me. Nothing went the way I had envisioned. Will and I discussed this in-depth afterwards and he really helped me to understand that this project didn’t succeed because it lacked the structure my students needed and offered them far too many options. Since then I’ve stuck to groups of three or less for projects and have had a much more limited scope to help students focus on the task at-hand.

I leaned heavily on my mentor that first year, and he helped me learn the process needed to communicate my message to my kids. We set attainable goals for each child and he gave me practical feedback every step of the way to help me gain confidence in my role as a teacher, which empowered me to have deeper impact on my students. Will was the voice of reason when it came to setting up my classroom management and structure.

I would say the biggest thing I learned that first year was structure, and I have my mentor to thank for really helping me develop this skill. As a first year teacher, you have a lot of great ideas for how you’re going to inspire kids, but you have no idea how to implement them, particularly with children of varying backgrounds and skill levels. Structure has saved my second year of teaching, and now that I have the right structure in place, I can take my big ideas and actually find ways to impart them on my students.

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One response to “My First Year of Teaching was Nothing I Had Envisioned”

  1. Will says:

    I know him!!

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