Now that I’ve gone through about three weeks of my first year of teaching, I think that I have enough perspective to make some statements on how being a “real” teacher, solely responsible for what happens in the classroom, is different from the oversight and guidance of the student teaching experience. Or, at least I can make some distinctions about how my experiences in these two contexts have been different or similar. As always, your mileage may vary.
I should first note any confounding factors in making judgments about the differences between my student teaching assignment and my current position. The schools I have worked in are like night and day, or something close to it: a fairly large affluent suburban school (size: approx. 800 students) vs. a tiny rural school (size: approx. 130 high school students, not counting the 7th and 8th graders also housed in the same building). The English department at the school I taught in before had seven teachers, including my cooperating teacher; we have three including myself at my school, one of whom is the junior high language arts/literature teacher and the other the Spanish teacher who also teaches two sections of freshman English. My cooperating teacher for ST, additionally, was the honors/AP teacher, and we have neither tracked nor AP courses at our small school. (That may change next year since the incoming senior class, this year’s juniors, will all be required to take English 12. My principal has already informed me that she may be looking for an English/history teacher to help out with this change.) As a result of having no tracked courses, I now have a fair number of students who have IEPs, which is a brand new thing for me. These are only a few of the differences I’ve had to adjust to in coming to this school.
On the other hand, it is remarkable how many things have remained the same. I can see some of the same kinds of students, the same (well, similar) personalities, and certainly the same sorts of behavior. Students still try to create diversions and tangents, they still have a tendency to panic or whine about having to read or write or do assignments in general, and they certainly still test their teachers.
For me, the last three weeks have been up and down, but perhaps no more so than what I experienced during student teaching. And the one thing I was most worried about – how the students would accept me – has been only a minimal problem. Most of the students have responded well to what I’ve been doing, and even the ones that are resistant seem to be doing better interacting with me than they did with the last teacher. (I know it’s probably not fair to compare myself to the last teacher, but it’s comforting at times.)
Like student teaching, the hardest times for me have been when two things converged: 1) I was not as prepared as I should have been or something I had prepared was not thought out well enough, and 2) the class was full of students ready to take advantage of even the smallest weakness in the lesson. And like ST, I have a class of students that tend toward disruptions, distractions, slight insubordination, and complaining. Those are the classes I’m still trying to work out, and like ST, I still haven’t gotten to the point where I have given a detention. It will be coming soon, I’m sure. (Student teachers: Don’t hesitate! Make an example, and don’t follow my example here.)
I also think I got lucky about organization in the fine model that my cooperating teacher had for grading, organizing papers, checking up on missing assignments, and also in being prepared. The gradebook was the most obvious thing to me: I immediately adopted the same method for entering grades in (to be then entered in the computer) that I had used during ST in keeping with my co-op’s practices. I started making myself lists (using space in my planning book, which has a great layout), which was a big thing that my co-op kept suggesting to me. (I actually E-mailed her at the end of the past week and told her as much myself. I credit her heavily with my success thus far.)
And being a new teacher has come with its own stuff. I have more responsibilities now for other things, like the curriculum committee that will start meeting shortly, and I am far more involved with the staff and administration than I ever was during my ST experience. I barely ever talked to the principal at that school, who was hardly an approachable guy, and my principal now is easy to talk to, caring, and ultimately very concerned about the success of both her teachers and her students.
I guess my ultimate conclusion is that moving between these two experiences wasn’t actually all that difficult for me, but I attribute a lot of that to the guidance I had as a student teacher and the guidance I have received from colleagues as a new, first-year teacher. When you learn a lot of lessons the hard way as a student teacher, they tend to stay with you as a new teacher (although there are always exceptions). Had I not had so much good hands-on preparation, where I had to deal with difficult students and less-than-ideal situations and got the chance to have the classroom feel like it was mine to a degree, I think I would be struggling so much more.
Then again, it’s only three weeks in. Maybe I’ll change my mind when some more new things come my way (like semester exams – yikes!). For now, though, I’m happy to report that this first year isn’t feeling entirely like a first year, and if it continues that way, I will be very pleased with my progress.