Written By: Sarah Murphy, TE Instructional Coach
Darkness covered the parking lot of Waller Junior High that early August morning when I pulled my yellow Volkswagen Beetle up to the place where I would begin my teaching career. Day one of year one. After devoting my college career to the study of education, I had finally arrived at this moment: the day when I would be the individual fully responsible for the writing and grammatical needs of the youth of America. I knew I was ready. Actually, I was wrong.
As I lugged my materials out of my car, I silently congratulated myself for arriving early. Arriving at the freakishly early hour of 6 a.m. would mean that I would be ready for anything that the day would throw my way. Wrong again.
I flipped on my classroom light and began busying myself with laying out the materials for the day: “get to know you” activities, notecards where students would write down contact information, and a survey describing their interest level in writing and ELA class. “You’ve got too much planned,” colleagues had said the day before. I had smiled, pleased and proud of the wonderful planning that would lead to the greatest first day of school in educational history. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
As I set up the classroom for the learning of the day, a crucial piece of information flitted from my brain: students would be arriving at 6:30 to walk around the building and get a sense of where their classrooms were (since this was their first year in junior high). Then, bells would signal when they could begin walking from the various classes, and a later bell would indicate when classes would truly begin. I had nodded and taken copious notes on this the day before during professional development, yet this information was not resonating with me at this moment. I looked around the classroom saw that things were ready, heard the bell ring at 6:30, and smiled. Time for class to start!
I posted up outside of my classroom, by the door ready with a smile and a strong sense of urgency: students needed to get to my classroom, get inside, and start learning. One by one, students shyly came to the door to see where their class was. I greeted them and ushered them inside. As each student entered, I gave them their first task of the day and directed them to begin working silently. A few looked confused and glanced back at their schedules, but they dutifully followed my instructions. I felt butterflies of excitement flutter about. Students were already fully engaged and were responding to my clear behavior narration. Awesome.
A bell sounded, and I shut the classroom door. Bells indicate when class is starting, so I knew that class needed to begin. I saw that my class roster had 26 students listed but only about 17 were present. No worries, I thought. Students must just be registering or dealing with first day of school logistics. I had to begin teaching, so I did. We completed the survey, did “get to know you” activities, articulated goals for the year. Magic, wondrous things were happening during this first day of school, and I could not have been more elated. As the lesson came to a close, the bell rang. I almost applauded- I had done it! Completed the first class of the first day flawlessly!
As I finished silently singing my own praises, one of my students stood up and asked, “So, after this 5 minutes we just come right back here?” The rest of the students waited. I felt my jaw drop to the ground. I knew that my already pale face had just turned 47 shades more pale, and I was struggling to keep a flood of tears from pouring from my eyes as well as a wave of vomit from shooting out of my throat. I just taught my entire lesson before the day had even begun. I now had 55 minutes more with the same students, and I had absolutely NOTHING to teach them or do with them. NOTHING.
The students left for their passing period, and we spent that never-ending, 55-minute period engaging in any “get-to-know you”/icebreaker that I could possibly think of. It felt as though it would never end. We made it through somehow, and I heard my confidence from a background in education and confidence from a lesson planned to the hilt-shatter into 8 billion pieces. The classes which followed were fine and ended, and I went to the teacher’s lounge during the lunch hour, wondering how I would make it through the rest of the day.
I heard a colleague mentioning how wonderful the day had been so far, and I felt the tears/vomit coming back and ducked into the copy room. Sad, sad sobbing commenced. I felt like an utter failure. “How can I be responsible for the education and academic development of the youth of America when I can’t even TELL TIME?” I said. Okay, I don’t think that I actually said that. I probably wailed something unintelligible since I was sobbing, sniffling and leaking from every orifice on my face.
And then, a miracle. An educational miracle. Right when I wanted to call it a day and pursue a career in any other field, an angel named Becky Elbert came to my aid. Becky is an outstanding educator who has cultivated students’ brains for over two decades, and on my first day of teaching, she saved me. “Sarah, you will be fine,” she said with a smile. “You will be fine and your students will be fine. This job is rough, but it is a job that matters, and it matters that we have people like you in it. We make mistakes in the classroom, and we learn from them. ” I wiped my face, smiled a grateful smile, and hugged the crap out of that wonderful woman.
The day that I taught an entire lesson before school even began is a day that I cherish. I saw the beauty which accompanies a well-planned lesson as well as the agony which accompanies any change in that glorious plan. I saw that I was not a flexible person, and flexibility is a crucial part of teaching so I better learn that skill really fast. Finally, I learned that I love teaching, because it connects you with people. People like Becky who pick you up when you feel like a failure. People like my wonderful students who complied with my instructions and were wonderful the rest of that year. People like me who gratefully accept an ego check when it means that I will be a better teacher as a result. My first day of teaching initially made me think that I had chosen the wrong vocation. By the end of that week, I knew that teaching was just right for me. I loved the constant challenges and rewards and welcomed the opportunity to grow in order to be the very best for my students who deserved nothing but the very best. I loved that I began to learn that lesson before the bell rang on the very first day of school, and I love that I continue to learn this lesson now, 8 years later, as I teach teachers how to teach. J