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The Graduate

My life as a first-year teacher

Katelyn Phelan
MSM Class of 2011

(10/2011) My life as a first-year teacher has been nothing short of hectic. In the past month I have: learned 61 student names, 79 faculty and staff names, taught 45 different lessons, driven 2,000 miles, received 2 paychecks, and graded huge stacks of papers. So, how many months are there until summer?

Just kidding, I don’t need summer to come…yet. I am actually enjoying myself a great deal. Delone is a wonderful community with enthusiastic students. I like my students very much and am so far very happy with the effort they put into their lessons and homework. The other teachers are also wonderful. They’ve helped me so much already by giving me suggestions or helping me to solve different problems.

Honestly though, I don’t even think about whether I like what I’m doing or not. Most times I’m running around like a chicken without a head trying to get papers photocopied, messages sent, or papers graded. The alternative mode is exhaustion where all I have the energy to think about is what I’m going to do the next day. Though I knew teaching was going to be a lot of work, I hadn’t realized how absolutely exhausting it is. When I’m actually standing in front of the class talking I don’t feel tired; there’s a sort of adrenaline that keeps me focused on presenting material. It’s after the class is over when I get a moment to myself that I realize how tired I am.

Teaching of course isn’t physically exhausting. I’m not mining coal or lifting boxes all day. It is emotionally and mentally exhausting, though, especially when it takes extra effort to get the kids focused on doing work. For example, Monday morning classes are actually much less tiring then Friday afternoon classes. Delone has a rotating schedule so each day students come to my room at different times depending on the cycle day. While this has taken me a while to get used to it is very interesting to see how different kids behave at different times of the day and week.

Sometimes just thinking about my school day makes me tired, pathetically enough. One day I was fine when I got into the car to drive to school. You know, a little tired, but pretty normal for waking up when it’s still dark outside. On the way I thought about one of my classes and the challenges they were posing. One hour later when I arrived at school I was exhausted. “Well,” I thought, “this is a great start.”

One thing that consumes a lot of my time at the moment is deciding what I want to teach. This includes looking at what I want to do each day and also how the course as a whole should be organized. For two of my classes—Speech and Creative Writing—this is quite difficult because I don’t have a textbook. While it can be nice to decide how I would like to run things it also means that on days where I’m not sure what to do it means I can’t fall back on a textbook for ideas. It means I decide what I teach, how to teach it, and make handouts to supplement what I say. This is a lot of work now, but I’m sure that as I get more used to it I’ll love the flexibility and freedom that I have within what general goals there are for the course.
I’ve already learned a bunch of important things in my first month. I’ll share some of them with you.

Lesson 1: If you wear high heels to school, do NOT take them off no matter what if you have to put them back on at any other point in the day. My first day I wore a pair (probably not the wisest decision) but about half-way through the day I took them off during my free period, walked around flat-footed and then tried to put them back on. The pain doubled and by the end of the day I was literally hobbling to my car. Heels do seem to be something you can develop resistance to because I’m doing much better with them now.

Lesson 2: Freshmen know much less and much more simultaneously than you think they do. Sometimes they have trouble with tasks like passing papers forward, and other times they make such insightful comments that you just have to stop and say, “well, yeah, I think you’ve got that right.”

Lesson 3: Sometimes morning trips to McDonalds for sweet tea and apple pies are necessary to make it through the day.

Lesson 4: The days of staying up until 3 in the morning are over. Go to bed early or you’re not making it through the week. This is especially important at the beginning of the week. If you don’t get enough sleep on Monday, Friday will be a nightmare.

Lesson 5: Think about what you want to wear the night before you go to bed. Otherwise you’ll spend 10 minutes staring at your closet and then ironing your outfit at 6:30 in the morning when you should have already been dressed and out the door.

Lesson 6: Phone calls and books on tape make the hour drive to school and home much more enjoyable.

Lesson 7: College is so much easier than teaching. Even my most tiring semester was easier than teaching this year. Mount students, be grateful for your “early mornings” of 9 am classes, your “mounds” of homework, and the “exhausting” task of sitting in class learning from someone who has prepared a lesson for you.

Lesson 8: Use at least one day of the weekend to catch up on sleep and attempt to plan out the week. Naturally though, you won’t be able to grade, update grades online, plan 3 lessons for every day and run all of the errands that have built up over the week, so you’ll get about half done.

Lesson 9: You’ll experience at least one “I’m supposed to do what?” moment a day for the first few weeks.

Lesson 10: Other teachers are a wonderful and unbelievably valuable resource. The internet is another. Use every suggestion, plan, and piece of advice you can get. Without the help I’ve gleaned from other sources I probably wouldn’t have made it this far.
Despite all the challenges and general exhaustion, I can already feel my job getting easier. I’ve also found myself looking for ways to make next year more productive. I’m spending time now organizing my notes and calendar so that when next year rolls around I’ll be able to use my notes, handouts, and lessons again. Next year I’ll also know what things I need to spend more time on and what things I might be able to skip over. With every day that I teach I see what things are working and realize how to improve things in the future.

My students are champs for putting up with our sometimes crazy classes and for helping me and learning with me. I have one class of juniors and seniors and they’ve been a help at times with showing me some of the quirks of different days. Delone has more different and weird schedules than I ever remember when I was in high school.

I think our year is off to a great start—with lots of learning, growing, laughing, and craziness on all sides. I think my students are learning a lot and having fun. I know that I am!

Read other articles by Katelyn Phelan