First Year Mistakes

Back in my first year of teaching I made a lot of mistakes.

There was the time I left my classroom to check out a noisy disturbance in the hallway, only to have my students lock me out of the room. There were the days I dismissed my class early, because I mistook the mid-day lunch bell for the bell at the end of the period. I assigned too much homework one night and then forgot to assign any the next. I lost track of the “letter” day and missed my study hall duty, and occasionally I couldn’t find the dry-erase markers because one of my students had hidden them. I fumbled my way through my first phone calls to parents, and I got tongue-tied during my first parent conference. I wasn’t sure how to use technology, let alone how to integrate it into my instruction. Students forgot to bring their floppy disks to class (just as they had left their pencils home before that) and I didn’t have a back-up lesson plan so precious class time was wasted.

I admit, I even lost my temper a few times, (well, more than a few).

Fortunately, I worked in a building where the staff was quite sympathetic. The administration was patient with my learning curve, and my fellow teachers assured me that most of my mistakes were “typical first year mistakes.” That was said over and over again, and as the year wore on, I began to wonder about it.

If many of my mistakes were typical of those made by first year teachers, then weren’t they also predictable? It stood to reason that they could be anticipated, and I could have been coached to avoid them. Why hadn’t I been prepared and forewarned so I could avoid repeating mistakes that others “typically” had made in the past? I wondered if first year doctors were expected to make a certain number of “typical first year” mistakes, and that their colleagues simply patted them on the back and chuckled knowingly.

If you see three people in a row slip on a wet spot on the floor, do you warn the fourth person, or just help then up and reassure them by telling them that others had fallen before them? I pictured someone sitting on a porch, watching traffic go by and seeing one car after another hit a bad pothole in the street. As the drivers got our of their cars, examining the damage to their wheel and axle, the person on the porch calls out, “It’s okay, everyone hits that pothole.” Wouldn’t it be better to put out some orange cones to warn other drivers about the potholes up ahead?

Near the end of my first year, I proposed that a two-day orientation be instituted for new teachers before the start of the new school year, where, in addition to learning the routines and expectations of the school, teachers would learn about the very predictable pitfalls of the first year on the job. All new teachers, including experienced teachers who were new to our school, were invited to attend this orientation session.

I can’t tell you that this two-day session was a panacea, but it did help. The next year there were fewer errors due to ignorance. Naturally, new teachers still needed years to refine their sense if timing, to hone their skills of classroom management, and to develop their strategies to deliver curriculum more effectively. But, they were able to avoid making some mistakes that seemed obvious to anyone but a new person.

There may be instances in life when it is best to learn from a bad experience, although I suspect that in most cases it would be better to avoid the bad experience entirely. Teachers don’t need to start their careers with a tradition of first year mistakes, which ultimately may lead to cynicism about their chosen profession or choosing to leave the ranks of teaching to go into retail.

Let’s try to get new colleagues off on the right track with a mixture of preventative coaching, on-going collegial support, focused professional development, and administrative encouragement. We need mentoring programs in schools, and through ongoing connections with college and university education programs. The need for good teachers is too important for us to write-off their first year and just accept certain mistakes as routine. We owe our students and ourselves more than that.

David Summergrad, is a long time principal, teacher, and curriculum developer. He has won numerous awards, including TEC’s “Distinguished Teacher Award”, the “Outstanding Contribution Award” from METCO, and various grants and travelships. Currently, David is the principal of North Pembroke Elementary in Pembroke, MA, an adjunct professor in the Master’s of Education program at Curry College, a lecturer at Brandeis University, and the Director of Curriculum at Explo at Wellesley.