For first-year teachers, challenge changes to wow when ‘one thing works’

Leaders of Tomorrow program supports new instructors

Kindergarten teacher Heather Carlson gets on students’ level

With the semester winding down, first-year teachers are taking a fresh look at their chosen profession.The 2019-2020 school year brought nearly a 25 percent turnover in classroom staffing, according to Kent City Superintendent Mike Weiler.

“More teachers left last year than in the entire eight years previously,” Weiler said. “But we were prepared, started early and were fortunate to find highly qualified teachers to step into the vacancies.”

Two of the new teachers at Kent City were part of Kent ISD’s Leaders of Tomorrow program — an initiative designed to help students training to become teachers find jobs and encourage them through the first year.

The 15 members of the first cohort of student teachers were finishing their degrees at Grand Valley State University, Aquinas College, and Cornerstone and Calvin universities when they began working with three former classroom teachers facilitating the program. Ongoing support for the new teachers comes from those same administrators and fellow members of the group.

Heather Carlson reads to her kindergarten class

Early Challenges

Still, stepping into the job had challenges.

“It is a lot harder than I thought it would be,” said Heather Carlson, who is teaching kindergarten at Kent City. “They prepare you the best they can, but no programming can prepare you for being in a classroom by yourself.”

Fifth grade teacher Rachel Zeboor agrees.

“The most challenging thing for me has been classroom management,” she said. “During my time at Grand Valley, classroom management was a hot topic for preservice teachers. What does it look like? What does it sound like? How do I do it? Continuously we were given tips, but told that we really wouldn’t know what works best for us until we had our own room. Now that I have my first class, I think back on that statement and realize how true it is.”

Both Carlson and Zeboor have settled into their personal routines but said they have found the continuing support from the Leaders of Tomorrow group helpful.

“One of the leaders — Rusty Anderson — comes into my class every other week,” said Carlson. “He stops in just to see how it is going and is even willing to co-teach if I need it. I appreciate all the honest feedback; it really helps.”

Anderson, along with fellow leaders Andrew Smith and Marcus Deja, are helping both teachers through the paces of their first year. 

What voice level are we using right now?

For Zeboor, managing her classroom was a matter of “finding my own groove” and “just one of those things you have to experience to understand.”

Referring to classroom observations by the cohort leaders, she added, “These visits always lead to really productive coaching conversations. I am truly lucky to have a direct line to these professionals that are willing to support me through this first year in whatever way possible.”

Both Zeboor and Carlson said they have found strong support from other teachers they work with at Kent City Elementary, as well as continuing to meet with fellow teachers in the Leaders of Tomorrow program.

Pointing to required meetings and paperwork associated with the new job, Carlson said that after talking to other first-year teachers, “I have learned that everyone has time management problems. I needed to be reminded that the top priority is always my students.”

Being able to call on members of the cohort, added Zeboor, “reassures me I’m not alone.”

Every student in this fifth grade class signed the social contract

The Payoffs

Despite the challenges, the novice teachers are finding reasons to love the job.

Carlson said that in her first week she got a bit upset with herself for not getting to one of the well-planned lessons. “Then I reminded myself that there are 22 unique individuals with unique needs and personalities. There is so much coming at me, I will just seek to see the best in everyone and do my best.”

Now that she’s gotten to know those individual students better, Carlson loves discovering what works for them. “It is so rewarding,” she said. “Sometimes I have tried 101 different things with one student and then one thing works. Wow!”

For Zeboor, one of the most rewarding pieces early on was building relationships with students, finding “the connection is so much stronger when you have your own room.” Halfway through the school year, she is eager to see what comes next.

“Looking forward, I am excited to see growth in my students and myself,” she said. “At first we were just getting to know each other, but as we move on, I am seeing shifts in my students’ thinking and learning. I cannot wait to see where they go from here.”

Advice for Aspiring Teachers

Zeboor credits Leaders of Tomorrow for helping her land the right job. She met her principal during a mock interview session the group hosted, and “knew right away, I wanted to be a part of their team.

“If I was talking to a student in the same place I was a year ago, I would tell them to ‘Go all in,’
she added.

Zeboor also advises student teachers to ask a lot of questions of teachers and other professionals. “They hold so much knowledge, and when you get a chance to start teaching some of the lessons, do it. The more opportunities you get, the more you will learn.”

Added Carlson, “Give yourself a lot of grace and remind yourself you are new at this.”

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Janice Holst
Janice Holst has been both a teacher and a journalist. A former MLive reporter, she wrote features and covered local government and schools for Advance Newspapers for nearly two decades. She also was a recipe columnist and wrote features for Mature Life Style and occasional entertainment pieces for On The Town magazines. She lives in Sparta Township and is thrilled to spend some of her retirement hours writing the stories of the northern Kent County school districts. Read Janice's full bio or email Janice.

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