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Sense of community, colleagues help new teacher build confidence

Grandville — Navigating education during the coronavirus pandemic has been a challenge for everyone involved, but for first-year teachers who are just beginning their career, the challenge is compounded. Not only do they have to learn everyone’s name and general school protocols, but they also have to navigate new uncertainties like social distancing in classrooms and the complexities of remote learning. 

David Fitzpatrick is in his first year of full-time teaching at Grandville Public Schools. Certified to teach both English and math, he student-taught both subjects at Coopersville High School before substitute teaching for GPS in 2020. He was offered the full-time role just one week before this school year started. 

A former Grandville Bulldog himself, Fitzpatrick currently teaches 9th and 11th grade English at the high school. The school is operating in a synchronous capacity, meaning he teaches simultaneously to in-person and remote students. The district also spent part of the fall in an extended period of fully remote instruction due to increased COVID-19 cases in the community. 

“I was somewhat caught off guard at first,” said Fitzpatrick of being offered the job late in the summer and mid-pandemic. “I had some anxiety about starting so soon in such an uncertain time, but … I felt confident that I would be entering with strong connections to the community and my colleagues already in place.”

Fitzpatrick spoke with School News Network about the highs and lows of beginning a teaching career during the age of coronavirus, and how the challenges of this first year could be a benefit for the future.

English teacher David Fitzpatrick teaches simultaneously to in-person and remote students (courtesy)

What has been the best part about starting your career during the pandemic?

“Getting to witness and participate in the creative problem-solving process that teachers are known for” has been gratifying, he said. “This kind of innovative thinking about how best to connect with students is one of the most rewarding aspects of teaching.

“One of the benefits to my personal approach as a first-year teacher is that I don’t feel as limited or restricted by the feeling of having to do things ‘just like last year.’ I don’t have a routine or schedule that I feel compelled to stick to, so I have a bit more flexibility with timelines and content than I otherwise might.”

What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve faced so far?

“A near-constant feeling of unpreparedness. I’m the kind of person who likes to analyze a situation and think of possible questions, obstacles and solutions ahead of time so that I have all of the information well in advance of when I need it. This year, I frequently feel like I don’t know what questions I need to ask or where to seek out support until I am in immediate need of that answer or support, which can sometimes be too late.”

He also has to learn how to implement new, sometimes inconsistent technology in the classroom, on top of learning content and how to run a classroom. 

“The classroom management strategies I would normally use don’t apply to all of my students because some of them are online, so I am having to develop and implement different strategies for both mediums at the same time.”

What benefits have you received from working with more veteran teachers at the high school?

“Every day I learn something new from the veteran teachers around me, but the most important lesson so far has been to do what is best for me to prevent burnout. For example, it is OK to distance myself from work when I’m home and to give myself time to relax, especially if I am starting to feel overwhelmed. I don’t need to grade every formative assessment that I assign, I don’t need to respond to every email immediately, and I don’t need to feel guilty for doing the things that I enjoy instead of grading or lesson planning when I’m at home.”

‘Every day I learn something new from the veteran teachers around me,’ says first-year teacher David Fitzpatrick (courtesy)

Are there any ways in which your first-year status has been a benefit to your colleagues?

“I naturally have a lot of questions, and they’ve often been questions that other veterans wanted to ask or didn’t even think of. No matter what questions I ask, though, I always get genuine and supportive feedback from the veterans around me. 

“There aren’t many new ideas that I have been able to model, but I do have a couple things that I’ve been able to bring to the table.” 

Fitzpatrick said he had admired his colleagues’ daily class agendas, but worried that a slideshow of more than 200 slides for the entire semester would take too long for students to scroll through. After noticing a colleague adding links to a different presentation, “that trick brought an immediate solution to mind. I made a table of contents at the beginning (of the semester-long agenda) with hyperlinks to the first slide of each week, which my veteran colleagues had never thought to do. After sharing my idea, several of them added tables of contents to their own agendas.”

In what ways will your experiences this year set you up well for success in the future? 

Fitzpatrick describes himself as “a bit of a perfectionist” who thrives when he has a fully structured plan for the week. The nature of this school year has made that nearly impossible to achieve, he said.

“I am learning to let go of some of that need for structure in order to make room for the organic and unplanned moments of learning, discovery and the occasional obstacle that would otherwise interfere with my plans. I think that everything I’ve experienced this year will give me a lot of confidence in my ability to improvise and adapt with changing situations in the future.”

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter and copy editor, covering Cedar Springs, Godfrey-Lee, Grandville and Lowell. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to her alma mater to help manage its national writing festival and edit and write for enrollment communications. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio

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