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Virginia Journal of Education

Dear Aspiring Educator…

With her first year behind her, a Chesapeake teacher pens a letter to classroom rookies.


By Katelyn Ritenour

As any veteran educator will attest, the first year of teaching is hard. It’s hard in ways that you cannot even fathom yet. You’ll make plenty of mistakes. But the good news is that you’re not alone. We all made mistakes. And we all (including students!) survived that hard, hard first year.

In my first year, I was charged with the education of 30 fourth-graders in a diverse, middle-class, suburban school. It was my dream job, one I’d wanted since I was a fourth-grader. I had a wonderful mentor and we shared the time of our fabulous special education co-teacher, who specialized in working with students with learning disabilities. I thought I was ready—I had both my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in education, a successful student-teaching experience, and three years of substitute experience. I felt prepared, excited, and eager to be in my own classroom. I had all these great ideas and visions of how wonderful it would be, how my class would function flawlessly, and that every student would achieve their full potential.

It will come as no surprise to any veteran educator that my visions and ideas did not pan out quite the way I’d hoped. I made some big mistakes along the way, specifically in the areas of classroom management and classroom community, which shut down my perfect classroom before it could even get started. So I present them to you, in hopes that your visions and ideas do come true.

Classroom Management
I know you’ve heard this a million times, but the first few weeks of school really do matter more than any other time of the year. This is when your students learn what to expect from you and what you expect from them: Do you really mean what you say, or can students get away with murder before you impose a consequence?

Have you ever run a red light while driving? Why not? (Or, if you have, how did you feel afterward?) In Norfolk, lights run by timers rather than sensors, which means that even if no cars are waiting, the traffic light will still cycle through its whole time. This leads to a lot of wasted time, in my opinion, and I cannot tell you the number of times I thought to myself, “I could just go right through. Literally nothing bad would happen to me.” But I never did it. Why not? Because I believe in the power of traffic lights. Our society, or at least most of it, has agreed that traffic lights are there for our safety and we should pay attention to them. The consequences for running lights range from a quick traffic stop to a painful death, and we have largely decided not to risk those consequences.

Your expectations should have the same effect as traffic lights. If you have a rule or expectation, it should be followed exactly as stated, or there should be a consequence: Not a few reminders, warnings and chances and then a consequence, but an immediate, applicable consequence. I know it sounds harsh, especially in those early days, but I speak from experience.

There is a trend in the education of educators steering you away from the old-school “don’t smile until Christmas” advice. I was told to be a “warm demander”—someone approachable and who obviously cares for students, but is firm in expectations. I tried to do just that those first days of school. I was smiling, inviting, and empathetic to the needs of my students. But I really fell down on the “demander” part because I didn’t want to ruin that “warm” persona I had already established. I stated my expectations clearly, but didn’t follow through with consequences if those expectations weren’t met. In those early days, I assumed the students were adjusting and would figure it out later down the line with some practice. In reality, what they figured out is that I did not really mean what I said; they could halfway follow my expectation and escape consequence.

The only students ever in danger of a consequence were the ones that blatantly disobeyed or did something really bad. And even then, the only consequence I had in my arsenal (besides a trip to the office) was to send the student to write in our “Behavior Notebook.” Nothing ever happened after that. Students could go to the notebook as many times as I told them to in a day, and no other consequence was ever given. They eventually stopped taking the notebook seriously, scribbling illegibly or writing “I don’t know.”

In about late October, I figured out that I had no control over my classroom. I sought help from my mentor and co-teacher, who gave me great advice after bad days. In the mornings, I’d psych myself up to be firm and follow through with all my expectations. But the damage had been done; the students already knew what they could get away with before I’d really lay down the law. So they pushed against my firmness, fighting me as much as I fought them. It was so exhausting that by the afternoon, I’d be right back to where we started, not able to fight back anymore. This continued for the rest of the school year. In an observation debriefing, my principal said, “There is just an undercurrent of movement and activity while you’re teaching.” He was right. My students were not 100 percent engaged in any lesson I taught, no matter how fascinating I thought it was. He was also correct (and very understanding) when he told me there was no way to fix it, that I would just have to tough out the rest of the year. I spent seven months of the school year fighting my students on their behavior.

So, if you can learn anything from my first year, please learn that you can always become softer, but you cannot become stricter; once the bar has been set, that’s where it will stay. I’d say that you have about 10 days to set that bar and make that first impression. Use the summer to think through your expectations and what you will do if those expectations are not met. And then, those first 10 days, you set that bar. Do not let your students set it for you.

Classroom Community
I knew I had failed to create the type of community I wanted in my classroom the day I heard a student snap, “Make me!” after a classmate asked him to stop a distracting behavior. It was March; we’d already been together for six months. The visceral reaction that went through me was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I was appalled. I thought to myself, “How in the world does he think it’s OK to speak to classmates like that?” The clear answer was that they didn’t respect each other, and the blame was on me. After all, respectful, collaborative behavior is a skill taught like anything else.

Searching backward, I realized I hadn’t done any of this teaching. The perfect time to do it is at the beginning of the year, before the students have a chance to form a different impression of each other. Because of my inexperience, I was terrified of the first week of school. I had never seen it from this side of the desk; there are never any substitutes needed the first week of school, and I had done my student-teaching in the spring. So I went to my team, and they gave me some ice-breakers and things to do on the first day. They also told me we were expected to jump into content on day two—no time for “getting to know you” activities when the pacing guide beckons. I followed their lead, but I had a nagging feeling that I hadn’t set a good foundation with my students. Six months later, I had the proof.

Not only did my students not respect and trust each other, they didn’t have the group skills to be able to work in groups and partners. Therefore, every team activity I attempted either turned into social hour or side-by-side independent work, depending on who was teamed up. It didn’t matter how much I preached about two heads being better than one and that everyone had something to contribute—they’d already decided their classmates couldn’t help them learn.

 I sought help from a different source this time: My division’s rookie teacher program. My supervisor graciously revisited my classroom to observe with the purpose of advising me on how to engage students more effectively. One of the tips I implemented was a group captain for group activities; each table had someone who would lead the discussion and make sure everyone stayed on the same page (figuratively and literally). I chose different group captains for each group activity, and I tried to use it as a motivator for behavior: if a student did their math homework, they could lead checking math homework. If a student had their materials ready first, they could be in charge of that activity. However, even though I tried to be consistent in letting everyone have a turn, there were always those dependable students who led more than their fair share of activities. I worried that my choices would single out “teacher’s pets” that would either be mocked or envied. Although I used the strategy until the end of the school year, I knew it was a system that needed a little improvement so it wouldn’t create unintended consequences.

This year, I used the entire first week to build my classroom community. The only content I taught was math, and only because bar graphs (our first unit) are great ways to learn more about each other. I chose team-building activities that taught my kids how much they had in common. We wrote about our fourth-grade fears anonymously, and then brainstormed together how to alleviate them. At the end of the week, we practiced working together to “save Fred” (Google it!). Our reading/writing block was devoted to The Seven Habits of Happy Kids by Sean Covey, a kid-friendly version of the best-selling The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. This delivered a two-for-one because not only did we get to talk about some important personal and interpersonal skills, we also got a head start on discovering the theme of a story (each of seven stories has one of the habits as its moral). I made some tweaks to my group captains method and implemented a rotating, color-coded method based on an idea I took from my time as a substitute. As a result, my students this year are much better equipped to work as a team, and they have a lot more trust in each other academically. All I had to do was teach them how.
Aspiring educators, you wonderful, optimistic warriors, I leave you with some final words of advice: Take every bathroom break you can get. Do not reinvent the wheel—someone already has the exact resource you need. Figure out your substitute binder so you can take a sick day when you need to (and you will, much sooner than you think). Find a work-life balance that works for you, but try to have one day a week to yourself. Trust your professionalism and expertise. Ask for feedback from everyone who enters your room. Try your crazy idea, then beg for forgiveness. Learn how to apologize to your students. And above all, lean on your tribe. We’ve all been there, and we’ve all survived.

Love and grace,

A First-Year Survivor

Ritenour (, a member of the Chesapeake Education Association, teaches fourth grade at Greenbrier Intermediate School.



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