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Halftime Report: Reflections On The First Semester

We continue to follow three new teachers through their first year in the classroom – as they figure out what tactics worked for their students, live through burnout in October and conduct first parent teacher conferences. After their first semester, we caught up with two of our teachers over winter break – and opportunity to relax and reflect.

Looking Forward To A Fresh Start

It's been a productive winter break for second grade teacher, Sara Draper. With her time off from teaching at Helmsburg Elementary School in Brown County, she's worked on redecorating a room in her and her husband Benjamin's house. She's put together bags of things to donate. She's also been able to rest more. Instead of waking at 5:30 for school, she's been sleeping in until 9:30 a.m.

"I haven't slept til 9:30 since, I don't know, high school? Maybe beginning of college."

Am I doing the right thing?

Sara Draper

Even though she's enjoyed the time away from the classroom to focus on non school related matters, she finds that teaching still creeps into her brain.

"I've been having dreams about it, which is strange. Because during the year I don't dream about teaching," Draper says.

But they often turn out to be more nightmares than dreams.

"They added these students to my class and one of them was an average size man. I was like there's no way he's in second grade, they were like we checked his birth certificate he's in second grade. He was bigger than I was and it was overwhelming."

Draper laughs as she talks about the dreams, and she says she's looking forward to seeing her students again.

"I miss someone telling me I'm pretty everyday," she says while she and her husband laugh at his objection to this.

She says she's also been thinking about what she wants to improve second semester.

Top of her list?

"I'm really excited to establish different routines [like lining up for lunch]," she says. "[Before break] they were kind of crazy and I felt like our routines were just horrible. We'd try lining up quietly and we'd have to do it eight times before it would actually happen. So I'm excited to just go over the routines again, go over the procedures, and have that fresh start."

This plan for creating a more efficient classroom environment comes after reflecting on her first semester during her time off. Draper says one thing she found frustrating was not seeing student growth as quickly as she expected to. She says she was probably too idealistic going into the year, expecting to change her students' lives in dramatic ways. But after putting in months of work, she understands it takes time to see that change.

I asked her to summarize the semester in six words, and she said: Am I doing the right thing?

By this – she doesn't mean is teaching the right thing, she means she questions every decision, no matter how little it is. Like should she let a student go to the nurse when nothing seems wrong or wanting to take a book to recess.

And she she says her biggest lesson from her first semester is that making mistakes is an essential part of her own learning process.

"It's hard because you see veteran teachers who don't seem to put as much time in, but they've put their time in," Draper says. "So they have so many things to pull from as far as units, different lesson plans and different strategies and everything."

Reflecting on the highs and lows of teaching

Gabe Hoffman also utilized some of his winter break to prepare for the next semester. On one of the last days of his break he was in his classroom, taking down posters from old lessons and planning how he would put the desks in a U shape in the middle of the room.

As he prepares his classroom for a new semester, he says he wasn't prepared for how much this job would consume him. During the semester he spends around 12 hours a day working for his students. And after that, his friend circle is mostly other teachers, so they talk shop even when they aren't working.

"When you're a first year teacher you have your doubts," Hoffman says. "[You think] – am I doing this the right way, can I be doing this better? You spend a lot of time talking to other teachers and getting suggestions. A lot of times, in education, everybody has a different suggestion and different people want you do things different ways."

One thing he shared was his high and low from this semester.

His high?

He made a breakthrough with a student, who started the year not liking school.

"It got to the point where when I first met him he would shut down the second he walked in the door if something was not going well outside the room or with someone else, he wouldn't do work all day."

But Hoffman worked with him, and now, when the students wants to give up, he takes five minutes to go look at the fish in the fish tank and returns to the lesson. Hoffman says his attitude is much more positive and he's even participating.

His low was a specific math lesson, where his original lesson wasn't sticking with the kids.

"I tried for 45 minutes, every different way I could think of teaching it. I tried pictures, I tried standing the kids up and dividing it, I tried having them tell me step by step. I tried using number blocks, I tried using pattern blocks..."

None of these tactics worked though

"I left that day thinking I failed the kids today," he says. "I should have had other ways for them to get that, this was on me, not them. To me, seeing that only one or two kids gets it, that's my fault.

These two experiences are good examples of the six word summary Hoffman gave me summarizing his first semester:

Teaching is very difficult, but rewarding.


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