Over the last year, we’ve followed three first year teachers from their college graduation and through their first school year. Gabe Hoffman taught at Nora Elementary School in Washington Township Schools in Indianapolis. To conclude series, Gabe and the other two teachers reflect on their first year of teaching.
On the last day of school, Gabe Hoffman told his third graders, the first class he ever had, that they’ll be the most memorable of his career.
“They’ll be a special group to me because they were the first group I had as a teacher,” he said. They also helped him execute a very important decision: proposing to his girlfriend.
But starting the year as a recent college graduate and ending it with a fiancé only covers some this years changes. Another change: the subject he was most confident teaching.
Creating a Toolbox for Classroom Management
Going into the school year, Hoffman was thinking a lot about his instruction strategy. He was making lesson plans, attending professional development sessions, collaborating with other teachers on lessons and looking ahead to standardized tests. In addition, teachers in the building gave him some history on the group he would teach.
“The group coming in next year has done traditionally low on testing and scores, so they kind of told me to expect a group that is a challenge in that regard,” Hoffman said.
So he was thinking about that as well. And he prepared. But, once the school year started, he quickly found things he couldn’t plan for. He had a few kids in his class that could get everyone else off track. He also had a few students who had emotional and behavior problems.
Hoffman says this was the toughest thing – not having a clear plan for these classroom management challenges.
“There’s no clear cut classroom management thing that somebody does, tricks that work,” he said. “It all depends on the group that comes in and how the kids are motivated. You can have this whole toolbox of information and things you want to try, but if it’s something that doesn’t motivate kids as much or they don’t respond with, you have to try something else.”
In October, Hoffman tried ignoring the behavior patterns that derailed lesson plans. He thought giving them attention would encourage the disruption. But, he said, letting those things slide accidentally set a precedent that students could get away with interrupting instruction.
So he kept trying. By the end of the year he learned that classroom management is worth a lot more attention than he originally thought.
He now says he has to set clear expectations for behavior in his classroom. He said, while literacy specialists and other support staff can help with academics, he is the only one that can set and support behavior expectations.
Seeking To Make An Impact: Success And Frustration
Like many educators, Hoffman wanted to teach so he could make a positive impact. And he aimed to give additional support to a specific demographic by choosing elementary education.
“As a male I come from a unique position because there just aren’t that many of us in elementary education,” he said before the school year started. “I think that it’s important that we have that diversity on our staffs in elementary schools and that students can relate to male teachers in ways they can’t relate to other teachers.”
Hoffman is aware of at least one student connecting with him in that way. The parents of one of his male students recently divorced and the child’s dad moved away. The student’s mom came to a parent-teacher conference and said Hoffman was having a positive influence on her son.
“[She] said she was very thankful that he was my student this year and that she felt like I was a member of their family because she heard about me so much from him when he came home from school,” he said.
But some days were harder. A new student joined the class second semester, and some of the current students made fun of that child’s behaviors. This led to conflicts between the new student and the rest of the class.
“It was very frustrating for me to see and made me feel like I wasn’t doing my job in keeping that positive environment for everybody,” Hoffman said.
After a particularly bad day during this time, Hoffman stayed later than normal to try and figure out how to stop the teasing and negative comments back and forth.
“It was probably about 7 o’clock that evening in my class and I was tired. It had been a long day with something that had happened with that student and the situation and there was nobody there to talk to about it, everyone had gone home,” Hoffman said. “So I got emotional.”
It was the only time he cried during the school year, feeling like he failed to make his classroom and accepting place.
But at the end of the school year, reflecting on how things went as a whole, Hoffman says he is proud of the relationship he built with each student. He says many strategies worked, including attending some students’ athletic events and theater performances.
“Even if it wasn’t academically I did something for every kid in my room to make them enjoy coming to school, to help them build relationships with adults and their peers,” he said. “I’m very proud of the way I handled that.”