New teachers share how they got their first teaching job and what they did to keep it
By Janet Rivera Mednik
They always had a passion for the classroom. They skipped to school as eager kindergartners. At the start of middle school, they enjoyed selecting their functional notebooks and colorful pens. In high school, they held after-school tutoring sessions for struggling friends. And once they became student teachers, they absorbed teaching techniques and behavior management tips with gusto. But no rush of emotion compares with that much-anticipated phone call when the principal utters: “We’d like to offer you a job.”
To receive that call depends greatly on geographical job market and academic expertise. But—taking lessons from some recent graduates—there are things one can do to boost the chances of getting hired and then surviving the challenging first year of teaching.
To get that first job, it is important to build a résumé that demonstrates a history of leadership skills and love of teaching. Jackie Scott (pictured left) was a member of her college’s student program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Today, she belongs to the Pulaski Association of Classroom Teachers. She spent college summers teaching science at summer camps. Evenings, she led church youth groups, and her afternoons were spent helping out in after-school programs. Scott credits her demonstrated commitment to working with youth for helping to give her the edge in getting a job “fairly easily” as a seventh-grade science teacher in rural Arkansas.
Katie Kamhi (pictured right), a sixth-grade teacher for a Title I school in Santa Barbara, Calif., agrees. Whatever free time she had was spent getting experience and honing her teaching skills—in English and Spanish—here and abroad. The number of students who are not proficient in English is on the rise, and Kamhi—a past officer of the Student California Teachers Association (SCTA) and currently a member of the Santa Barbara Teachers Association—advises others to learn Spanish. She encourages future teachers to maintain a comprehensive portfolio, including letters of recommendation. “The more letters you have, the better!” she says. “In today’s job market, letters from professors, parents, teachers—even students—help make the case that you’re the right person for the classroom.”
Fred Lowenbach, an educational consultant, who for more than 30 years was an NEA-represented teacher and principal in Maryland’s Montgomery County public schools, says that education majors should make the most of their student teaching. “If possible, it’s great to student teach (or intern) in the district where you want to work. It also helps to be seen by key people,” he says. “My advice is to go out of your way to meet department heads and the administration. It can make a difference.”
Be Flexible When Searching
But even the teaching candidate who has done everything right can still have trouble finding a job in her or his home state. Sara Casey (pictured left) a regional president of the Pennsylvania Student Education Association (PSEA), chose to leave Pennsylvania for a teaching job in a state where she knew virtually no one. “I felt like it was worth it to me to relocate to get my first job as a teacher,” explains Casey, a now a member of the King George Education Association in Virginia. “It can be difficult being away from home, but I’m glad I took the chance. It was what I needed to do to get a job that I wanted.”
It also helps to be flexible. Consider Jovanna Leon, a self-described science fanatic, who secured a NASA internship during college. With the precision of a veteran research scientist, Leon prepared a perfect protocol for landing her dream job. While at California State University—Fresno (Fresno State), Leon took her love for science directly to the community. She coordinated a community service project showcasing Common Core science standards and visited local elementary schools, where she invited intrigued young students to lie on a bed of nails as a way to demonstrate a basic principle of physics.
Later, Leon was called for an interview at a central California elementary school where the majority of students, like her, are of Latino descent. She was confident that her science skills, Spanish language proficiency, and enthusiasm for helping struggling students would win over the administration. Her well-researched and rehearsed presentation—complete with PowerPoint slides—and her panel interview were both a hit. Leon’s follow-up model lesson with students was a home run. Days after her interview, Leon received an offer to teach third graders. Although she was hired to teach language arts and history, not science, Leon—who was an active member of her student program at Fresno State—says, “I’m glad I was open to new possibilities. I like being in my school district (Cutler School District) because there is a strong need for committed teachers, and I feel like I can make a difference. When I walk into the school, I always feel: ‘This is where I am supposed to be!’ ”
Managing Your First Classroom
Feeling at home in the classroom is a sentiment that resonates with just about every first-year teacher. But teaching ABCs to a row of stuffed animals is different from a classroom of children with varying degrees of motivation, ability, and resources.
Excitement, anxiety, pride, doubt, and enthusiasm collide on a daily basis for many new teachers. They must grapple with classroom management, student assessment, behavioral differences, uneven parental involvement, language barriers, and a host of other issues that elicit both exhilaration and exhaustion.
Kamhi’s California school is economically depressed and most of the students are native Spanish speakers. “I love my kids and my first year of teaching is going great,” Kamhi says. “It can be overwhelming. Student teaching was very rewarding and I learned so much, but it’s different when you have your own classroom.”
Being responsible for the academic achievement of young students while also being held accountable to school administrators and parents is a vast departure from the role of student teacher. For one thing, new teachers have to “own” classroom management. One of the new teacher’s most difficult tasks is to figure out how to motivate reluctant students to do their homework and how to discipline those who break the rules.
The growing number of children who are diagnosed with behavioral disorders compounds the problem. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 6.4 million children ages 4-17 have been diagnosed with ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder) at some point in their lives—a 41 percent increase in the past decade. For teachers, the statistics are more than numbers on a page; they represent a challenge that cannot be ignored.
“My advice for new teachers would be to stay calm and push forward even when things don’t seem to be going as you planned,” says Jill Kimbraugh, a former member of the Student Educators Association of Nebraska, who now teaches sixth graders in the Grand Island Public Schools in Nebraska. “Fake confidence, even if you don’t have it. There’s no question the kids can pick up on doubt.”
Kimbraugh, who belongs to the Grand Island Education Association, has worked hard to manage her classroom. She devised strategies to bolster the behavior and performance of individual students and of the class as a whole. Antsy students who find it difficult to focus receive stress balls, which they are encouraged to manipulate at their desks. Kimbraugh points to her “superhero wall,” complete with a measure of five levels of power. It’s a method she uses to encourage her class to operate as a unit. Class behavior determines whether the magnet on a white board moves up (gaining power) or down (losing power). “The kids love it, and it helps them work together,” explains Kimbraugh. “Gaining power results in achievement rewards for working as a group.”
Lowenbach applauds such creativity and determination to engage all the kids in the classroom: “Classroom management is the greatest single struggle for many new teachers. It does get easier with experience, but it can be difficult at the beginning. Teachers new to the classroom need to experiment with different strategies to determine what works for them. It also helps to ‘overly plan’ and have a great number of activities to guard against student boredom.”
Engaging Students and Parents
Kamhi acknowledges that it can be difficult for new teachers to relate to students with educational experiences that are different from their own. But it need not be a stumbling block. “Many of my kids don’t like school, which is hard for me to relate to because I always loved it. My goal is to change that attitude toward learning. I want to do everything I can to make school something my students value and enjoy,” she says.
To make that happen, Kamhi wasted no time shaking things up. She eschewed neatly aligned rows of desks in favor of a U-shape and established a “Monday Morning Open Forum,” where the class talks about everything from shyness to bullying. She also made a point of encouraging students to get up from their desks and move into the fresh air and sunshine. “Being outside is great for silent reading and journal writing. Nature is a great inspiration,” says Kamhi, who after applying for a job “everywhere” is grateful to be exactly where she is.
Despite a handful of behavioral issues in her second-grade classroom, Casey supports Kamhi’s sentiment. Casey accepts that dealing with unruly students is part of the job: “During my student teaching experience, I didn’t have behavioral issues, so I was somewhat surprised when I encountered them in my own classroom.” Scott, of Arkansas, also was taken aback that some students showed no fear in seeing how far they could go in the classroom. “No one prepares you for that, but it’s part of the job,” Scott says.
Lowenbach cautions new teachers not to dismiss the role of parents. He says: “Some teachers may think that parents may not care, but that’s usually not the case. Today’s parents work hard—some two or three jobs—so they might not always appear to be as involved as teachers would like them to be. I think it’s important that teachers foster relationships with parents by sharing news, both good and bad. Nobody wants to hear bad news all the time. Don’t hesitate to call when the child has done something positive.”
Join the Association
As members and leaders of their local NEA Student Programs, Casey, Kamhi, Kimbraugh, Leon, and Scott understand that NEA is a great source of support. They all joined their local education associations as new teachers. Scott admits that she joined the union in college for affordable liability insurance.
She soon realized that membership provided much more: “The union helps in so many ways. It protects our rights as teachers and provides us a strong voice to speak out for the kind of education our kids deserve,” Scott says. “Being part of the union is so important. It’s a huge support system that you can count on. You’re really never alone when you’re part of a union.”
NEA’s 3 million members turn to the organization for leadership on myriad public education issues, including the Common Core State Standards, school safety, education funding, and strategies for teaching an ever-changing student population.
Today’s teachers need expertise, confidence, support, and a balance between work and home—the same things that will be needed by teachers in the future.
Take Care of Yourself
First-year teachers learn quickly that striking a balance can be tough. Fifteen-hour days aren’t uncommon. Days can feel like a roller-coaster ride, with as many terror-felt “downs” as exhilarating “ups.” Kamhi says: “There are times when I feel so sad because there is so much that my kids don’t have: rain boots, decent school supplies, a computer at home. But there are more days when I feel the opposite. Nothing can beat the feeling you get when you see a dramatic improvement in a child’s attitude, or in his or her schoolwork. That’s the best.”
Kamhi’s commitment to her class extends well beyond regular school hours. She gets to school early, leaves late (often 9 p.m.) and has even escorted a student home when physical bullying was a threat. Hard work is commendable, but new teachers must establish personal and professional boundaries.
“There’s a lot of grading in (Virginia), so early on I felt compelled to bring work home every night,” says Casey. “It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was really getting stressed out. I’m now making a real effort to limit the amount of work I bring home and to do things to reduce or ease or lessen—not add—to stress.”
Finding ways to relieve stress didn’t come easy for Scott. After months of grading papers at home, she now forces herself to enjoy some homework-free evenings with her husband. “I do think I’m a better teacher when I allow time for me and my family,” says Scott.
Regular exercise is as important to teachers as recess is to their students.
Daily visits to the local gym release endorphins, burn calories, and keep her heart healthy, but also provide Casey with much-needed interaction with adults. Scott turns to exercise for a different reason: After hours in the classroom surrounded by young people, Scott appreciates the solitude that comes with her long runs with her dog, Bingo.
Today’s new teachers will not earn a gold star or an A on their report cards. But their reward for doing a good job will be much more gratifying: the knowledge that their influence on their students’ lives might begin on the first day of school and continue well beyond.
“Being part of the union is so important. It’s a huge support system that you can
count on. You’re really never alone when you’re part of a union.”
Jackie Scott, seventh-grade teacher, Pulaski County Special School District in Arkansas
“In today’s job market, letters from professors, parents, teachers—even students—help make the case that you’re the right person for the classroom.”
Katie Kamhi, Santa Barbara Teachers Association member
“Stay calm and push forward even when things don’t seem to be going as you planned.”
— Jill Kimbraugh, Grand Island Education Association member