Teachers experience rewards, challenges in their first year

Teachers who are taking on the job for the first time admit that the job can be overwhelming, but many are up for the challenge.

Dan Reiland/Eau Claire Leader-Telegram/AP
Teacher Sam Van Hefty (far left), who was taking on the job for his first year during the 2012-2013 school session, asks a question during an eighth-grade social studies class.

Social studies teacher Sam Van Hefty wanted his eighth-grade students to understand just how outnumbered the Americans were at the outset of the Revolutionary War.

Searching for innovative lesson plans online, the 24-year-old first-year teacher came across one that included dodgeball.

So on the tennis courts outside DeLong Middle School, Van Hefty lined up most of his students on one team as British soldiers and the rest on another team as American soldiers.

As the dodgeball game progressed, Van Hefty brought more players over to the American team, and tilted the game to their advantage in other ways, illustrating the different ways the war turned in America's favor.

"The Revolutionary War dodgeball lesson – that was awesome. It was just a blast," Van Hefty said, smiling after class recently.

Looking back over the school year as it drew to an end, Van Hefty said he had a lot of good days this past school year and some challenging days too.

Being a first-year teacher has always been a struggle, local school officials said. First-year teachers must adapt to a new building and new co-workers and must begin taking all they've learned in college and putting it into lesson plans for real students in real classrooms.

Meanwhile, in the two years since most of Wisconsin's public workers lost their collective bargaining rights – the controversial initiative championed by Gov. Scott Walker – many teachers across the state have retired. Subsequently, more first-year teachers have stepped into Wisconsin classrooms, the Leader-Telegram reported.

For first-year teachers there are supports in place, said DeLong Middle School principal Tim O'Reilly. They're assigned a mentor, and, like other teachers, they work in teams, he said.

O'Reilly said working with a mentor helps the young teachers deal with difficult tasks, such as the first time they have to make a phone call to a parent.

"Having that opportunity to share with a mentor is helpful," O'Reilly said.

Memorial High School principal Dave Oldenberg said coming out of college young teachers are enthusiastic and are often on the cutting edge of new instructional techniques, but it takes time to learn how their new school functions.

"Let's say prom is going to be Saturday. Do you have a large cumulative exam Monday?" Oldenberg said, adding probably not.

He said it is those type of things you learn after spending time in the school.

For Sherman Elementary School second-grade teacher Tim McManus, there was a moment in the first days of school when he found himself a little in awe of his position.

McManus, a UW-Eau Claire grad who hails from Sun Prairie, had student-taught and worked at youth camps in the past and felt he had enough seasoning to walk into the classroom prepared. Still, there was a moment early on that caught him by surprise, he said.

"The first day we sat down for morning meeting in a circle on the carpet, this is about 10 minutes after they've gotten there, and all of them are silent and staring at me... and I was like, 'Wow,' here we go," he said.

Van Hefty, who also taught for half a year last year, is a lively teacher, skilled at engaging his students in lessons, O'Reilly, his principal said.

Still, Van Hefty said there were days when his lesson plans missed the mark.

"In contrast to experienced teachers, (younger ones) don't have developed lesson plans created and there is a sense of being overwhelmed," said Melissa Bruce, assistant professor in UW-Eau Claire's College of Education.

Van Hefty said he never let the tough days get him down. He said he wasn't afraid to fail by trying a lesson plan.

"Failure is a good thing if you learn from it," Van Hefty said.

And when his efforts produced a great lesson plan, where the kids were excited about what they were learning like during the Revolutionary War dodgeball, the risks proved worth it, Van Hefty said.

Van Hefty said he loved his first year at DeLong. He is also moving on. Van Hefty accepted a teaching job in Colorado. The De Pere native, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire, said while he loved DeLong he's excited to see another part of the country.

One of the things that has always challenged young teachers is handling unruly students.

"Not only do they have to learn new content and teaching methods, they have to figure out, 'How am I going to manage these kids' behavior?' " Bruce said.

But for McManus, behavior was no problem, he said. He had supervised children before and had a very well-behaved class, McManus said.

What caught McManus by surprise were all the tests. McManus said he hadn't expected so many assessments that track students's abilities.

Bruce said that because of standards coming down from the state, schools are using more and more assessments regularly throughout the year, which can be a challenge for all teachers.

Despite the challenges that face young teachers, Bruce said she believes their passion can pull them through.

McManus said his most encouraging moment of the year came when he saw a struggling student make a breakthrough.

The student had struggled with reading and math, McManus said. But he was able to help him continue chipping away. While still not a strong reader, McManus said he made strides and also became a much stronger math student.

"He just slowly chipped away and he became more comfortable in the class, making a lot of friends," McManus said. "He was having fun and his confidence was up. That was probably the best feeling."

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