Thrown to the Wolves: A Hyperbolic Account of an English Education Student’s First Day Teaching
If I counted on both hands how many times I’ve heard people tell me that a student teacher’s first experience in a high school English classroom is like being thrown to a pack of hungry wolves, I would have to grow a hundred more fingers. In our English methods and education courses our professors always warn us to keep our cool because we may be insanely nervous and possibly terrified the first time we step in front of an actual class of high school students. Not surprisingly, they are 1000% correct.
The feelings I experienced the morning I first taught a class of 11th graders were probably very similar to that of someone about to be torn to shreds by wolves. I’ll admit I felt unprepared (I’m pretty sure anyone who gets attacked by wolves is), and I feared for my life (this one is a bit exaggerated, but I did fear for my reputation and self esteem, which are pretty significant aspects of my life).
I vividly remember driving to my placement school the morning of my first lesson. My white knuckles were gripping the steering wheel. My stomach was reeling with nausea. My teeth were slightly chattering in my jaw. I felt like the lower half of my body was going to go paralyzed and I’d flop on the ground like a dead seal as soon as I stepped onto the school parking lot. I was going into full Hot-Mess Tess mode, and trust me, that was not the place I wanted to be. I think I managed to eat 2 grapes for breakfast that morning–it was all a blur. I couldn’t even remember if I had put deodorant on. Had I even brushed my teeth? Oh God! All I remember thinking was, “I’m going to teach today. In front of an actual class. Of real students. Oh. My. God. Lord, save me!”
It wasn’t that I was scared of the students in my class–they were fantastic students and were super accepting of me–it was the fact that I was going to stand in front of a group of people and be responsible for teaching them something important. Something that they would be tested on later. Something valuable that they needed to know. And if I messed up…I’d fail them as a teacher. Also, what if I forgot everything I planned to say and just stood there with my mouth hanging open like an idiot? What if I passed out? What if I threw up in the middle of the lesson? What if I forgot what subject/verb agreement was and no longer knew how to correctly use a comma? What if I forgot how to spell (which has happened before!)? What if I forgot how to even speak English?! Or write?! Or read?! There were some pretty heavy thoughts on my mind that morning. However, my main thought wasn’t even a thought, really. It was just the sound of me inwardly screaming in panic.
Once I got to the school and stepped out of the car, I was able to compose myself a bit.
“You’re a teacher now,” I told myself. “Walk into that classroom, pull out your lesson plan on The Minister’s Black Veil, get your PowerPoint set up, and do what you gotta do.” I had everything planned out. I had practiced exactly what I was going to do and exactly what I was going to say. I had a lesson plan about 10 pages long with every minute detail accounted for. I had handouts! I had even made an online quiz for the students to take after the lesson so I could assess their knowledge. Thankfully, I had read The Minister’s Black Veil by Nathaniel Hawthorne about 200 times and analyzed it twice as many times, so I definitely knew what it was about, trust me. I told myself that I needed to get into Success-Tess mode–I could do this! So I walked into that school, I went up to that classroom, and I faced the wolves.
I don’t know if high schoolers can smell fear, but I’m sure I reeked of it. Despite walking into the room with the stench of terror wafting around me like a cloud of toxic gas, I proceeded to behave like a normal human being. I chatted with my mentor teacher briefly. I said hello to some of the students. I got my powerpoint set up, and I set my lesson plan on the desk so I could have access to it. It was my lifeline–I needed it close in case I started to choke on my own words. I stood at the front of the class and told myself I belonged there. Then, I said something along the lines of, “Since we read The Minister’s Black Veil for homework last night, we will analyze the major themes within the story today.” I was extremely surprised to find that I still remembered how to talk, and that the words that came from my jumbled, muddled, cesspool of a mind actually sounded clear, organized, and somewhat eloquent. Anything that wasn’t “wahoidshfodhfidgklafjj” was eloquent at the moment, actually. After breaking the silence, Success Tess decided to take over. Words poured out of my mouth–and all of them were intelligent and coherent. I was in my element. I was in my groove. I had managed to not only retain the knowledge I had prepared to deliver to the students that day, but I delivered them in an effective and professional way as well. I TAUGHT THEM A LESSON, AND IT DIDN’T SUCK. I successfully discussed the theme of perception, imagination, sin, and guilt with the class, I successfully guided them through an individual research activity in the second portion of the lesson, and I successfully administered an online quiz. I had done it. I had taught my first lesson. The students participated, they asked questions, and they answered questions. It was AMAZING, and it felt incredible teaching in that moment. I felt electric–I felt revived! I was tuned in and fired up. I’ll remember that day forever.
Thankfully, my (somewhat exaggerated) nerves improved. As the semester progressed, I was able to form small relationships with my students, even though I was only with them for a short amount of time. I was able to teach extremely fun activity-based lessons that left the whole class laughing, including myself. During every lesson I became more confident. I learned how to create and teach solid lessons that were effective, and I received great feedback from my WIU supervisor. I watched as my teaching skills began to grow. The experience only increased my desire to be an English teacher. Additionally, I formed an incredible relationship with my mentor teacher as well, and I know I will stay in contact with her the rest of my life. She was my backbone during the entire experience. She constantly encouraged me and provided feedback that greatly improved my teaching. I will always be so thankful for the impact she made on my life. She and her students completely accepted me, and I am so grateful for them.
I am not the same person I was that morning I taught my first lesson. Of course, teaching will always be slightly scary on the first day, but once you start teaching–once you start doing the thing that you so desperately want to do and have committed your entire life to–you are transformed, and the fear doesn’t matter anymore. All that matters are your students, who stare back at you with eyes hungry for knowledge (or for lunch…or for a nap…but knowledge too!). One piece of advice that I would like to give to any student who is pursuing a career in education: Remember why you are there. Remember why you chose to be a teacher, and remember the joy English gives you. Think about how you can transfer some of that joy to your students, and make it happen. You have knowledge you can give them! You can make a difference. It is normal to be nervous, but once you begin working with the students every day and you have the amazing opportunity to get to know them, the misery of the first day jitters will be worth it. The experience itself will never be easy, but it will change you. I learned more about myself in my first semester block teaching than I learned in my entire college career. Be confident in yourself, and enjoy the valuable experience! I promise you’ll come out of the wolf den just fine.