Walking into a classroom on the first day of school and trying to impress a new teacher can be daunting. But what students often forget is that our teachers, no matter how experienced or at ease in front of a class, have had to start somewhere. Here are some of their stories.
Marianne Prabhu (Biology):
“I’ve always had good first days of school. My birthday’s usually around the first day of school, and I’ve always liked school. I mean, obviously, I’m a teacher, and I’m still here, but I like it. [The first day] I had one student who came in and was like, ‘I’m really sorry, I’m going to take notes in a little bit, [but right now] I’m going to bedazzle my shirt.’ He was bedazzling his shirt in the back of the room, and it was my first week of teaching, and I really didn’t know what to do. I was like, I guess I’m just going to have to let this happen because I really don’t know what to do. No teaching class ever teaches you what to do when a kid starts bedazzling his shirt at the back of the room.”
Allison Barber (English):
“I was nervous, I was overwhelmed, but at the end of the day, I realized that everybody here is so kind and so sweet, and they made me feel so welcome. At first, I think I was overwhelmed by how intelligent all of the students are, and I realized that’s not something to be afraid of; it’s a thing that’s amazing to have in the classroom.”
Jessica Quenzer (Biology):
“I started teaching in Stuy in 2011, so I’m in my 6th year right now. My very first class at Stuyvesant was junior bio for second period, and it was in room 715. I remember it because when I walked into the class, I was nervous and excited at the same time. I was so happy and grateful to be at Stuyvesant, and I was also hoping that the kids would like me.
I’m there and I’m ready for the students to come in, and the first student to walk in was a boy wearing a My Neighbor Totoro t-shirt. I recognized the shirt, he was happy that I knew it, and I was like, ‘Okay, I belong here, I’m going to get along with everybody here.’ And then the next kid came in, and he was happy to see me. The first student who walked in was Curtis, and the next student who walked in was Steve, and we immediately hit it off, and then other students were streaming in and were also just happy to be at school, we were all happy to be at school.
Later on in the day, I had another section during eighth period, and one of the students, Damien, came in wearing a Doctor Who shirt, and so it was just like―okay, we’re on the same wavelength here, I can connect with these students, I can interact with them, this is gonna be good! And they all like bio, I hope! Some of them, I’m still in touch with to this day; they’ll send me emails about how they’re doing in college and stuff.”
I asked, “Do they still have the shirts?” and Ms. Quenzer replied, “Probably!”
Eric Grossman (AP of English):
“When I think of my first day of teaching, I really think of my first day student-teaching here. The official teacher, [Debbie Schmitt], introduced me to the class, and she sat down in the back of the room. Then, I came up to the front of the room. I was so nervous and out of my depth that I don’t really know what happened for that period. My vision tunneled to a pinprick. I may have just swayed and hummed for the period. I’m pretty sure I handed out the syllabus and we read it together and I said some things and probably passed out index cards and got kids’ names. I just felt totally out of my depth. The one thing that I took from that is that I would have to get better really quickly because I couldn’t sustain days like that for very long.
It feels like learning to drive. When you first get behind the wheel, you’ve never done it before, and you’re aware of and uncertain about every move you make, or at least I was. I was like, okay, I’m going to look out the rear view mirror now. Now I’m putting on my left-turn signal. Teaching felt analogous to that: I’m going to hand this out now; okay, I’m going to step to the left side of the room. After a while, both in driving and in teaching, those kind of things become fluid and second nature. You integrate them. It’s not that you don’t think about what you’re doing, and it’s not that there aren’t moments where you’re much more conscious of it, but the basic business of getting through the structural aspect of a class becomes second nature to you. None of that was in place on day one.”
Mark Henderson (English):
“I remember I taught my first class, which was much longer than the classes here. It was an hour and fifteen minutes, and I got to the end of it and was like, ‘I did it!’ I was so relieved I did it, and I looked at the clock, and I realized that in another half an hour, I had to do it again! It was just so terrifying.”
Dr. Lisa Greenwald (Social Studies):
“My story isn’t that funny, but I think it highlights the poor training that the DOE provides to new teachers without distinction for academic milieu or teacher―call it non-differentiated instruction.
It was the first six months or so of my high school teaching career, and a kindly, retired teacher who had been assigned to me as a mentor by the DOE dropped by and saw me about once every 4-6 weeks. One day, [she] made a strong suggestion that I use stickers to inspire my students.
I remember swallowing hard, not wanting to offend, and not wanting to seem so arrogant that I couldn’t take advice, especially as I sought advice from all quarters. But stickers? They seemed so demeaning and so grade-school. She assured me that students loved stickers and that they worked miracles―inspiring students every day. She brought me some and insisted I try the stickers.
I remember walking up and down the aisles of the classroom putting stickers in the notebook pages of each of my students―’super!’ ‘good job!’ ‘good work!’—and wondering how I was going to continue to teach high school if I had to do that every day.
PS: When I tell current students this story, their response is invariably, ’but I love stickers!’ Go figure…”
Victor Greez (Social Studies):
“There’s a Bob Dylan song that goes, ‘I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.’ When I was young, I wanted to look old to my students, so I had a big beard and wore a tie, and I wore these old-man corduroy pants, and so forth. I really kept a barrier, and I feel that, 30 years later, I’m so much younger now. The students made a lot of fun of me on first day because I wrote so enormously on the board, and people thought I was crazy.”
Vito Bonsignore (English):
“My very first day teaching was a mix of a disaster, more or less. It was a mixed bag, as a starting teacher―I needed to develop a sense of confidence, which would come with time and not on the first day. At the same time, I wanted desperately to succeed, but this would also come with time. I learned the first thing a teacher should do is bond with the students. The rest follows: confidence, trust, and learning.
There’s a give and take as it gets better with every day. At the end of a week, it gets better. At the end of a month, you’ve learned everyone’s names, learned students’ peculiar interests, the ways they look at you, and their responses. Before you know it, they are in the palm of your hand. As long as you feed them your energy and accept what they give you, you are in the game. And the game is a winner because the students will appreciate your efforts in wanting them to learn.
[On the first day], I wouldn’t say I wasn’t shaking in my boots, but I was pretty close to it. You are given an offer and a responsibility in a classroom. You need to make the students feel safe, appreciated, and loved, because what brings the student and teacher together is love of learning. Otherwise, no one would be there! The book, the words, the concepts, the feelings.
I started teaching English in Middle school, for seventh and eighth graders in the South Bronx. The student population was challenging, not as focused on learning as Stuyvesant students, who are driven to excel. The challenge was reaching students to get them to the book, to get them to appreciate the word. Many did not have a strong interest.
The first day―and in fact, most of the semester―was spent disciplining students in seventh grade. They were little, jumping around, distracted and excited. As Frank McCourt said, ‘You need to get them to behave, to listen, and then they can learn.’
After six years teaching middle school, I had the desire to move to different kind of teaching. I chose the high school system, which suited me better. You can reach students on a higher level when they are older. They have exponential intellectual, emotional growth. The feelings expressed in their writing and speech is magnificent.”
Thomas Strasser (Physics):
“I don’t really remember my first day of teaching, so I cannot really answer that because I really wouldn’t know. I went to school in Austria, and teacher education works totally differently there, so the reason I can’t really remember my first day of teaching is because there was not really a first day of teaching because you’re sliding into it, it’s not like you’re done with college and then you teach, so that’s why I don’t really remember, because even as a student, you already teach. What I do remember is that on my first day as a teacher [in America], they gave me a program that had everything from earth science classes to physics classes on it. It was a little strange that a physics teacher was allowed to teach a different subject because that would totally be illegal in Austria.
The whole first week was totally strange for me; just the fact that you have to stay in class and new students come in is puzzling for me, because in Austria, it works the other way around; the students stay in their class, and the teachers rotate and walk around. Most people don’t realize if you only grow up in one educational system, you just have no idea how different it could be in other places, and if you start in a different place, it’s quite strange, because a lot of things you just take for granted are totally not straightforward and obvious to people who are not growing up in the system.”