Surviving My First Year as a Middle School Teacher: Classroom Management



c. 2006

Survival. That was all I could think about in my first year as a middle-school teacher. It didn’t matter that I had experience working with kids. It didn’t matter that I had previously found success in my field before deciding to teach. Survival was all I could think about or hope for, and I wish I could say that I succeeded. But that was not what happened to me and so many other teachers before me and after. We simply don’t make it. The walls close in, the horde catches up, and you find yourself yelling in your head like the all-too-loud audience member in a horror movie, “Don’t do that!” “It’s right behind you!” “Don’t go in there alone!”




I lasted three years, which is two years below the average. But that was not the end of mystory. Three years later, I would get another chance. A chance to right the wrongs I committed in my first attempt. I was stronger, wiser, and much humbler. I had to realize where I had made my first mistake. Classroom management. I owned The First Days of School by Wong and read most of it, but I wasn’t prepared for the students. Most of these kids came from families where everyone worked. They worked hard and all the time. These kids went home and worked in their families’ businesses or had duties at home that I never dreamt of dealing with at the age of twenty-five, let alone at the ripe age of thirteen. They were cooking, cleaning, and raising their younger siblings. So when I would show up and talk about being silly and putting on plays, all I got back were blank stares. They didn’t care about reek history. They didn’t want to know about the intricacies of design or play development—but they did want to play. About six months before the end of my first teaching job, I finally had a moment of enlightenment. I stopped caring so much about how to manage the perfect classroom and started to do things differently.

I wish I could say it was a planned moment of genius, but I was just grasping at straws. As my class was once again out of control and not listening to me, I sat down at my desk. I grabbed a small hand puppet (a bear) from a prop drawer. I put it on my hand. I slowly took off my tie and wrapped the tie around the bear forming a sort of kimono look. I then started talking to it. Slowly the class stopped talking to one another and began wondering just what in the world I was doing. Eventually the room went silent as “Samurai Teddy” and I began to have a conversation.

I’m sure many of them thought I had finally lost my mind, but I didn’t care. I had their attention. Teddy and I talked about the importance of stories. Why every story holds an importance.

A passing of knowledge from one to another. When class was finally over, I put Teddy back in the drawer and the students begged to have him come visit again. The same students that previously had been too cool to participate in class wanted to know more. One class told another, and by the end of the week, Teddy and I had taught what turned out to be the best week of teaching in my life. I don’t think it was the lesson; it was the puppet. It was the idea of play. The idea that someone could completely believe the puppet was real. As I indicated before, these kids didn’t have the luxury of growing up with Mr. Rogers and Sesame Street, so when the moment to be kids presented itself, they bought in. They were hungry for more. More ways to tell their stories. They created their own puppets, began designing and building costumes, and eventually wrote fully realized scripts to share their hopes and fears.

These puppets freed them. Over the last few months of school, Teddy would only make appearances about once or twice a week, but each time the classes would sit, ask questions, and generally love class. We would even have guests come into the class to be interviewed by Teddy.

It may seem weird and nontraditional, but it worked. It freed me too. I was able to think outside the box. My classes and student relations emerged from stagnancy and blossomed into new life. When I was given the opportunity to teach again three years later, I didn’t need the puppet. But I used every lesson he had taught me. Connect to the students. Find a way—any way—to allow them to dream, to participate, and to appreciate a good story. The classroom no longer had to be managed; instead, I was the guide on a path to discovery.

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