Rookie season: Lots of new teachers face students on first day

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Frank Schultz
Tuesday, September 3, 2013

JANESVILLE—A new teacher with butterflies fluttering in her stomach is a normal thing, but Jaclyn Clai and Marissa Grooms expressed few qualms as they talked about starting their first teaching jobs.

The two rookie teachers at Janesville's Kennedy Elementary School seemed confident last week as they anticipated today—the first day of the school year.

“I think I'll get better every week,” Clai said when asked about replacing teachers with years of experience.

“I'm going to be the best I can be,” Grooms said.

The women are among nine new teachers at Kennedy and about 60 district-wide who are greeting students as full-fledged teachers today for the first time.

Clai, fresh out of UW-Whitewater, said she's nervous, and she knows she faces months of hard work to learn about the school, her students and the demands of the job, “but I feel like they prepared me pretty well here.”

Both women have teaching degrees. Clai (rhymes with try) did her student teaching at Janesville's Wilson Elementary School, where she said officials encouraged her to apply for a job here.

Grooms, a 2001 graduate of Janesville Craig High School, has a master's degree and spent several years working with autistic children.

But experts say classroom experience matters.

“You can't replace time,” said Rick Mason, a retired principal of Janesville's Washington Elementary School who teaches aspiring school administrators at UW-Whitewater.

“(Experienced teachers) have an understanding of the curriculum, the system, the communications with students, with parents,” Mason said. “That's only learned from a long time in that particular position.”

“There is a tremendous amount of learning that happens in those first few years of teaching,” agreed Peter Goff, a professor of education at UW-Madison.

On the other hand, new teachers have “incredible enthusiasm,” Mason said.

And of course, new teachers are at the bottom of the pay scale, which is a bonus to a school district's budget.

But if test scores are important, inexperience can be a problem.

Goff said national studies show that students tend to do better on tests as their teachers gain experience through the first five years, with some gains continuing through the 11th year.

But test scores are not the only way to rate a student or a teacher. A child's social/emotional development also is important, Goff said.

The way a school system handles its new teachers can help, Goff said.

Districts that provide mentoring, social networking and professional development are better at keeping teachers long enough to gain that valuable experience, Goff said, but not all districts can afford to do enough.

Retaining teachers is a big deal; studies show more than 40 percent of teachers leave the profession in their first five years.

Janesville assigns experienced teachers to mentor all new teachers through their first year, said Kim Ehrhardt, director of instruction. New teachers also get three days of training before the veteran teachers arrive for work in August.

The district offers speakers and other professional development through the year, Ehrhardt said.

New teachers also get detailed checklists and learn what they should do in their first five days and their first 30 days.

Clai said Kennedy staff members have been helpful: “There's always someone we can go to.”

“There's never a question that's too small,” Grooms added.

District officials seem aware they have a lot of work to do to get their rookie teachers ready. The annual all-staff gathering last week featured numerous references to breaking in the new staff, including a video with advice to new teachers.

Grooms said the best advice she has heard is to “exude confidence, even if maybe you're not feeling that way.”

Grooms also has embraced the notion that she should get to know her students on a personal level. She has a diverse group of fourth-graders arriving today, including some identified as gifted learners and some whose mother tongue isn't English.

Students should know she cares about and respects them, and that's going to help her help them succeed, Grooms said.

Pressed about their anxieties as they start their careers, the two teachers admitted they're concerned about how smoothly things will go this week.

“It's important to get our routines down right away, or else everything's going to be chaotic,” said Clai, who will teach second grade.

At Kennedy, as at many elementary schools, the first day will be full of appointments with parents and students and picture-taking day. Wednesday will be the first day of instruction.

Kids will be full of energy and will test their boundaries in the early going, Grooms said, “but I think that it's a work in progress, and you roll with it.”

Asked what she would tell their students as they look forward to school, Clai said: “To be ready for an exciting year. Be prepared to become lifelong learners and work hard, and the fun will come along with it.”

“Just come the first day with your energy and enthusiasm and wanting to be a part of a positive learning community,” Grooms said, “and we're going to have a great year.”

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