I arrived at school on the first day so early that the maintenance guys had not yet unlocked the gate. I unlocked the gate and my door, pacing in my classroom and trying to picture it filled with students. Even then, in the hours before my first class, it did not seem quite that real.
My school is structured as an open campus, so that each department is a separate, often circular building, with classrooms lining an outer ring of the building. Inside that ring of classrooms is a room for teachers, which we call the pod. When the rest of my department arrived at school about an hour after I did, I was in the process of running through my lesson. Feeling a bit loony, but in one last effort to feel prepared, I had been clicking through my PowerPoint alone, talking to empty desks and wandering the classroom.
Almost everyone immediately came into the pod to say good morning and chat about the first day of students. Truthfully, a lot about the first day is a bit blurred by nerves; however, I distinctly remember realizing that I was not the only nervous one in the department. One of the other seventh grade teachers, James, mentioned that he was too anxious to eat breakfast. A third-year teacher, he said that it happens to him every year on the first day of school.
All of my classes went relatively smoothly. I felt shocked, again and again, as students obediently completed the first lesson and asked me nervous questions. In the weeks leading up to school, my anxiety had forced out the obvious: students would be nervous too. They were seventh-graders, in a new school, on their own for the first time. Other teachers, both on the first day and the days leading up to this, had warned me that I would see the best behavior of the entire school year on my first day of teaching. It would only be the following day that I would realize that for myself.
My first confrontation with a student was the second day of school, during my last class. The student, Angel, became agitated quickly into class; he was refusing to do work, doing little things to irritate students next to him. Nothing serious, but not something I could ignore. When I tried to talk to him, the situation disintegrated. Angel refused to look me in the eye or speak to me; he would not go into the teacher’s room so we could speak quietly, away from the eyes of other students; he became increasingly agitated. After a few minutes (but what felt like a lifetime to me, the nervous first-year teacher), Angel sprinted out of the classroom. Oh, shit. Now I had to make a decision: call the front office or chase after him and leave my other students in the classroom?
I decided to write a very quick referral (paper form explaining why a kid needs to be sent to the front office) and walk outside. As soon as I opened the door, I saw Angel standing there. He was leaning against the wall, arms folded behind his back, bouncing nervously. He looked at me silently. He clearly had walked out and stood there, waiting for a punishment from me. In that moment, I knew that he wasn’t looking to run away from the classroom, but rather that he needed to get away from our interaction because he couldn’t handle it himself.
Those two first days lay the foundation for an important reminder that would return to me repeatedly throughout the year: they’re just kids. For those who aren’t teachers, this probably seems obvious – you are teaching kids, after all, girl. But while I was teaching that first year, I felt so nervous about being the person responsible for so many students at once, so nervous about actually getting those students to learn, so nervous about doing my job correctly, that it became easy to forget that those students were still kids who needed safety and understanding from the adults around them.