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The night before my first day teaching science to the third grade, I woke up at 4:30 a.m. in a cold sweat.
“I need to prepare more,” I thought. But I didn’t think about the hours I’d spent on the phone with my mother, a teacher herself, anticipating tricky science questions from scholars (the term we use at the Success Academy school in which I work*). I didn’t think about the weeks I’d spent researching my lessons, making sure every detail was burned into my mind so I wouldn’t let my students down. It was not enough, I’d decided. I needed to prepare more.
I took out a pen and carefully wrote out a script for the whole day, fastening it to my clipboard. That whole first day, I clutched my clipboard to my chest, so tight my knuckles turned white. I glanced occasionally at the words, letting them rope me in when I felt lost at sea.
My first few months as a teacher, I did this every single day: waking up before the sun and writing out a detailed script for every lesson. For the first few weeks, my school leadership made sure another teacher was in the room with me, helping me and providing in-the-moment coaching, and I was so grateful for that guidance. Then, it was just me.
Truthfully, I hadn’t expected to be so nervous — I’d spent six weeks in teacher training learning how to manage a classroom and provide high-quality instruction just the summer before. Not only that, but I’d watched my parents teach all my life. I was so inspired by them that as a kid, I’d stolen their homework assignments and set up what I dubbed “Rhea School,” which I coerced my younger sister into begrudgingly attending.
And yet, this was not “Rhea School.” This was a real classroom with real students who depended on me.
I’d never taught before, but somehow I needed to deliver the same kind of quality education the other students were getting from more experienced teachers. I knew they deserved that. How in the world did first-year teachers do that?
The first few months took their toll on me. At times, I grew frustrated when my students did not grasp a lesson or became disruptive in class. In those moments, I was grateful to have my training to fall back on, but as a new teacher, I craved the wisdom of that of an older one, who had the ability to know why a student was getting stuck or frustrated in class, and know how to fix it. Once, on a particularly bad day, I sent my students off with a painted smile, closed the door, and cried.
In those moments, my school’s leadership and my fellow teachers became my supports. I realized I was not an island; I had miles of land surrounding me that I could run to with open arms. My principal’s unending encouragement kept me grounded, and as for my fellow teachers — they’d been through this before. They steadied me when I swayed, held me together when I felt I might break.
The third-grade teacher next door made herself readily available to me, checking in on me throughout the day. Another talked me through my frustrations, providing suggestions and techniques for future lessons. I so vividly remember talking to my coworker about everything that went wrong that day. His gentle words still reverberate in my head: “Forgive yourself every night, and recommit yourself every morning.”
It’s been six years now teaching, and every night since then, I forgive myself and recommit myself each morning to teaching. I’ve learned to give myself and my students grace. I still have challenges, but my first year remains the hardest. I wish I could go back and whisper encouragement to first-year Rhea, to tell her that the support from her coworkers, the training she received from her school, and her hard work, would all pay off one day, even if she couldn’t see it.
I wish I could tell her that she’d eventually hear students declare their favorite subject as science and see them beam when they heard their high scores on state tests. I’d tell her that one day, towards the end of her first year, she’d suddenly look down at her hands, her eyes widening in surprise to find them empty — she was no longer clutching her script.
This story about teaching third grade science was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.
Rhea May teaches science at Success Academy Bed-Stuy 1.