How Vulnerability Lead To My Greatest Breakthrough

Graduating with a teaching degree in December can be a tricky thing. For me, I was in an area with too many teachers and not enough classrooms. While it may be an ideal situation for a school district, it was hard on me for finding work, so my solution was to sign up as a substitute teacher. Within the first few weeks, a principal from a nearby school called offering me a job as a long term sub for a first-grade classroom while their teacher was on maternity leave. I was overjoyed! The job wouldn’t start for a few months, but the teacher requested me to come in a few times to get a feel for the classroom and learn their daily schedule. 

I spent the next two months visiting the classroom about once a week, helping here and there, and getting to know the students. Right away, I could tell they all really loved their teacher, and even though they were excited for her to have her baby, they were sad to see her leave. 

I didn’t know it at the time, but immediately, I was intimidated. I felt like these kids already knew I was less of a teacher and that they would resent me for taking her place. Without even realizing, I started promoting myself to them, trying to prove that I would be a sufficient replacement. 

Every time I visited the classroom I promised them new things. “Guys, when I come to teach you we will do fun things!” My list grew and grew with promises. 

You love legos? Great! I’ll bring legos!

We can color ALL OF THE TIME. 

I have some super fun books that I can read to you guys! We can do read alouds all day long! 

Do you play the violin? We should find a day for you to play it for us! 

This was me showing them that I could be a fun teacher too. I was doubting my abilities, so obviously they had to be doubting them as well. 

It didn’t take long for me to realize that this would backfire. In fact, it only took one day. 

I walked in on my first day with the highest hopes and walked out at the end of the day in tears. Four kids had been shuttled to the principal’s office before lunch. During reading time we didn’t even make it through the text because there was too much side talking for anyone to concentrate. And walking through the hallways was a joke. I could not keep enough order to keep them in line, let alone quiet enough to not disrupt other classrooms. In fact, another teacher stepped into the hallway and yelled at the kids as we walked by because they were losing control. I was losing control. I knew I was failing. 

I had a 25-minute drive home to think about what went wrong and how I needed to fix it. As I pulled into my driveway, it all dawned on me. I never tried to be their teacher, I only tried to be their friend. And even though I truly believe in having a good relationship with your students and teaching to their needs, I also know that my prime role in the classroom is a teacher. 

Continuing on in my reflecting, I also came to realize that I actually didn’t have to prove myself to them. All of these inadequacies I was feeling came only from me, not from them. That night I sat down and made myself a plan for day two. Something needed to change in order for us to make it through the next 9 weeks together. 

Tuesday morning I started off different than their teacher ever had. I stood by the door, which immediately caught them off guard. I instructed each student as they entered to head to the rug for a meeting, to which most students gave me weird looks or protested because it was so out of the norm for them. 

Once we were all seated, I apologized to them for how the day had run previously. I apologized that I didn’t have better control of the class, that we were not able to learn much from the lack of management, and for the disruptions that hindered our day. I felt vulnerable in front of these first-graders apologizing for my mistakes, but it was a great learning moment for all of us. 

After apologizing to them, I laid out my expectations clear and simple for them. Talking while I am talking would not be tolerated. Walking through the hallways would look like quiet, respectful students who walked, not ran. Further expectations followed but ended with a powerful statement that I repeated to them for the remainder of my time there. I told them that they were the BEST class in the whole entire school and that they only sent me to be their teacher because of their exceptional behavior, and that I expected them to uphold this. 

Most of them did not believe me at first, they were known as a hard class throughout the school and they knew that. But I can promise you, I changed their minds by the time I left them. 

By the end of day two, I cannot say that we had a miraculous change. But I can say that there was an improvement. I took on the role of a teacher and it made a big difference. Little by little, we had better and better days. They were quietly walking through the hallways and raising their hands to speak more often. We still had our struggles and I still worked hard to maintain their confidence that they were the best class in the entire school, even when I was doubting it myself. 

I finally realized I had corrected my mistake a few weeks in as I walked my class to the library. They quietly filed in and followed the instructions of the librarian. Our school librarian looked at me in amazement and congratulated me. I asked what for and she said, “I have never seen this class behave so well, you are doing an incredible job with them! You must have been exactly what this class needed.” 

I had a little smile on my face as I walked back to the classroom. Little did she know, our first days together were chaotic and we hadn’t learned a thing, and it wasn’t necessarily the student’s fault, it was mine. 

I learned so many things from my long term sub job. One big takeaway that has helped me in my teaching is that classroom management is key and that relationships with students thrive after expectations are set. I couldn’t connect with them because I couldn’t gain control long enough to know them. 

I ended my 9 weeks of teaching with some of the greatest student relationships I have ever made. I may have taught them phonics and how to add two-digit numbers, but they taught me how to be the best teacher. And the most satisfying moment was when another teacher commented on how my class was one of the best in the whole school. I knew the potential was there all along, we just all needed to believe it a little more. 

What does your classroom management look like? How do you establish it with each new class? 

Cover Photo: deathtothestockphoto.com