My First Year in the Corps: Flexibility, Authenticity, and Joy
When 2019 corps member Hunter Sesemann entered the classroom, he embraced the high learning curve and unanticipated challenges, in pursuit of building meaningful relationships and driving learning outcomes with students across lines of difference.
July 28, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic has transformed the structures, outcomes, and experiences within schools and school systems across the country, with a pronounced inequitable impact on schools serving the low-income communities where our corps members teach. This past spring and summer, our corps members and alumni teachers navigated these unprecedented challenges by collaborating with one another and with their schools on resources and ideas and courageously paving a new path forward for their students.
For many like Hunter, the complexities and uncertainties have not distorted their vision for what’s possible for their students nor impeded their desire to prioritize meaningful, lasting relationships that lead to positive academic and social-emotional outcomes. In Hunter’s story, he identifies the three key themes that grew his confidence in teaching and led to strong outcomes with his students and maintains his roots in these as we move forward with resilience and optimism in this new context.
Last February when a close friend of mine from college reached out to me expressing that she was interested in applying to Teach For America and asked about my experience, I wasn't able to give her a clear description about what my first year teaching was like. Now as I sit down to reflect on my first year teaching, a wave of emotions comes over me, this last year I have experienced some of the highest high points in my life as well as some of the lowest lows.
Summer Institute is where I feel my TFA journey really began. Institute was my first teaching experience; I co-taught an English class. That following Monday we entered our classroom with 17 students, 8 of whom were English language learners (ELL). Realizing the needs of our students, my co-teacher took over classwide instruction while I worked closely with our ELL students, all of whom are native Spanish speakers (my undergraduate degree is in Spanish Language and Literature). Although Institute was challenging, I now look back at it fondly as the start to my teaching journey. This was when I learned that as teachers we must be flexible and adapt to ensure the success of our students.
Currently I teach middle school social studies grades 6-8. Teaching 120 middle school students ages 11-14 has been an experience all its own. In the beginning of the year trying to lay foundations for classroom culture, lesson planning, and student relationships was overwhelming. I was constantly taking suggestions from other people, which was extremely helpful, but I didn't take these ideas and make them my own, and my students knew that. My students could tell that I didn’t know what I was doing most of the time and saw that I was lacking confidence. I realized that I was trying to be what I thought a good teacher was and I wasn't trying to be the teacher I was; I wasn't being authentic.
Realizing the change I needed to make in order to be more authentic drastically transformed my experience teaching. I changed how I structured, organized, and decorated my classroom, the types of assignments I created changed, and the way I interacted with my students changed. All of these things represented my authentic self which was now being reflected within my classroom. My youngest sister was the same age as some of my students, and although I was their teacher, I began to interact with them how I do with my sister. Establishing a foundation of respect allowed me to form connections and establish strong relationships built in honesty, understanding, and love. I believe many teachers can relate to these types of relationships, which I often realized I had when a student would say something out of pocket and another student would yell back, “Don't talk to my teacher like that!”
As my classroom management and student relationships continued to develop, I began to emphasize the importance of bringing the joy factor. School is a place where students have so many expectations placed on them on top of the challenges they have outside of school. I needed to be engaging and bring joy into what I was doing in order for students to engage with both me and my classroom content. I loved teaching but I also loved interacting with my students outside of the classroom. I became a volleyball coach, took my students on field trips, and would annihilate them in dodgeball every Friday in gym class. Our main goal as teachers is to guide students’ academic development and growth, but I believe we are also responsible to guide their social and emotional development as well, and if that means throwing a few dodgeballs then so be it.
“Establishing a foundation of respect allowed me to form connections and establish strong relationships built in honesty, understanding, and love.”
When my friend asked me about TFA and my experience teaching earlier this year, I didn't have a concrete answer for her. Present-day me thinks about all the memories that I have made this year; the laughs I have shared, the tears I have shed, and the love that I have felt. As I prepare to start my second year of teaching, my same friend is preparing to start her first year teaching as a TFA corps member. She now asked me if I had any advice to give her before the year begins and I told her that as a first-year teacher I learned to be flexible, to be authentic, and, most importantly, to be joyful.