Notes From the Field: First Year Teaching Experience

by Michelle Wittle

I see them now, even though it was about nineteen years ago. Their teacher retired mid-year and there was a sub in the room. The students were all engaged in different activities such as combing each other’s hair, sleeping, making snowballs out of the worksheet, and talking to one another. The sub sat in the middle of the room and had two students near him. He was instructing them on how to fill out a simple prefix and suffix worksheet. They weren’t listening; they wanted him to give them the answers. 

I was lucky in one sense because I got to see my students for the first time without teaching them. But in a larger sense, my face cannot tell a lie. I was so mad at the sub for allowing the students to carry on this way. Time will teach me how difficult being a substitute teacher is and how little training and how little money they get for this position. I didn’t understand the sub was probably left with no guidance, no plans, and was probably thrown into the room with the expectation to make it work. But, being so new to teaching, I had no idea how being a sub worked. I saw that moment in time and swore when I took over, things would be different. 

And they were different. 

The first book I taught them was Sounder. I taught it to my 7th graders while I was student teaching and there were enough books for a class set, so I thought it was a win/win. 

It wasn’t. They were 9th graders who did not want to read about some guy going to prison for stealing a ham. 

Next, I taught Midsummer’s Night Dream by Shakespeare. Not the No Fear Shakespeare version, but the real, Elizabethan text. 

That went better than Sounder because the students read Romeo and Juliet last semester, but it still wasn’t great. I had students in 9th grade reading on a 3rd grade reading level. I didn’t understand I needed to put in extra supports for the students. They didn’t cover that kind of thing in my Shakespeare class in college. 

It wasn’t just the materials I was picking, it was the lack of classroom management. I couldn’t understand why my students didn’t love picking apart language and discussing symbolism. I was banging my head against the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary trying to figure out why the students would not sit down, do the work, and listen. 

It took Switch Day for my students and me to really begin to understand each other. 

I had three students (it was the traditional block scheduling) willing to be me and I got to be a student. Two of the three students cried. One sat at the back at my desk, shaking his head. The other asked me how did I do this every day. I smiled, and then turned to my “friend” and starting talking right in the middle of the class. 

What I learned from that experience was I had to really know the students I was teaching and they really needed to know the teacher who was in front of them every day, handing out journal topics and Shakespeare books. 

Once the students got to talk with me, they started to see me as a human. I was no longer a robot barking orders and telling the students to read this and sit down. I had a life outside of school; I had interests and hobbies outside of teaching. And they wanted to ask me questions about my life, and I wanted to answer them and learn more about them. One student even told me how when she first met me, she thought I hated her. She looked at my face and saw how my lips were pulled straight and my arms were crossed over my chest and assumed I was looking like that because of her. My stomach dropped because I realized how my body language was misinterpreted by my student and I was horrified I sent that message. I told her I hated that some people did not know how to value her education and that I was so sorry she thought I hated her. 

At the end of the year, my students asked me if I was going to stay on for the next year. One student who failed my class asked me if I would make sure he was in my class again. 

Because I came in late in the year, I was bumped out of the position and had to pick another school in the district for the next school year. But, all these years later, I still can see my students sitting (and not sitting) in their seats. I can still hear them complain. I still hear them struggling with reading the part of Puck

They changed who I became as a teacher and I will always be grateful for them.

MM Wittle is a Senior Lead Educator by day, an adjunct professor at night, and a writer on alternating Wednesdays. Wittle holds a BA in Secondary Education/English from La Salle University, an MFA in Creative Writing from Rosemont College, and a Supervisor Certification from Rowan University.

Attention NJ ELA teachers: Would you like to write for the NJCTE blog? We would be happy to publish your ideas and insights about your practice or resources you’ve had success with, etc. We welcome original pieces or those that have been posted elsewhere. Please send queries and contributions to

Notes From the Field: First Year Teaching Experience

Guest Blog: But What If I Don’t Know the Right Answer

by Adrianne Moe-Lawlor

Many arguments about giving more student choice lead to discussions about grading. Teachers will ask, “How am I supposed to grade this assignment if I don’t know the answers or didn’t read the text?”. While I understand the theory behind this argument, it presents many problems that result in actively working against creating a student-centered environment. The heart of this argument lies in the anxiety of teacher ego: I am supposed to know all of the things.

By feeling that as a teacher you should be the owner of all of the knowledge in the room, you are creating an environment of banking learning. In this model, frequently criticized by Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, students and teachers play the traditional roles of school: Teacher teaches the material. Teacher assigns work. Students complete work. Teacher grades work for correctness. Students receive a grade based on the correctness of their work. Rinse, wash, and repeat. This model is ineffective in every classroom, however, this model is particularly ineffective in an English classroom.

As English teachers, we should be teaching students the active skills of reading and writing. By definition, these skills do not ever have a “right” or “wrong” answer; a student is simply at different points of skill acquisition. A student who has mastered the skill of critical reading will be able to read a text, analyze that text for a deeper meaning, create a claim based on what they’ve read, and choose effective textual evidence to back up their analysis. A skilled writer will be able to turn those ideas into a cohesive piece. It will take many instances of creating an argument that, for example, includes logical fallacies or does not use evidence effectively, before students can begin refining and honing these skills. In order for these skills to be acquired, instances of trial and error must include flexibility on our part as educators. When we give students “reading check quizzes” or ask them to remember very obscure and specific details from a text that have no real inherent meaning (besides the “meaning” that has culturally been assigned to it either by us or society at large), we are teaching regurgitation, not analytical thinking. By asking students to come up with their own ideas based on a text and to support those ideas with specific textual evidence, we are able to peek inside their minds to see how they are able to make sense of a text on their own. As the expert reader and writer in the room, we can then address issues of comprehension or clarity based on what the students have shared. We, as expert readers, know whether or not an idea makes sense based on the context or evidence we are given with it. As expert writers, we know whether or not a piece is cohesive, clear, and sufficiently supported. It really doesn’t matter if we have read the text they are digging into, we can read something and know if it is a valid argument.

In suggesting that student choice isn’t effective because we “won’t know the right answers”, we are also implying that students are deliberately trying to cheat us. The argument assumes that students will give us the wrong answer, in the hope that we won’t know it’s wrong, and then somehow “get away” with something. We, in turn, look like clowns for not knowing that their deliberately wrong answer was wrong. The kids stop taking us seriously and our whole pedagogy becomes a sham. At least, this is what the anxiety of teacher ego tells us. However, if this is the case then not only are we teaching out of fear our teacher ego will be bruised but we are also shelving important experiences for student growth by asking the wrong kinds of questions. Instead of asking questions that have a specific answer, we should be asking questions that require deep thinking and analysis. It is exceptionally more difficult to bullshit an answer to a question like: Describe a factor that creates an imbalance of power in our society by using your text as a primary source, then it is to guess the color of Holden’s hat. (Additionally, even if a student answers the hat question correctly, it does not provide me with any data or information about that student’s ability to read and think critically.)

The super awesome added bonus of allowing for a variety of student choice (aside from increased student engagement and transformative educational experiences) is that grading becomes far less tedious and taxing on us. Instead of reading a hundred responses about the same regurgitated material over and over again, we are seeing a fresh new perspective and idea with each piece we assess. Here we can get a lot more insight into a student’s ability to think and their ability to put together ideas than we ever could by encouraging final assessments that hinge on recycled parroted ideas or obscure text-based questions. If students have a firm grasp on what they read, have a solid idea of what they are trying to say about that text, part of the skill of writing is making all of that known to your reader. In fact, I would argue that as reading and writing teachers, we can be better and more effective if, as their readers, we are confused by their ideas or textual evidence. We can then give more authentic feedback about what wasn’t clear (because we were actually confused) and provide more insight into how the piece can be improved. Since we are not an expert on the text, we are viewing their piece with a level of objectivity that we lack when we already know the “right” answer or analysis. In turn, I can have a real conversation with them about the text by asking them questions that probe thinking deeper because they know that I don’t know the “right” answer; the fear of being “wrong” is removed from the equation. Now, they are the experts on that text and that can be fundamental in building student confidence.

If our main concern lies in whether or not students are getting the “right answer” or whether or not we the teachers know all of the “right answers”, then we are missing out on the bigger picture of education. There are very few times in life when there will be one right answer. In fact, most of the time we have to process many different potential outcomes based on what current information we have. How well we can process those outcomes will affect our ability, or inability, to make an informed decision. It is our responsibility as educators to model this skill and provide opportunities for students to hone this skill in whatever ways we can. If we continue participating in the banking approach to teaching, students will not only struggle to acquire the real academic skill of critical reading and writing but after they’ve left our rooms, they will also struggle to know how to decipher ambiguity in their own lives.

Guest Blog: But What If I Don’t Know the Right Answer