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Over the hump

New teachers learn a lesson the first week of school: Housekeeping chores and finding a routine can be daunting.

By DONNA WINCHESTER

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 29, 2001


Nicole Cushman has news for anyone who thinks that teaching kindergarten is easy. The 22-year-old Lakewood Elementary teacher found out last week just how challenging it can be.

"People think, "Oh, it's kindergarten, that's cake,' " she said. "But the first day of school, I didn't eat lunch until the kids were gone. I had to open their ketchup packets, I had to open their milk, I had to get their straws."

She also learned the meaning of the word "flexible." She had to repeatedly interrupt her lesson plan to explain things she assumed the children already knew, such as how to form a single-file line.

She was "totally exhausted" when she got home but admitted she wouldn't trade the experience of her first day as a full-fledged teacher for anything in the world.

Mrs. Cushman joined the ranks of 78,000 Pinellas County educators who began a new school year last Wednesday. One of 470 teachers new to the district, she agreed with several of her peers who said the most difficult part of their week was accomplishing the non-teaching part of their jobs, such as lunchroom and bus duty.

Rebecca White, 22, a new teacher at Lealman Avenue Elementary, said she found the first three days of school were more about helping her third-graders learn their way around than about teaching.

"You've got kids coming in and out of your class," she said, explaining that her class roll grew from 19 to 24 between Wednesday and Friday. "You have to make sure they're on the right bus, the right food plan. You get them used to the routine," she said.

Jill Cortier, a new teacher at Northeast High School, said her biggest fear -- having trouble establishing who was in charge -- proved groundless.

"I honestly didn't know what to expect," she said. "I had a mental image of what it would be like but it turned out not to be like that at all."

The 24-year-old earth science and biology teacher said she could have used more training on the administrative aspects of teaching.

"There's so much information for new teachers, like making sure you take attendance properly, getting the grade book set up, making sure all of the policies are being followed," she said. "I would have liked to know more about the bookkeeping end."

Experienced teachers say things get better with time.

Joey Miazga, Seminole Middle School choral director and 1999 teacher of the year, has been in the classroom for 27 years.

"You get used to it," she said, explaining that since it doesn't take her as long to prepare her lesson plans as it used to, she doesn't mind sharing before- and after-school duties.

But teachers who have been around for a while know that regardless of how experienced they are, flexibility is still essential.

Ruth Dobkin, who is beginning her 23rd year as an educator and her seventh as a teacher of the trainable mentally handicapped at Dixie Hollins High, is facing new challenges this year. She received eight new students from the trainable mentally handicapped program at Azalea Middle School. In addition to welcoming back the eight students she taught last year, she worked with the new students, getting them acclimated to high school.

"Moving to a high school for these kids is a really big step," she said. "There is so much that is so new to them. They were overwhelmed with the size of the school. They needed lots of reassurance."

Since Mrs. Dobkin is also a department head, she had to spend time making sure other teachers had the supplies they needed and were matched up with their assistants. Additionally, she was a "buddy" for a young teacher in her department, showing her around the school and answering her questions.

"If you stay with one thing, you probably get your feet on the ground a lot quicker," she said. "Some people, like me, have done different things for a number of years. You have to take the experience from one area and apply it to the next level. You may never completely feel like you've got your feet on the ground."

Leslie Black, a kindergarten teacher at Bay Vista Fundamental School, is beginning her 35th year as a teacher.

"I am more peaceful this year at the beginning of the year than I ever have been in my life," she said. "I know what works with kids. I'm excited to do it again."

When paperwork and additional responsibilities threaten to overwhelm her, she said she simply looks at her children.

"Their sense of wonderment energizes me," she said. "I just never tire of that. As many years as I've been teaching, that's what keeps me going full steam."

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