Don't smile for the first three months.
That was the advice science teacher Taylor Shannon received last year as she headed into her first teaching job at Baltimore's Northeast Middle School.
Students see your kindness as weakness, she was told. So Shannon, 24, was afraid to be too nice.
"I wanted to build relationships," she says. "But I was afraid they would mistake it as a friendship."
Soon after starting, the young teacher saw firsthand what she was up against.
One group of eighth graders told her their goal was to make her quit. They refused to walk in a quiet line between classes. They took so long to settle down when class started, Shannon was forced to keep them after school to finish their lessons. When the class used sand as a lab supply, some students stuck it in each other's mouths.
"We went through a lot," she says. "Almost the entire class was suspended. They tried everything under the sun."
Shannon called students' parents when they acted out in class. She was surprised when some didn't cooperate.
"That was my hardest part," she admits. "Getting over that initial feeling that you're not being supported by that parent and then wondering, 'What am I going to do now?'"
But Shannon persevered, as did the other teachers we interviewed who spent last year teaching for the first time. They started their year in local schools as excited and nervous as their students. They grappled with challenges—both foreseen and unexpected—and emerged with a great deal more confidence, skill, and enthusiasm for the year to come.
Taylor, middle school
Taylor Shannon decided to pursue a teaching degree because she wanted to make a difference.
"I had good teachers and I wanted to do the same," she explains. "I didn't want to be in a typical storybook school setting. I wanted to be in an urban area helping to close the achievement gap that exists."
Before starting in Baltimore, Shannon had some experience substitute teaching at an alternative high school in Michigan for students who'd had trouble at other schools or were on prison work release.
"If there is anything I learned from my long term substitute positions, it's that even if you put a label on a child, that doesn't mean they are any less or more intelligent than the next student," she says. "You need to show them you care and show they can do it and give them that support."
At Northeast, she had her rough days, but she says, "I never had a moment of being fearful."
She spent her own money on supplies for her sixth graders so they could try experiments such as seeing how dense objects like pebbles sink while less dense objects like marshmallows float.
"It makes the effort worth it when a student runs up to you and says, 'I understand why we're doing this!'" she enthuses. "When they make the connection themselves, it's worth any amount of work I could put in."
Shannon decided to hold her difficult students accountable for every infraction. This was her way of letting them know she wasn't giving up on them.
"It can sound very desperate, but I never had a point when I didn't see a child come back around," she says. "They'll love you one minute and then they're cursing you out and then, at the end of the day, they're apologizing. It's part of that whole hormonal middle-school age."
After the winter break, that same group of eighth graders who told her they expected to drive her out were suddenly more focused.
With some measure of pride, Shannon recalls what they said to her: "We saw you were committed to us and we wanted to give you that same respect."
Todd, ninth-grade algebra
Todd Peters was on his way to Ocean City with his parents when he got the call saying he'd landed his first job teaching ninth-grade algebra at Edgewood High. His folks immediately turned the car around and headed to Harford County. School was to start in just a week and Peters, 24, who had been living at home in Lewistown, PA, needed to find a place to live.
"It was a little overwhelming at times," he says of bouncing between apartment hunting and teachers' meetings.
He busied himself with details. He drafted seating arrangements for his classroom on graph paper and slid desks around the linoleum floor until he felt he had just the right set-up. He decorated the white cinder block room with posters on probability and architecture. And he prepared a getting-to-know-you exercise he remembered having once done as a student.
On that first day of school, he was a little nervous about having to keep control of groups that were sometimes as large as 27 students. But when the freshmen arrived at his classroom, he saw they were nervous, too. So he decided that his first day, instead of being about charts and graphs and numbers, should be about getting to know each other.
He passed out index cards to each of his students and asked them to write down something about themselves: their names, interests, previous math classes they'd taken. He told his students that he enjoys soccer—he'll be coaching at Edgewood this year—and just about any kind of music with a decent beat. In turn, they told him about their own interests—music, basketball on weekends, and anything pop culture.
"I felt like I was on my way and I even had a jump start," says Peters.
As the year progressed, he learned how to capture students' attention by approaching lessons in creative ways.
He related some of his lessons to events in the news. He had students figure out the mileage the Olympic torch traveled from city to city. He had them use a miniature catapult he built in Boy Scouts to learn about trajectories and graphing distances.
He learned that there is no cookie-cutter approach to education.
"Some [students] would understand when I taught from a book," he says. "Others would understand when we did a hands-on activity. Some did better with a laptop."
Peters says he felt things were really clicking for him when his students would come into class and he'd overhear them telling each other things like: "You better get your homework out because you know he'll collect it right after the drill."
"To hear them help each other was a great feeling."
And, more importantly, "They knew what I expected and what we had been doing. We knew what each other wanted. It was a good feeling to see that."
When Brigid Moran was a little girl, she would come home from kindergarten at Villa Cresta Elementary School in Parkville and head straight for the basement, where she had a little chalkboard and desk piled high with books. There, she would hand out papers to her teddy bears and dolls and teach them the lessons she'd just learned.
Last September, she got her chance to teach in a real kindergarten classroom. After receiving her master's in early childhood education from Towson University and spending a year working as a program director for the statewide kindergarten readiness program Ready at Five, she landed a job teaching kindergarten at Patterson Park Public Charter School in Baltimore.
Moran, 26, knew one of her biggest challenges would be teaching children who had different stages of readiness for kindergarten.
"I was apprehensive about the levels children would come in with," she says. "Had they been sitting at home for the past five years or had they been in preschool?"
She prepared her classroom by arranging it into centers—housekeeping, math, science, and social studies—and set a rocking chair next to an easel, where the children would help her write a morning message each day.
The night before her first day, she stayed up late memorizing her class list so she would know her students' names. Students' parents would be joining their children that first day and she wanted to make a good impression.
"I was very nervous. I was also very excited," she says.
When the 21 students arrived and gathered on the blue rug decorated with numbers and letters of the alphabet, Moran soon discovered that about six of them were going to need extra help.
"Some of them knew all of their letter sounds and could count up to 20," she says, "while some of them couldn't identify any letters in their name or write their name at all."
It helped that the families spent a lot of time visiting the classroom. (Part of the nature of Patterson Park's charter school arrangement is that parents commit to spending time volunteering at the school.)
"I really tried to work with families," she says. "I would spend at least an hour on the phone after school calling families."
Moran says she felt that things were starting to click as fall turned to winter. Any lingering insecurity she had disappeared when she got a holiday greeting card from a family who had expressed reservations about leaving their child with a first-year teacher.
"It said thank you for all you've done."
But for Moran, the biggest surprise came when she realized her students were playing kindergarten teacher just like she once did.
"I was looking around the classroom and seeing not only the girls, but also the boys pretending to be me!"
Anand, upper school math
Park School math teacher Anand Thakker started his career as a software developer.
"I already knew when I started I had no deep passion for it," he admits.
Thakker, 26, came to realize that what he really enjoyed was the tutoring he had done in high school and college, seeing the math going on in someone's head.
"Watching them learn is way more interesting than sitting in front of a computer all day," he says.
He decided to apply to Harvard for his master's in education.
"It was nerve-racking," he recalls. "I didn't have an education background. They had no reason to believe I'm any good at this. I hoped they would understand my passion and my willingness to learn fast."
They did. And when he graduated with his master's, he says, "I came out with no doubt I wanted to be teaching."
The question was where. He found the Park School through a search firm.
"I was looking for a philosophical fit," says Thakker, who grew up in North Carolina, where he attended public magnet schools and a science-and-math-focused high school. "A student-centered sort of progressive approach."
The Park School brought him in for an interview and had him teach a class. He challenged the ninth graders with one of his favorite math brain teasers: the Seven Bridges of Königsberg. (This is a famous problem where students must discern whether it's possible to walk a route where they cross each of Königsberg's seven bridges only once.)
"The students and I were having a great time and I wasn't ready to stop," he says.
He didn't have to. The school hired him to teach upper school math.
Heading into his first class, Thakker says, "I was most concerned about group management and leadership of a class. I had never been responsible for a whole group like that before."
He learned it was best to take a collaborative approach.
"It's a lot less about delivering from me to the kids and a lot more collaborating with the students," he says. "Their ideas are at least as important as mine, probably more so."
When he taught the last class of the day, his students were sometimes distracted. For that, he found that an honest approach worked wonders.
Sometimes he'd simply say, "Hey, it's a tough day, huh?" and then suggest that the students take a break.
"They'd say, 'He's being real with us,'" he says.
What surprised him most about his first year teaching was the way he felt when the 40 students he'd been so involved with all year suddenly left for the summer.
"The end of the year hit me like a freight train," says Thakker. "Summer came and my life emptied out really quick of people. I wasn't ready for it all to be done."
Margaret, sixth grade language
Margaret Elwell says she couldn't sleep the night before she started teaching sixth grade language arts at Winston Middle School in Baltimore last fall.
The words of a colleague were rattling around in her head: "He said, 'You are the authority. You are the adult.'"
Elwell told him she didn't yet feel like the adult: "I'm just out of college. I'm completely off balance in the city."
His reply? "Well, fake it."
(To this day, Elwell keeps her age a secret because she thinks it helps that her students think she's older than she really is.)
As she lay awake that night before her first class, she had a brainstorm: She recalled a teaching method she had learned in a graduate course at Johns Hopkins University. She spent the night coming up with physical movements her students could use to help them learn vocabulary words that described reading strategies.
That first day she shook every child's hand as they came into her classroom. Then she had them out of their chairs, reciting terms and linking fingers and jumping up and down.
Her method worked.
"It was so exhilarating," she says. "I had so much energy and I was so happy being around 20 to 25 kids. They're in your room and they're all looking at you. There is so much joy in kids. They're there because they want to learn and because they expect you to be their teacher. I can't even explain the rush of happiness."
Her first three months of teaching went relatively smoothly. Her students were simply too busy working to act out. Then, in November, there was a fight in her classroom between a boy and a girl.
Although neither was bruised or bleeding, the fight seemed vicious to her. She called for help and the fight was quickly broken up, but the fight changed the tenor of the year.
"That fight took away a little bit of my innocent, fun play with them," she admits.
The winter brought more incidents of students talking when they weren't supposed to and not paying attention. Elwell tried to enforce the rules of the classroom as firmly as she could. "I learned quickly if you say something, you must follow through," she says.
She also learned that pointing out good behavior and praising it worked wonders. "Then everyone would say, 'I want to be [praised] like that.'"
Elwell knew things were clicking in the spring when a student who had always given her a lot of trouble gave her a big hug.
"I realized it wasn't just me liking the kids and them thinking I was amusing, but they really cared about me," she says.
In the end, what surprised her most about her first year was how good it was.
"It was amazing," she gushes. "I think my kids learned something. I think I made them better people and I know they made me a better person, too."