February 12, 2016

Teachers excited, anxious for new school year, too

When you’re 10 years old, it’s difficult to put yourself in the teacher’s shoes on that first day of school.
You enter your new classroom on that first day, and your heart races. Your palms sweat. Your eyes dart from one end of the room to another, looking for your friends who ended up in the same classroom as you. And you finally spot them — there they are, huddled together in a row of desks at the back of the classroom. You make your way to the back of the room, relieved you’ve found a friendly face or two.
Your teachers are going through the same thing on that first day of school. But for the first-time teachers, it’s worse.
They don’t have those friends to huddle around. Instead, they have 20 faces staring anxiously at them while they, a proverbial island unto themselves, try to shake off their own first-day jitters and set the tone for the entire school year.
At this time last year, I was a first-year community college professor facing a classroom of students, many of whom were fresh out of high school. Not only would I set the tone for their entire school year, but in a way, I would set the tone for their entire community college experience as well.
No pressure, right?
Last year, though, I was surprised to find how easily I slipped into a routine, doing my best to learn my students’ names as quickly as possible and strike a delicate balance between being a fun, laid-back instructor and one who kept my students on task and in line. As any teacher knows, it’s perhaps one of the most difficult academic tight ropes to walk in the circus that is the new school year.
Now that I’m entering my second year as a professor, I feel much more excited – instead of nervous, as I was at this time last year – as a new school year fast approaches. Hopefully it’s the same for other teachers starting out like me.
And then I think, too, about more experienced teachers who have been doing this for years, and I remember my own fourth-grade teacher.
Her name was Mrs. Altweis, and she had to be at least 120 years old. Her dyed black hair bore streaks of silver, and although she always dressed conservatively – decked out in a floral print dress that hung down to the heels of her black orthopedic shoes – her demeanor was anything but matronly.
I entered her classroom on the first day of school having heard the warnings of students who had gone before me that Mrs. Altweis ruled her classroom with not only an iron fist, but a vile, bitter disposition as well. If I did believe in reincarnation, I would assume that Mrs. Altweis would eventually come back as a Catholic nun with anger management issues who teaches at a private school and moonlights as a drill sergeant on the weekends.
All of my peers’ warnings were correct. From the very first day, Mrs. Altweis made it her personal mission to verbally belittle even those students who firmly planted their lips on her derriere day in and day out. Regardless of your intelligence level, Mrs. Altweis had absolutely no problem singling you out as a simple-minded buffoon if you gave her an unsatisfactory answer to a question.
Perhaps that made me a more disciplined student, but I doubt it. Instead, hearing a teacher’s rants on the first day carry over into the weeks ahead simply made me loathe her all the more. Maybe Mrs. Altweis was nervous on that first day, too, and conveyed that in her own way. I’m not sure.
But this year, unlike the others before it, I can imagine that no matter a teacher’s age or experience level, whether they’re new to the classroom or veterans in the halls of their respective school, all teachers have those first-day jitters that eventually give way to a well-structured school year full of hope and promise. And that’s OK. You’ll eventually hit your stride and learn each child’s name as you see them day after day.
And after that? The best part comes – the learning.


  1. Jerry L Kellogg Sr says:

    Reading Corbin’s piece brought forth thoughts from the increasingly foggy haze of my aging memory visions of Mrs. Henry, my fourth grade teacher at Castleberry Elementary School in River Oaks, Texas, a blue-collar suburb nestled between Fort Worth and Carswell AFB.

    Mrs. Henry was a rather portly woman who normally dressed for school draped in long mono-colored rayon dresses and the requisite pair of grandmotherly-heeled, laced black shoes mentioned by Corbin. She was usually coiffed similar to Marjorie Main, the rustic female star in Hollywood’s popular “Ma & Pa Kettle” movie series from 1947-1957.

    Although not a definition of an elegant fashion maven, Mrs. Henry was the epitome of grace and dignity. With her kind and caring manner, she gently and effectively encouraged all her pupils to strive for excellence.

    I will always remember learning from Mrs. Henry during her social studies lessons about life on the trail experienced by the pioneers migrating westward to Oregon exactly one hundred years before. With her own personal knowledge learned while a child growing up on the southern Plains in the late 1800s, Mrs. Henry taught her post-WW2 suburban students how to make candles and soap, churn butter, make brooms from straw and create simple clothing out of burlap and cottonseed bags. For survival skills, she offered us chocolate covered ants and rattlesnake meat, albeit purchased from the “delicacies” department at the local Furr’s Finer Foods.

    However, most especially Mrs. Henry taught me the three R’s well. I scored highest in the fourth grade achievement tests and later, when she saw me talking with my fifth teacher, Mrs. Henry advised her to “Take good care of Jerry, he was my star pupil.” This, of course, swelled not only my heart, but unfortunately also my head, which a few weeks later was pummeled back to its proper size during a schoolyard scuffle during a disputed marbles shooting contest.

    A few years ago, I discovered on the internet that Mrs. Henry had retired in the late 1970s, after 60+ years in education. She had advanced to become the principal of Castleberry Elementary and the town was simultaneously celebrating the school’s centennial. Honoring Mrs. Henry and her beloved school were the mayor, local and state dignitaries, former students, appreciative residents in the community and members of the US Congress.

    I learned that among Castleberry’s graduates was Bob Schieffer, longtime CBS News chief Washington correspondent and 19-year moderator of the Sunday public affairs program “Face the Nation.” Although he attended the school a few years before me and I have never met him, somehow I know Mrs. Henry must have been one of his teachers.

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