First Day of School
Before you do something for the first time your imagination
can colour a thing out of all proportions- like my first day teaching.
It was a few years ago and I was on a teacher training course in Dublin.
I had never taught before. I remember being filled with dread of all sorts
of terrible disasters that would befall me when I came under the spotlight
of facing 15 critical souls. What if I froze and didn't know what to say?
I'd be stuck in that awful position, it'd be a nightmare, with nowhere
to hide my terrible embarrassment. What would I do if I went all red and
what if, finally I made a total mess of the whole thing and failed my
teaching certificate? What then? I remembered during the course a feeling
I was drowning, that this teaching business was just too much, that I
couldn't get a handle on the whole thing. It seemed so difficult, what
with my nerves, my doubts and worries and the endless barrage of lectures
and information leading up to the teaching practice day. "You're
being thrown in at the deep end," our teacher trainer had commented.
There was a small group of us on the course.
One of them, a young fair-haired chap, was continuously showing off. He
would trot out the answers before anyone else, wishing to appear cleverer
than us and his devious tricks got on my nerves. At the same time I couldn't
help but be impressed with a mind that was so quick and sharp in grappling
with the material. To me the classes seemed to drag on, with an endless
barrage of handouts and information. Then there were all these role-plays,
simulations and other bizarre games. I had never found myself in quite
this kind of situation before. At one stage you had to play the absurd
role of a foreign student while your classmates pretended to teach you
English. All this theory and terminology about "accurate reproduction",
"language functions", "needs analysis", "learning
outcomes"! I had never imagined teaching to be like this. Surely
I thought, teaching English was a more straightforward matter than all
this mind-boggling jargon seemed to suggest.
The instructors on the course were another source of puzzlement. One of
them was a little fellow- his eyes never seemed to look at you as he spoke.
He would jump and prance about the classroom for hours on end, waving
his arms and hands wildly to and fro at frightful speed, with barely a
pause. I couldn't believe his stamina. When he spoke, it was like an unceasing
torrent of words poured from his mouth. It mystified me where he got all
his energy from. Was he like this all the time in the years he's been
teaching I wondered? If so it seemed he'd surely burn himself out.
We had digested reams of theory and examples about how to construct our
lesson plan. Frustrated hours spent pouring over this mountain of data
had left me in ever more confusion. How was I to translate all this on
paper into a live flesh and blood lesson? We had been instructed in the
elements of timing, assessing and monitoring the students, the developmental
stages of the lesson, determining and evaluating your objectives, ways
to check pupils' understanding and progress, obtaining regular feedback,
and the variety of student errors and ways to correct them, identifying
weaker pupils and finally doing remedial work. How was I going to keep
all these balls in the air, as well as remembering my detailed plans of
what I was going to say and to co-ordinate all my notes, handouts and
ideas? The fear grew- what if I forget some important aspect and the whole
thing comes tumbling down on top of me?
The fateful day arrived and the various preparations had continued up
to the last minute. On my way to the school I felt sick and had to stop
throw up. I felt in a kind of trance as my legs carried me up the stairs
to the dreaded chamber. I remember the instructor pointing to an ominous
white door behind which the group lay waiting for me. I fumbled nervously
with my papers. Had I left anything out? I ran through each item in my
mind. Surely nothing could go wrong. I had made detailed preparations
of every stage, almost down to the very words I should say. Then I found
myself wrestling with the door handle.
Finally entering, I saw a group of heads seated in a semicircle facing
a whiteboard and a desk perched at the top end of the room. They continued
chatting away, not seeming to take much notice of me as I slipped hurriedly
behind the desk. I dared not look up at them. Instead I clutched a list
of students' names. I could feel all eyes looking at me. I had to break
the unbearable silence so I found myself going round them asking their
And suddenly, the words were flowing from me spontaneously and they kept
on coming. I had all their attention, I was the centre. I felt in control.
It was me they were all following, my instructions, my requests, my questions,
my ideas. There I was, my lips were dry, but a conversation sprang into
being. The plan, all those minutiae I had to bear in mind, that didn't
matter any more, the class carried on with a momentum of its own. I was
suddenly scribbling on the board, darting here and there amongst the students,
glancing in the textbook, firing questions in all directions, chatting
animatedly here and there and peeking in their copybooks.
Before I knew where I was the class was over though it had seemed only
moments since I had entered an hour ago. I glanced over at the instructor
in the corner who smiled at me reassuringly. I sauntered proudly over
to her, feeling high and dying to know how I had performed. What had all
the fuss been about? The students had not jumped down my throat, I had
not frozen to my seat. The tutor hadn't told me bad news. How naive I
was to think that the students will be thinking about me. Of course like
you they'll be thinking about themselves and how they're performing in
the class, in front of one another. When I look back now after years of
teaching, how effortless it now seems compared to that day which had threatened
to freeze me in my tracks. Then, I was a bit like an unfit swimmer, struggling
painfully to finish a long distance course. Now when I go into the classroom
I glide smoothly on and the lesson flows pleasantly along until the end
is reached without great pain and just a little sigh.
18th April 2003