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Fledgling teachers settle in with fresh ideas, butterflies

Modern classrooms offer expanded set of challenges

Emily Donahue organizes her fifth-grade classroom at Peirce Elementary School in Newton. Emily Donahue organizes her fifth-grade classroom at Peirce Elementary School in Newton. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff)
By Lisa Kocian
Globe Staff / August 28, 2011

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Emily Donahue has back-to-school jitters. She’s done her summer reading (including “The Lightning Thief,’’ a popular fifth-grade title) and picked out her first-day outfit (a white dress with orange and red stripes). But last week she still had plenty of preparations ahead.

“That’s what’s causing me the most stress right now,’’ she said. “I walked into my classroom the other day and the walls are blank. I’m overwhelmed.

“And that’s from someone who loves to decorate.’’

Donahue, 31, is one of many area teachers who - with fresh education degrees, ideas, and enthusiasm - will be walking into classrooms where they’re the ones in charge for the first time.

It’s not the best economy for launching a new career, something that needled at Donahue’s nerves until she was hired to teach fifth grade at Peirce Elementary School in Newton.

“I would wake up at night in tears, stressing about how am I going to find a job,’’ she said. “Districts are firing, not hiring.’’

The difficult financial situation facing communities has been limiting teacher hiring for the last few years, said Paul Andrews, director of professional development and government services for the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.

“I see multiple good, solid candidates not getting positions,’’ he said. “It’s going to take a while to get out of it.’’

But just like in other fields, it’s about networking, said Donahue, who holds degrees in communications and worked as a resident director at various educational institutions.

While getting her master’s degree at Boston College, Donahue took part in a student teaching program in Newton. Then last spring, she was hired for a temporary position at Peirce to cover for a teacher going out on maternity leave.

When the school needed an additional fifth-grade teacher this fall because of a swell in enrollment, she got the job. She is one of 73 new hires to fill vacancies due to retirements or resignations, according to school officials.

“I found out quickly that finding a job is about knowing someone in the school district,’’ she said. “It’s really no different than corporate America.’’

But getting hired is just the beginning. Other new teachers talked about the challenge of instructing children with a diversity of skills, needs, and even languages.

Savannah Histen, 25, will teach world history and sociology when classes begin at Natick High School.

She said teaching has changed dramatically even in the few years since she was on the other side of the desk.

“Modern teaching has embraced multiple intelligences,’’ said Histen, who has two master’s degrees from Simmons College. “If students might not be confident in writing an essay but they would be confident in writing a storybook with pictures, you can use that in a classroom as well.’’

When she was in high school, there were still a lot of lectures and note taking, she said, but her graduate program helped her understand many strategies for reaching different types of learners.

One technique Histen will be using to get students involved is “simulations,’’ she said. They take on various roles from history or sociology and then act out scenarios with each other. In one exercise, students are divided into two groups and assigned to either “culture A,’’ which communicates verbally, or “culture B,’’ which communicates with sign language. They have to figure out how to communicate with each other.

“I definitely have a lot of freedom and flexibility to do things that are creative,’’ said Histen.

At Framingham High School, classroom walls were mostly bare and white boards were clean as teachers became students on Monday. An orientation session for the district’s roughly 60 new teachers provided a crash course in special education, health care, technology, and professional development.

Among other things, they learned that more than 16 percent of Framingham’s students are categorized as “limited English proficient’’ and about 22 percent are in special education.

Also, some 80 percent of the district’s children have a chronic health or other physical issue, which could range from seasonal allergies to diabetes or cancer, said Judith Styer, director of school health services.

There is a large population of immigrants, she noted, and by one count, more than 60 native languages are represented in the district’s schools.

“It is an extremely complicated community,’’ said Styer. “We have extraordinarily poor people here and extraordinarily rich people here, and they’re all going to school together.’’

Brian Costa, 24, was one of the new teachers at orientation. He will teach chemistry at Framingham High School.

He said he’s nervous about appealing to students from so many different backgrounds, and making sure his instruction “is delivered in a way anyone can access it.’’

Costa said he doesn’t want anyone to feel left out, even if they have limited English proficiency.

“There’s definitely some jitters,’’ he said. “It’s going to be the first time I’m in the classroom by myself. It’s more excitement than anything. I’m prepared.’’

Even so, there are always questions like: “Am I going to be entertaining enough, will I be able to motivate students?’’

The first day of school will include surveys for students to share details about themselves - extracurriculars and jobs, their favorite books and movies, and where they see themselves in the years ahead.

Costa said he also plans to offer a presentation about his own background to the students. He might share that he decided to teach when he was studying for a doctorate in chemistry at Boston College. He said he enjoyed teaching so much that he switched gears and got a master’s degree in secondary education.

Deepti Sirohi, 43, will go from being a stay-at-home mother to teaching at Cameron Middle School in Framingham.

Sirohi had done some work in marketing and advertising, but decided as her children got older (they are now 10 and 12) to go back to teaching, which she did in her native India.

“It’s very different - in India the teaching style is top down,’’ she said. “The students don’t get to think critically, or participate in a back and forth discussion.’’

Sirohi said she enjoys the way students here learn, and the way learning is seen as a lifelong skill.

Sirohi, who will teach both special education and traditional students, said she also appreciates the way students with disabilities are taught. India doesn’t have an equivalent to this country’s special education, she said.

Across the area, new teachers will bring a variety of subject expertise and personal backgrounds and pedagogical theories to their classrooms. One thing they might all have in common is first-day nervousness, many said.

“There’s so much uncertainty about what will the dynamic be like,’’ noted Newton teacher Donahue, “and that’s exciting but also nerve-racking.’’