New teachers quickly get lifetime of memories

Kimball Wiles Elementary School kindergarten teacher Elizabeth Creel, a first-year teacher, doesn’t have a classroom and teaches in a open space outside of three classrooms.

DOUG FINGER/Special to the Guardian
Published: Wednesday, January 15, 2014 at 2:04 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 15, 2014 at 2:04 p.m.

It's hard enough being a first-year teacher.

Now imagine you're only four years older than your students, or that your classroom is in an open area in the center of a school building, or that your school experiences two fires and a lockdown during the first nine weeks of classes.

Alachua County first-year teachers are dealing with all that and more as they pass the halfway point of their freshman year, but they're making it work, they say.

"It's a lot harder than I expected, that's for sure," said Michael Banaszek, a first-year math teacher at Eastside High, where he graduated from in 2009.

At 22, he said, "Some of my students probably look older than me."

Banaszek teaches two levels of calculus and an introduction to calculus in the International Baccalaureate program, which means nearly all of his students are juniors or seniors.

Most of them are already focused and relatively well-behaved, he said, so classroom management hasn't been much of a problem, but he does work especially hard to make sure his students see him as their teacher, not a peer.

"I joke around with them a little bit, but I make sure I'm always very professional," he said.

The other IB teachers tease him a bit, he said, but that's because he was their student just four years ago.

His quick turnaround from high school student to high school teacher gave him a new perspective on his former teachers, Banaszek said. For example, in high school he couldn't identify with a teacher who forgot a student's name, or whether he'd told a story to one class or another class.

Now that he sees 125 students a day, he understands those feelings. It's "permanent deja vu," he said.

Banaszek's biggest fear in teaching high schoolers was that their parents wouldn't take him seriously because of his age, he said.

But that fear turned out to be unfounded, he said. He considers teaching a temporary adventure — he earned his bachelor's degree in math at the University of Florida and plans to go to grad school in a few years — but said he's passionate about math and ensuring his students are enjoying the classes.

"Just because this isn't necessarily going to be my career doesn't mean I'm not putting my heart and soul into it," he said.

For Elizabeth Creel, a kindergarten teacher at Wiles Elementary, the challenge isn't the students or the parents, but the environment.

Creel, 25, isn't technically a first-year teacher — she spent part of a school year as a Title I teacher at Irby Elementary, and a full year as a paraprofessional at Chiles Elementary, plus some time as a substitute teacher while she was getting her teaching certification at Santa Fe College.

But it is the first year she's had her own classroom — kind of.

Creel was hired as a kindergarten teacher at Wiles Elementary after the school year started. The incoming kindergarten class was so big that the school was forced to hire two extra teachers.

Without enough classrooms or portables right away, both teachers were tasked with creating a classroom out of a centrium — the wide open space in the middle of a classroom building.

"My brother-in-law put it best," Creel said. "Congratulations, you're a teacher. Here's a warehouse.'"

Four classrooms adjoin the space, which can be disruptive when those classes come and go. But the other teachers respect Creel's space and try to use their back doors when possible, she said.

The centrium is nearly twice the size of a regular classroom, so Creel said she prefers it to being in a portable, which would be much smaller. She has more bulletin board space and sectioned off the main part of the room with cubby holes and storage cabinets.

"I've made my own room out of it," she said.

Creel acknowledges that she got lucky with a good group of kids — even on the Friday before winter break, her class of 19 5- and 6-year-olds seemed remarkably calm.

Creel said she teaches in a calm and quiet voice so her students will mimic her.

"It doesn't make sense to yell, ‘Be quiet,' " she said.

A semester into her true first year of teaching, Terwilliger Elementary third-grade teacher Katie Howard thinks she's also got the classroom management part down.

In fact, she feels prepared for just about anything, now that she's experienced a lockdown and two fires — all inside her first two months at the school.

Luckily, Howard, 22, had already had all of her emergency procedure training at Terwilliger, so she knew exactly what to do, she said.

Her students practice fire drills all the time, Howard said, so the two small kitchen fires at Terwilliger were no big deal for them.

But the lockdown was scarier. In early October, a man fled on foot toward Terwilliger Elementary after leaving a car crash nearby.

When the principal's voice came over the intercom, Howard said, she knew it was not a drill.

"I was just trying to keep kids calm," she said.

The lockdown was lifted a short while later.

Both of Howard's parents and two University of Florida teaching students volunteer in her classroom for a few hours each week, a blessing she says she'd have a harder time without.

It's still overwhelming at times. To manage stress, Howard says she runs six days a week and she's training for a marathon.

But Terwilliger's administration and the school district's resources for first-year teachers have been helpful, she said, and she's totally invested in her teaching.

"At this point," Howard said, "I just care so much."

Erin Jester is a Gainesville Sun staff writer.

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