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‘Your energy is needed’: One beginning teacher’s message as the school year begins

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  • The school year has begun @HCPSNC. Ms. Thomas, a teacher @SugarloafRoar, reflects on her inspiration for becoming an educator and a message for fellow beginning teachers.
  • "Your greatest strength is your newness in this profession," said Ms. Thomas. From student teaching during the pandemic to entering her third year teaching @SugarloafRoar, she shares her reflections on being a beginning teacher.
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As the school bell inches closer to ringing, Emily Thomas’ day has already begun. She starts her day well before her students arrive, solidifying the day’s lessons, and making final preparations to celebrate a student’s birthday and the first Friday of the school year.

As a beginning teacher, year three is still full of newness, nerves, and excitement for the year ahead.

Thomas is a fourth grade teacher at Sugarloaf Elementary School in Hendersonville. This school year marks her third in teaching, all of which she’s spent at Sugarloaf. Being an elementary school that serves a high percentage of multilingual learners, Thomas’ knowledge of Spanish is increasingly helpful. Sugarloaf has many Latinx students, some of whom move from school-to-school between October and March following the agricultural season that employs their parents. 

This disruption in students’ lives is not noticeable during the first week of school, especially in Thomas’s classroom. She’s built long lasting relationships with students, which is evident by the number of them stopping by to greet her before heading to their now fifth grade classroom, just down the hall. 

“I just want to create an environment where they feel safe and happy and engaged in learning,” said Thomas.

Sugarloaf is a Title I school, and the classroom is one of the places where students can access reliable and predictable services. Principal Ashley Newcomer knows this well. She’s been with the school for seven years and has seen what safety can do for a student’s sense of stability and learning outcomes.

“They come to us for safety and for hope and for a better life. A lot of these kids have moved here, and their living conditions are subpar,” Newcomer said. “This is their safe place.”

From generation to generation

Teaching just “makes sense” to Thomas. Her greatest inspiration for joining the profession was her own fourth grade teacher.

“My fourth grade teacher’s name was Miss Miller,” Thomas said. “She was a wheelchair user, and on our first day of school, she sat us down, and she told us the story of how she became a wheelchair user. She was in a car accident in college. And kids don’t usually have a filter about those things and can feel kind of nervous to ask questions about it. But she let us ask as many questions as we wanted. She just was very open and loving. She was just such an engaged teacher. She would answer any questions we have.”

“She never made us feel like we were kids,” Thomas continued. “We always felt like we were a classroom community. And we were just all learning together.”

A fourth grade student organizes his crayons by color during the first week of school. Alli Lindenberg/EducationNC

The structure of school, the ritual of it, are all part of Thomas’ why when it comes to teaching. When she thinks about her own students, she hopes to offer them the same stability that benefited her years ago.

“Ever since I was young, the routine and the cadence of school always made sense to me, and it was a place that I felt safe,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to provide that for other students who maybe don’t feel a sense of consistency or safety.”

A lighthouse school

Sugarloaf is a Leader in Me in school, at the lighthouse level. Leader in Me is an evidence-based, comprehensive model that builds leadership and life skills in students, creates a high-trust school culture, and lays the foundation for sustained academic achievement, according to their website.

Lighthouse status is awarded to schools based on their exemplary achievement of utilizing the Leader in Me model. 

Sugarloaf integrates the “eight habits of leadership” into the curriculum, which is used throughout the school year. 

The Eight Habits of Leadership include:

  • Habit 1: Be Proactive. I am a responsible person
  • Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind
  • Habit 3: Put First Things First
  • Habit 4: Think Win-Win
  • Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
  • Habit 6: Synergize
  • Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw
  • Habit 8: Find Your Voice

“Each day for the first eight days of school, we focus on one of those habits,” Thomas said.

On the first Friday of the school year, the class focused on “Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood.” They discussed paradigms and points of view, followed by a reading activity and discussion identifying different perspectives in the story. 

The Eight Habits are on full display in the school. From posters on the wall to flags displayed in the hallway, students are regularly reminded of the values they are learning to exemplify.

Rooted in values

Values are important to Thomas, not just as the foundation of her teaching, but also to her identity as an educator in the beginning of her career. She has a message for her fellow beginning teachers.

“Your greatest strength is your newness in this profession. There are so many times, especially when you’re starting, when you feel like you don’t know what you’re doing and there are so many things that you’re unfamiliar with – systems and acronyms,” Thomas said. “But the reality is teaching is just an evolving field that is shaped by teachers who enter it, and your energy and your newness and perspective to the profession will make it better.”

Fourth grade teacher, Ms. Thomas gets to know her students during the first week of school. Alli Lindenberg/EducationNC

Starting out as a teacher during the pandemic took its toll on Thomas, and she knows she isn’t the only one it was hard for. She’s been changed by her first years in the classroom, but maintains that newness is part of what adds to her, and to other beginning teachers’, value as educators. She is looking forward to the year ahead.

“Even when you feel like you don’t know a lot, or you’re depending on other teachers for help and guidance, remember your value in this profession,” she said. “Your energy is needed.”

Alli Lindenberg

Alli Lindenberg is an executive fellow for EducationNC.