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Lessons Learned From a Learning Curve- pt. 1

My professional beginnings were spent teaching physical education and health in Cary, NC.

If I am being honest, the first year amounted to what some might call a rocky start. While mistakes are common for any teacher, the mistakes I made that first year were especially embarrassing. I was all over the place. I gave the students a 5 minute in-class break on the days we were in the classroom, introduced all kinds of ridiculous rules, and let anything and everything get to me. I also took on unfamiliar topics without adequate preparation.

At one point, I decided to teach archery. I should have dismissed the thought immediately. I had coworkers who refused to teach archery. I just had to be the energetic new teacher who exposed her students to the fun sports. It turns out, teaching archery to a crowd of 15 year-olds requires extreme organization and planning. To my credit, I thought I had done enough to prepare. I even setup stations and divided the students into practice groups. I did not, however, remember to prepare for the actual archery demonstration and instruction. This oversight resulted in an embarrassing display involving an upside down bow and missed target. 

Needless to say, that first year offered a whole host of lessons learned from what are now humorous anecdotes to my story.

In my move to instructional design, I have been amazed at how similar the lessons have been. My narration always sounds better if I rehearse before recording. The time to learn about collaborative computer applications is before my online class begins. I am more efficient with Captivate or Storyline if I take the time to design a template before populating slides. Despite my almost compulsive need to get to the meat of a project, it pays to take a moment to prepare my space.

Experience truly is the greatest teacher. It has been 17 years since I was a first year high school teacher and the value of proper preparation is still etched in my mind. A lesson I owe in part to first year teacher Jenny.

We need to accept that we won’t always make the right decisions, that we’ll screw up royally sometimes – understanding that failure is not the opposite of success. It’s part of the success!”

— Arianna Huffington

Do you have lessons learned (embarassing or not) from your professional beginnings? I would love to hear about them…


12 Responses

  1. Hello Jenny,
    Isn’t amazing to look back at how far we made it! Thank you for letting me go back to my first few jobs and compare myself at that time and now. You have made me see how much growth and maturity I have achieved. In a demanding world and careers we tend to forget to take a moment and appreciate how all the experiences we went through shapes who we are now.
    One lesson I learned from when I started with my career is to own my mistakes! and if I was responsible for a team I would own the mistake for the whole team, because they were under my supervision and guidance. Owning these mistakes was not easy, I faced shame, guilt, discouragement, and felt like a failure. However, owning these mistakes, made me want to do better, learn more, and become the best I can. I think part of succeeding in my career came from owning the mistake I have done. Learning the lesson and moving forward.
    Honestly, I am thankful for those mistakes, without them I might not have built the mindset I hold today.

    Marwa Abduljawad

    • admin says:

      Hey Marwa,
      Thanks for taking this self-reflecting leap with me! Your comments about both owning mistakes and moving forward from them really resonates with me. Such an important skill set and definitely a powerful tool in shaping one’s mindset.

      Thanks for Sharing

  2. Hi Jenny! I totally appreciate your honesty in sharing your beginnings and you make such an important point about learning lessons. I have definitely been in those kinds of situations, althought without the bow and arrows! My very first job with people reporting to me was a bit of a hot mess at first, I had no prep of being in charge of people. Between the mistakes I made and channeling some good mentors from the past, I managed to pull it off! Learning from things that may have not gone as well as we hoped can be such a learning experience. I think that sometimes the stonger lesson is in that which went wrong. Being prepared, as you pointed out is half the battle sometimes. I think an even bigger point that you make here, is that being honest with yourself can open the door for lesson learned.

    • admin says:

      Hi Eva,
      Thank You! I just love real people so I try to be real as well (where I can anyway). Looking back with honesty and a dash of humor has really helped me to learn and grow both personally and professionally.

      I loved hearing about your experience tackling your first job. Channeling good mentors sounds like a really smart approach to the obstacles you faced.

      Thanks for sharing!

  3. I totally understand the desire to jump right in rather than stepping back and making a plan. It certainly doesn’t help that I always feel like the planning process is just delaying me from starting the “real” work, and it’s not nearly as satisfying at the end of the day. It certainly doesn’t help this trend when I am able to muddle through reasonably well without a plan.

    Something that I have realized recently is that my tendency to procrastinate isn’t just because I want to delay the tasks I dislike. It is also part of my planning process, albeit informally. When I don’t know how to approach a project or write about a topic, I put it off. Every time I think about the fact that I’m not working on it, I also end up thinking about what I should be doing for it. By the time I actually put my nose to the grindstone, I’ve thought through the process, worked out many of the kinks, and I’m ready to power through putting it together. I’m coming to understand that my procrastination as part of my process, and has value even if it’s not obvious.

    • admin says:

      Hi Jen,
      I feel like we are alike in our muddle through approach, which works until it doesn’t 🙂 Glad to hear that I am not the only one who will put off a project I struggle to wrap my head around. I like that you have learned to make it a good thing.

      In recent years I have learned to do that in my own way as well. For me, I am a big fan of both a slow thoughtful and intermittent brain processing breaks. I feel like it greatly improves my process.

      Thanks for your comment!

  4. Lisa Hazel says:

    Hi Jenny,

    I am definitely able to relate as I have worn the shoes of a first-year teacher before and it is challenging. I loved teaching, don’t get my wrong, but standing in front of 15-30 middle school and high school students is not a job to take lightly. I was put in a position my first year where I was hired a month after the school year began, I did not have my own classroom, desk, or working computer. Yet at the end of the day, I would make it work and it made me grow up quickly.

    I have rushed through lessons trying to get through the material and was typically pretty good at “having eyes in the back of my head.” However, I do not, and one day that became extremely apparent. Since I was always teaching in a fellow instructor’s room I also had an audience. I do not remember the details fully but two of my students were “goofing around” and somehow one of them ended up bashing their nose pretty hard. Let me just say yes it bled and kids are not great at staying in one place. This was at the end of class as well, so I had to get to another classroom to teach and had students entering the current classroom. I sent my student to the nurse, called the janitor (who was amazing!) to take special procautions as it was a bodily fluid and eventually got to my next class.

    I was never reprimanded as it was not truly my fault but I sure felt like I failed. Now though, I never consider anything a failure. Everything that happens, happens for a reason and I have grown from each experience good or bad.

    • admin says:

      Hi Lisa,
      Wow! That must have been a crazy day for you and I really do feel for you. Being a first year teacher is in some ways like joining a worldwide club and has connected me with so many great people throughout my life. I also love that you have been able to turn a corner on your experiences. That took me a long time. Such an important step!


  5. I had success with teaching acting to adults (in a community class) and I did very little preparation beyond picking some exercises and scenes. Somehow it worked and my students had a blast and learned a lot.

    Then, I was asked to coach some children for a television audition. I knew NOTHING about children, and little about acting for the camera. I watched a video by Michael Caine on camera work and thought I had it nailed.

    By the end of the class, there were crying children, upset parents, and one kid that kept leaving the classroom and wandering around the building. Total and complete disaster.

    Never work with children or animals. Oh, and try to avoid teaching classes where neither the topic or the audience is familiar!

    • Jenny says:

      Never work with children or animals! That’s amazing. Im both laughing with you and hurting for you as I read this. Reminds me of my first year teaching (I taught elementary PE before moving on to teach High School the next year.) Definitely something to be said for finding your people.

  6. Sam L says:

    Great story! I took archery in HS P.E. It was my second favorite phys. ed. subject behind tennis. Our teacher, Mr. Ferguson, was incredibly organized and we had to sign all kinds of agreements during the first day — basically allowing ‘Gus’ (as we called him) to kick us out of the class for any first offense — which was bad news because you’d end up in the whatever leftover sections of P.E. that were still open.

    My first-year-teacher learning curve horror story happened in front of my fourth-grade math class — during my first formal administrative observation. Having “fully prepared” to teach prime numbers, which was a direct kick-off from the prior day’s lesson of factoring, I was nervous, but confident! The first 10 minutes were great. Then I posed a reflection question about factoring (obviously setting up for my big win in transitioning over to prime numbers).

    Crickets. Not one hand went up. I froze — internally counting the seconds, desperately trying to determine when a solid ‘wait time’ suddenly becomes awkward silence. I missed the mark.

    Trying desperately not to notice the RBF donned by both administrators in the back of the room and to break the awkward silence, I primed a repeat of the question to the class.

    Crickets. Again.

    I was left with no choice but to deviate from my ‘brilliantly planned’ prime numbers lesson and re-open the prior day’s factoring lesson. It took no time to realize that each of my 26 math students were sitting in one of two categories. 1) I got it yesterday, but don’t remember it at all. 2) I never really got it in the first place, but didn’t ask any questions because I hate math.

    I failed the observation, but got high praise for my responsiveness in backtracking, off the cuff, to re-teach as was needed. They called it “responsiveness to learner input.” It garnered me a second chance at the observation, and that one, I nailed!

    In the subsequent 5 years of teaching fourth-grade, I never again moved foward through any subject lessons without solid evidence of my students’ readiness to acheiving the learning objective. Using assessment data to guide instruction was my learning curve. And I’m certainly taking it with me as I move from the classroom to the field of instructional design!

    • Jenny says:

      This story is amazing. I very much relate. I was always appreciative when I was observed by someone who was willing to acknowledge that despite our best efforts- somethings things happen. I love that you were given a redu- and I am not surprised you knocked that one out of the park.

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