By Christopher Smith
First day of school nerves aren’t reserved for students, said Josh Keefe, who begins as a special education teacher at Dalton High School on Thursday.
Teachers can be intimidated too, he said.
“The first day of school is the first impression,” Keefe, who was at Ridgeland High School in Walker County before coming to Dalton, said. “That’s huge. Students will respect you or not on that first impression.”
Keefe, along with more than 75 new Dalton Public Schools employees, attended an employee orientation at First Baptist Church on Thornton Avenue Thursday morning. The event was organized by school administrators to help several new faces ready for their first year in the city school system.
Superintendent Jim Hawkins told staff, especially teachers, they have one of the “most important” jobs in society.
“At one time, a 50 percent dropout rate was OK because there were jobs (for high school dropouts),” Hawkins said. “Not so, today. ... Teaching matters more than ever. Our economy and democracy depend on it.”
Is that task a lot to shoulder? Absolutely, said several teachers.
“It is challenging,” Keefe said, adding that the biggest challenge for several teachers is teaching each student individually, while facing a growing student body, a trend nationwide.
City schools had 5,659 students on the last day of class in 2003, according to the state Department of Education. That number was 7,476 on the last day of class in May of this year.
Schools spokeswoman Pat Holloway said administrators try to keep student-teacher ratios low, only occasionally exceeding a state Department of Education class size suggestion of 20 to 30 students by one or two.
But make no mistake, Keefe said, “schools are in a crunch.”
“It is tough to get to know every kid personally with the way student populations are growing,” he said. “But, then again, you see more kids and can do more, so there is a plus side to it.”
Jessica Ashlock, who will begin teaching eighth grade math at Dalton Middle School, said most teachers rise to the challenge in educating the masses.
“You never have enough time,” she said with a smile. “It’s hard to make sure everything is ready, trying to get your room together, get lessons done and starting a school year. (But) seeing the students who you unexpectedly reach, the ones you didn’t think you would reach, is (very rewarding).”
Sara Hughes, a Nashville, Tenn.,-born student counselor who followed her Dalton-born husband back home, said teachers must treat all kids like individuals.
“It’s a challenge,” she said. “What’s really big in my field right now is the idea of a tier process. That’s where you have a universal setting for all students and a tier two for kids who need some help. Then tier three is for kids who need a lot of attention.
“You do have to have general methods of education to teach to the whole population, but when a kid needs help they need to get it. You teach to the whole and to the individual because you can’t have 20 individualized lessons going on at the same time.”
Which is what counselors like Hughes are for, offering extra individual attention to students who need it. Hughes said the problems distracting students are as broad as the problems in the rest of the world, from poverty to family issues. It’s up to teachers to identify students in need, she added.
“It’s not always obvious either,” she said. “Look closely. Pay attention to your kids. Great teachers are the ones who pay close attention to their kids.”
Treating each student like an individual, among other responsibilities within teaching, “can get really overwhelming,” Hawkins said.
“There is so much to do,” he told the new staff. “I know you guys feel like you’re drinking from the fire hose, just at orientation.”
Keefe’s suggestion to deal with the pressure of teaching students?
“Really try to understand them,” he said. “Take the time to ask them why they’re having problems if they are. Usually, if you find that out, you can meet their needs.”
Which can be “empowering,” Hughes said.
“Let them know there are possibilities out there for their future,” she said. “They have it at their fingertips if they work hard. Their future can be what they want it to be.”
“If you get to know the child, to know what floats their boat, that sends a message,” he said. “Actions are much louder than words. If I say I’m going to get to know you and care for you and I don’t do anything, that’s just talk.”
If students think a teacher is just talk, they might tune out learning, Hawkins said.
“If they don’t see value in what they’re doing then they probably won’t do it,” he said, adding it’s up to teachers and school staff to make sure that doesn’t happen.