Rookie teacher makes the grade in classroom Howard Co. program offers support for fledgling educators


Four months after her anxious but successful debut as a fifth-grade teacher, Mary Hanna appears to have grown eyes in the back of her head.

One minute, she's chatting with a visitor, then breaks away in mid-sentence to help a pupil quietly struggling with an assignment. She resumes the conversation, hopping up again to discard a wayward balloon that should be underneath a desk. When the classroom hum builds to a loud buzz during a book discussion, Hanna is at the light switch, flicking it off and on as a warning.

"Only one person at a time should be talking," she says, and the room falls silent.

One season older and wiser, the Gorman Crossing Elementary School teacher has made the transition from an untested rookie to a confident classroom manager who has won the respect and affection of her pupils. But, as Hanna acknowledges, the transition wasn't easy or swift.

"September and October, I had no life except for school. I was here early and staying pretty late," says Hanna, one of 358 new teachers hired in Howard County this year. "Now, I think they've gotten into their groove, and I've gotten into mine."

When the new North Laurel school opened in August, Hanna and her pupils were polite strangers. They have settled into a familiarity so comfortable that the children threw her a surprise .. 22nd birthday party this month.

While the staff detained the young teacher in the front office, the children put up banners, blew up birthday balloons and wrote messages in colored chalk on the blackboard: Happy B-DAY! Now She's Old!

The pupils baked and decorated a birthday cake for Hanna and presented her with a bouquet of flowers, books and a "World's Best Teacher" certificate. The half-eaten cake sits in the back of the room, next to a pan of apple-shaped cookies.

"They had everybody in on it," Hanna says, smiling. "They were distracting me, and I came back to this. They went all out. They were so sweet."

Stories like Hanna's are good news for Barbara Allen, a staff development facilitator for the school system. Because the first two years are crucial for new teachers, the county offers a number of support programs, including a four-day orientation, mentors, teacher support teams, newsletters and courses to help rookies sharpen their skills during the year.

Allen said new teachers go through predictable phases their first year on the job. First, they feel anticipation and excitement about the impact they hope to make. By the end of their first month, many feel overwhelmed and go into the survival stage, Allen said. Disillusionment is not far behind.

"It's very common, and we let our new teachers realize this," Allen said. "Winter break it gives them an opportunity to get their lives back together. Their personal lives very often are neglected.

"You can see [the mood] start going up in January and February to a stage called rejuvenation, where they are really seeing some growth in their students. They are learning the knack of being able to plan effectively and efficiently."

By spring, new teachers look forward to the next school year with a better sense of what to expect. At year's end, "we hope they're right back at anticipation again," Allen said.

Friends predicted Hanna would hit a low point around October or November. She didn't.

"I was flying high. We were learning about space. I was loving it," Hanna says. "All of a sudden, last week, it hit. I was thinking, 'Oh my goodness. I still have months left!' "

Managing her time

The funk soon passed. Instead of being overwhelmed, as she was in the beginning, she has learned to manage her time and occasionally relies on the help of parent volunteers to grade spelling tests and decorate bulletin boards.

That leaves more time for her to enjoy her pupils, whom she describes as "very dramatic and creative." She often designs lessons for them with an arts twist, such as the literary discussion group last week on Beverly Cleary's book "Dear Mr. ** Henshaw."

As a student teacher, Hanna was never with a class long enough to custom-design assignments.

"The connection you establish with kids is very different," she said. "Student teaching was class. Now, it's an actual investment in 22 kids. I remember that hitting me -- this is their fifth-grade year."

Hanna hopes to make it enjoyable. When the children couldn't grasp the concept of symbolism, she used "Peanuts" character Linus' blanket as a symbol of security. Later, a girl in Hanna's class brought in her blanket to show off. Someone else brought a cherished stuffed animal.

"I think I was very fortunate in my first year to get a group of kids like this," Hanna says. "I have to realize it may not always be like that."

The Friday scramble

As class winds down, Hanna's pupils scramble for their backpacks while bouncy music streams through the public announcement system. At the end of every Friday, the school's children are allowed to chant and dance on their way out of the building.

"Welcome to Friday afternoon in fifth grade," Hanna says of the impending chaos.

On cue, pupils begin shouting and marching through the hallway: "No school tomorrow! Miss Hanna's class rocks!"

But the other children are just as loud.

"Guys, they're trying to beat you," Hanna says. "You can't let them win."

"NO SCHOOL TOMORROW! MISS HANNA'S CLASS ROCKS," they shriek, drawing defeated stares from the children walking in front of them.

"I love them," Hanna says of her pupils. "I would love to take them all home -- any of them -- for a weekend.

"Not all at once."

Pub Date: 12/28/98

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