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Little victories help 1st-year teacher build confidence

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A new teacher at Westwood Elementary is slowly learning what educating third-graders involves.

Laura Westercamp knew before the start of the school year that parents would be depending on her to be sure students were reading and understood math well enough to pass the IREAD3 and ISTEP tests they’ll take for the first time at the end of the school year.

What she didn’t know was the best way to schedule those lessons around lunch time and bathroom breaks, or what a third-grade teacher is supposed to do on recess duty.

That’s why after spending seven hours with her students each day, she stays after school most evenings for another three hours, sometimes with Westwood’s other third-grade teachers and other times by herself, trying to plan for the rest of the week — or sometimes just the next day.


“I am an efficient person. And I never expected to stay that late,” Westercamp said.

She hopes and believes that her lesson planning will take less time and her comfort in the classroom will grow. But she also knows that will take time.

Five of Johnson County’s six public school districts hired new teachers for this school year. About 70 teachers started jobs at Center Grove, Clark-Pleasant and Greenwood schools.

Some already had years of experience while others, including Westercamp who is filling in for a year-long maternity leave, graduated college three months ago.

Studying education theories and practices is no guarantee a new teacher’s first week in their first classroom will go smoothly or as expected, Westercamp said.

“There’s just nothing that can prepare you for 19 children, looking at you to educate them,” Westercamp said.

Westercamp grew up in Greenwood and attended Westwood Elementary, and was hired this summer by Principal Lisa Harkness, who had been her principal while she was a student. She attended Taylor University, and had envisioned her first day of school.

She imagined herself, calm and collected, explaining that she would spend the next year doing absolutely everything she could to teach the kids how to become strong readers and to solve math problems. All she expected was the same commitment from them.

That came partly true on the first day: She did tell the students she was going to do everything she could to help them learn. But as she spoke her hands were shaking.

Most of the rest of the day was a blur for Westercamp. The first week of school for elementary school students is trying to get them used to the classroom’s routines and rules, such as how their teacher expects them to behave. And she knew how to teach those to her students.

What she didn’t realize was that she’d also have to coordinate students’ bathroom breaks with other classes, so that bottlenecks didn’t form in hallways. She didn’t know what she was supposed to do during recess duty the first day, or how to answer students who asked what they would learn by the end of the year.

These were not scenarios covered in her courses at Taylor.

“The first week was just surviving for me,” she said.

Westercamp also wanted to be as prepared as possible for her first meeting with parents during Westwood’s open house. She knew parents would have questions about ISTEP and IREAD3, and she was worried that if she didn’t have thorough answers that people would think the recent college graduate didn’t know what she was doing.

“I wanted to make sure I looked organized, I looked prepared for the parents. I wanted them to trust me,” she said.

Everyone Westercamp met at the event was warm and supportive, and she had answers to all of their questions.

When Westercamp’s students left for the day Friday, all she could think about was sleep. And after a low-key day Saturday, she was back in her classroom Sunday afternoon with Westwood’s other third grade teachers, planning out lessons for the week.

“It just took every ounce of me to want to get up Monday and into the classroom,” she said.

But the second week was more controlled. Now she and her students can focus on math, English and other lessons. She is reminded of why she became a teacher.

As Westercamp was going through a math lesson she could see what she was saying wasn’t connecting with all of her students. So she had the idea to split the class into small groups to work with them individually, which was what the students needed to better understand the lesson.

And those little victories are why Westercamp has faith it’s going to get easier, she said.

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