Katie Lopez has a soft spot for new teachers and she makes it a point to let them know that if they’re feeling overwhelmed and wondering if they made the right professional decision by becoming teacher that they can come talk to her.
Or they can come cry in her classroom. Whatever they need, she’s got their back.
That’s because she remembers well those early days of excitement and terror that came with the start of her own 21-year teaching career.
“I was lucky enough to get hired right out of college,” she said. “I had a little connection; my aunt worked in the personnel office, she was one of the secretaries.”
Lopez’s aunt learned that because a teacher had been plucked from the classroom to oversee the district’s early intervention program that there was a classroom vacancy. Just three days before school was slated to start, the district still had not found a teacher for the open position.
“My aunt told them, ‘My niece just graduated,’” Lopez recalled.
Lopez interviewed with the district and got the open position. But that first year of teaching was nothing like what she’d experienced as a collegiate performing work-study in a pre-school affiliated with the University of St. Joseph’s School for Young Children. It was that experience that made her change her major from general studies to early childhood education.
“It was probably the hardest year of my life, including becoming a new mother,” she recalled of her first year as a teacher. “The students were highly special needs, some of them with severe behavior needs.”
Lopez said that what she discovered was something that all new teachers learn pretty quickly: student teaching is very different from teaching in-person, every day, no matter what.
“I would go home and cry and be like, ‘I think I picked the wrong thing to do,’” she said.
Lopez said finding support made all the difference. In her case, it came from her then-boyfriend, who ultimately became her husband. Her aunts also came to her rescue.
“I have a couple of aunts who were teachers and they would let me come into their classrooms and help me,” she said. “I’d tell them ‘I’m dying,’ and they’d say ‘That’s normal, you’ll be fine.’” One of her friend’s mothers also was a teacher in her building. Her classroom was a close refuge if she needed a place to cry during the school day.
Encouragement from those teachers helped Lopez rise to the occasion of teaching a group of children with lots of needs when she didn’t feel particularly supported as a new teacher. After that first tough year, Lopez stayed with that program for another three years before moving into a regular preschool program.
“I had good teachers around me and I just think that I didn’t know how to ask for help and they didn’t know what I needed because they couldn’t read my mind,” she said. “It was rough.”
Now the veteran first grade teacher at Benjamin Franklin Elementary School in Meriden said she 100 percent can empathize with how overwhelming that first year of teaching is.
“I give them my room number and tell them if they need something, come find me,” she said of new teachers at her school. “Even if you don’t know where to put your lunch or who to sit with, just find me. I feel like that’s important. If I had someone who did that emphatically for me, I probably would have been a little bit better though I still would have been crying in my bed.”
And now that she’s heading into her 21st year of teaching, there are definitely a lot more reasons to smile than cry.
“It’s amazing,” she said of teaching first grade. “They’re at an age where they love learning. Seeing something as simple as the science of light to them is incredible.”
She said the way students engage with the world around them and absorb so many things so quickly is what she loves about teaching elementary school students. She said it also doesn’t hurt that at this age, “you’re just the coolest person in the world.”
“They’re just lovely,” she said. “They’re super honest. They just have this cool little energy. It’s still hard because you're going all day and someone always needs something academically and personally. They can crack you up or scare the crap out of you with their range of emotion.”
Lopez is ready for it all this school year. The thing she wants most as she prepares for a second year of teaching during a global pandemic is some normalcy. She said COVID-19 threw teachers a total curveball where they had to navigate in-person instruction while some taught strictly online. That meant that she started the school year with 11 students in her classroom and it grew to 16 by the end of the year.
“It was quite an adjustment for them, '' she said of the students who navigated part of the school year online. “They had a hard time catching up to where we were academically. Distance teachers, god bless them, they had the hardest job by far.”
Lopez said normalcy would feel like having her full crew of students able to return to flexible seating where they get to choose where in her classroom they want to work.
“We couldn’t do that last year,” she said. “Getting a six year old to sit at a desk all day and like it is no fun. I want them to be able to be six and in school with their friends in ways that are developmentally appropriate.”
Lopez said every new school year is an opportunity to “build a little family.”
I think that’s what I like about teaching, every day is just different. Every year it’s different. Every kid is different. I love the people I work with and I just really like seeing my students change and grow and I get to be a catalyst for just a little part of that.