First days are rough on everyone. Be it the first day at a new school for students, or the first day at a new job for adults. Every first day is a brand-new experience in a new setting, while meeting new people and learning new skills. That’s a lot of firsts for anyone.

What if you combined the experiences, though? What are the first days like for a teacher at a new school, starting their career in education?

First-grade teacher Rachel Frigon working one-on-one with a student in her classroom at Washburn Elementary School.

“Most days are pretty fun,” said Rachel Frigon, a first-grade teacher at Washburn Elementary School in her first year. “We have a fun time, learning, doing different things. But there are some days where sometimes I’m not exactly sure how to help one of my students, or if a few of them are having problems with each other, what to do with them? A couple of my students are lower academically, where do I start with them and how do I reach them to help them move towards where they need to be?”

For Frigon, that first day in a new job came at a smaller school, in a rural community. That was ideal for her, as she is originally from an even smaller community, Finley. In 2018, her hometown’s population of 421 was about a third the size of Washburn, with a population of 1,261.

“I kind of always pictured myself working in a smaller school,” she said, “that’s where I feel like I came from, and where I feel like would be the best for me. So yeah, once I found out that I got the job here, I was really excited.”

And when she showed up on her first day, she discovered a school building filled with smiling, welcoming faces. “The first time I came here, to start figuring out how to set up my classroom itself, there are people in the hallway, willing to help out. I was just really appreciative that everyone’s there to help you.”

Mentorship is key to first-year teachers on every level. For Heather Kaiser, who is also in her first year of teaching first grade at Sunrise Elementary School in Bismarck, she has four other first-grade teachers for guidance. Bismarck Public Schools is the largest school district in the state of North Dakota, and Sunrise is its largest elementary school with approximately 641 students.

“My gosh, I love it,” Kaiser said. “I love the big-school feel. I’m really thankful I’m here. And it never feels big because everyone is so welcoming and supporting. I’ve felt that along the way, that everyone has my back here and everyone’s on this journey with me.”

As part of the Bismarck mentorship program, Kaiser has looked to her fellow first-grade teacher at Sunrise and a member of the Bismarck Education Association, Mara Fischer. “She’s fantastic,” Kaiser said. “Just to have that person next door to me who, any question that I have or if I’m feeling sad or asking, ‘Is this normal?’ she can answer all those questions for me and validate how I’m feeling and really celebrate every step along the way, too.”

Claire Endres alongside fellow vo-ag teacher in Killdeer, David Leier.

Claire Endres entered her first year as a teacher in a small town, too. Originally from Carrington, Endres started the 2019-20 school year as an agricultural education teacher and Future Farmers of America (FFA) advisor at Killdeer High School.

When asked to describe her teaching duties, Endres said that she gets the opportunity to teach in a lot of different areas and subjects. “First hour, I have seventh graders and I’m teaching them basic cooking skills, but also giving them the angle from the agricultural perspective … and teaching them where their food comes from and how do we cook it,” she said. “And then I have three sections of intro to agriculture. And I teach a little bit of everything from welding to agronomy to food safety to anything you can think of – just basic agricultural knowledge, I’m probably covering it. And then I have some specialized classes this semester: I have a vet science class, and then my last class is a full-year horticulture class.”

Endres credits her enthusiasm for education to influences from her family, growing up. “I’m a third-generation teacher,” she said. “My grandma was an elementary school teacher, and then my mom just retired this past year. She taught for 34 years in elementary school. I always tell my kids here that I have the perspective of being a teacher’s kid. You get it, you understand all the long hours, all the tough kids, all the work you bring home.”

She was inspired to pursue a career in agricultural education by her teacher at Carrington High School, Missy Hansen. “She’s just a phenomenal, hardworking teacher who always motivated me.” Endres enrolled at North Dakota State University as an undecided major but ultimately chose the career path she is on now because, she said, “I knew I wanted to be an ag teacher because I knew I loved to work with people. I like to educate, and my family’s always been surrounded by agriculture. So, I figured that the best bet was lumping agriculture and education together.”

Kaiser grew up in Bismarck, but got her education in the Fargo area too, at Minnesota State University-Moorhead. She student taught in first grade at Kennedy Elementary in Fargo before returning to Bismarck to do the rest of her student teaching at Miller Elementary. She was also a teacher’s aide at Miller and at Sunrise, starting in January of 2019.

Along the way, she was able to learn from a lot of different classroom teachers and can now call on them for advice and encouragement. “I mean, without those experiences, I wouldn’t know what to do in here,” Kaiser said. “You can only learn so much in your classes, but until you really step into that role and have those mentors in your life, it’s hard to move forward. I’m thankful for that.”

There are these small glimpses of success that I’ll see from different students, or maybe it’s just a kid telling me hello, who hasn’t really talked in a long time. That makes it worth it.

Claire Endres, first-year teacher in Killdeer

Frigon said that she, too, was inspired to become an educator by her own teachers. “I think a lot of it had to do with some of my high school teachers really kind of helping me or inspiring me to be myself and to push myself to be the best that I could.” She majored in elementary education at the University of North Dakota and minored in literacy and special education.

Being an avid reader herself, Frigon places special emphasis on literacy in her curriculum. “I feel that building those basic literacy skills is so important at this age,” she said, “and even using those literacy skills in other things that we do, like incorporating it with math or helping them understand how to read different types of texts. By exposing them to a lot of different things, but also really focusing on the beginning phonics skills and making sure they have that good foundation, so then they’re ready for harder things.”

All three of these first-year teachers said they have enjoyed most of their first days and experiences in education. But there have been bumps in the road, from time to time.

“Most days are pretty fun,” Frigon said. “We have a fun time, learning, doing different things. But yeah, there are some days where sometimes I’m not exactly sure how to help one of my students, or if a few of them are having problems with each other, I won’t know what to do with them. Or a couple of mine are a little lower academically, so I’m trying to figure out where do I start with them and how to reach them to help them move towards where they need to be.”

Endres also said that the pressures they come with in the first year of education can be overwhelming. “As a first-year teacher, I come in and have all these expectations,” she said. “I’ve got to keep my own mental health in check, but then it’s like, oh, my students are also really struggling with their mental health. How do I be their ‘school mom’ – as a lot of girls will say – but also make sure I’m hitting standards, keeping up with grades, correcting papers, being a coach, and the list just never ends. Some days it’s a lot and very exhausting.”

The rewards though, are the connections they all have made with their students, and the little moments of gratitude and appreciation. “There are these small glimpses of success that I’ll see from different students, or maybe it’s just a kid telling me hello, who hasn’t really talked in a long time,” Endres said. “That makes it worth it.”

These first-year educators would then face a challenge in March of epic, historical scope. The COVID-19 pandemic closed schools across the country, in communities large and small, and educators at all levels of experience needed to completely change the ways they taught students. No longer able to provide in-person instruction, teachers closed out the 2019-20 school year as online instructors.

First-grade teacher Heather Kaiser practicing math with students at Sunrise Elementary in Bismarck.

“It was very abrupt and somewhat unexpected,” Frigon said. “We left on Friday prepared that we may be closing sometime in the near future, but I was not expecting that to be the last day I would have students in class. Preparing for distance learning was very overwhelming, but with the other first-grade teacher there to help me and with the help of other staff, we were able to prepare materials to send home for the remainder of the school year.”

Endres agreed that the experience of shutting down schools and switching to distance learning was discombobulating. “It was surreal when schools closed,” she said. “I was in Killdeer, working on my lessons for the upcoming week, when my friend asked what I was going to do with schools being closed. I was in disbelief when she explained that the Governor made the announcement that schools were closing. I was in shock. I was surviving in the classroom but was unsure how teaching online would be.”

Certainly, as early educators and digital natives who have grown up with the technological systems that are now vital to reaching students from a distance, they would have an advantage over more-experienced classroom teachers, less familiar with online learning. But this was still the end of their first year as teachers, and they were closing them out in a fashion that none of their colleagues could compare with.

“One component of distance learning that was hard for me was I wasn’t able to connect with my students who really thrived on a one-on-one or small group instruction and interactions like I was able to when we were at school,” Frigon said. “I knew they weren’t getting the support and structure that going to school provided them with which is so important to their educational success. I reached out and did what I could, but the personal relationships and support were not the same as it was when we were inside the school building.”

Heather Kaiser reading to her class.

Again, it was the support of their fellow teachers, educators and administrators that carried them across the finish line of their first year. “One thing I’ll say is I just think our administration and our whole Sunrise team handled everything so well,” Kaiser said. “I felt so supported and just felt like things ran so smoothly. I hadn’t ever felt so close to my first-grade team, because we had to work together so much and problem-solve, and just had to come together and make it work. So it was actually kind of beneficial in the sense that I was able to get to connect with them more and plan with them more and get to know them better.”

So, what final lessons did these three first-year teachers come away with, in the end? They all agree that COVID-19 was a colossal challenge, but they won’t let it dissuade them from continuing on the path they’ve set. Kaiser and Frigon are both returning to their first-grade classes in the fall, whether it be in-person, online or a combination. Endres was married at the beginning of July and has relocated to the Napoleon area. This meant she had to say goodbye to the Killdeer community after just one year of teaching there. Education will always be a part of her life though, she said. “My husband has pointed out that my teacher tendencies never really leave me, even when I’m at home,” she said, and that she plans to continue as a substitute teacher while waiting for future opportunities to open up.

Rachel Frigon explaining an assignment to students.

Frigon said she plans to continue being a public-school teacher and expects to still be teaching in a rural school setting into the future. “But I hope to have gained more classroom management skills,” she said, “learned more about how to effectively incorporate technology into education and continue to be a teacher who positively affects many students’ lives.”

The word that sums up this tumultuous year, for Kaiser, is grace. “Give yourself grace,” she advises anyone entering the profession this coming year. “Give your kids grace, but also give yourself grace. Definitely enjoy the journey and embrace all that comes at you, because there will be a lot of unexpected things. But cling to the people around you, find your support and find joy in the journey. It’s a challenging job, but it’s a job that makes a difference. And it’s so worth it.”

Reach NDU Communications Director Kelly Hagen at 701-557-0206 or kelly.hagen@ndunited.org.