First-year teachers enter the profession under unique circumstances

While all teachers are in their first year of online and hybrid learning, first-year teachers are starting their career under in a strange time for educators.


Jake Maish

A sign for the Iowa City Community School District is seen outside the district’s administration building on Tuesday, April 28.

Natalie Dunlap, News Reporter

Nancy Cuellar Amezquita graduated with a teaching degree from the University of Northern Iowa in December 2019, before there were any cases of COVID-19 in the U.S. Nine months later, Cuellar began her first full-time teaching job in a restructured classroom at Mark Twain Elementary in Iowa City.

First year teachers, like Cuellar, are entering the teaching profession during an unusual year.

Entering a partially virtual classroom, Cuellar said she was most concerned about making connections with her students. Since school started, she said she has found morning meetings – the first Zoom of the school day – to be a good way for her fifth-grade students to get to know each other.

“It’s really easy to get to know them a little bit more individually,” Cuellar said. “[We] try to do activities that involve the whole class over Zoom, so everyone’s able to participate and then you are able to get snippets of each child and know what they like, what are their dislikes, and that way I kind of base my lessons off of that.”

As a first-year teacher, Cuellar said she’s had to find a balance between figuring out the curriculum and what works best for her class, while also keeping in mind health and safety precautions.

City High science teacher and University of Iowa graduate Drew Gartner said he did not have any hesitations about entering the teaching field in this unique time because he was hired at City High, his dream school and alma mater.

“I just couldn’t pass up that opportunity, because it’s something that I wanted for so long,” he said. “This year, it’s not going to be traditional, but there are going to certainly be a lot of lessons that we learned that I can apply to education going forward. And so, I figured, might as well … just see what I can learn this year and my goal is to do the best I can, and just try and learn as much as possible at every moment.”

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Gartner’s student-teaching at Linn-Mar High School was cut short because of COVID-19, he said. He finished school online and had already taken online classes earlier in his time at the UI.

He said this experience as an online student has informed how he structures virtual and hybrid learning for his students at City High.

“I certainly remember in college, times of feeling helpless, where I didn’t really feel like I understood what the teacher was asking from me or where I should even be looking in the online space to learn some of that material,” Gartner said. “So, I really carried that sense of helplessness with me when I think about online learning.”

He posts announcements and reminders often because it’s hard for students to have a devoted mindset toward school when they are at home, Gartner said. He also has been flexible about deadlines and wants to carry that forward in this teaching framework, he said.

Gartner added that the faculty at City High have been supportive and positive toward him as a first-year teacher.

City High teacher Philip Lala, who has taught at the school since 2010 and offered aid to Gartner, said Gartner was previously a student in his Foundations of Science class.

“There’s certain things that you can try to point out in terms of pedagogy and classroom management and things like that, but really a lot of those things are kind of out the window this year, just with everything that’s so different,” Lala said. “And so, I haven’t looked at it so much as, ‘What knowledge can I impart?’ but more, ‘How can we figure this out together?’ because we’re both experiencing this thing for the first time.”

Gartner said there are still ways to build relationships with students without being in the classroom full time.

“Even though I don’t get to see them in person every day and build a relationship that way, there are still ways for me to encourage my kids to show me a little bit about their personality, while I show them, you know a little bit about my personality and building that we are not just sort of teaching and student robots,” he said. “We are people with personalities and different backgrounds that we all bring together, whether it’s online or in person.”