It's seven business days before Sept. 3, and the newest kindergarten teacher at London Towne Elementary is readying her room. Grace Kim, fresh out of college, sits on one of the tiny chairs meant for her little charges and makes signs representing the days of the week for her bulletin board.
She has brought in a couch and rocker from home and plans to bring in a standing lamp to create a small, comfy reading area. She has the computers lined up along the back of the room and the round tables, which will serve as the students' desks, clustered together in front of the chalkboard.
The walls are still pretty plain but won't be once the students get there. Kim plans to let them help decorate the walls. It is beginning to look like her classroom.
"I came in the first time, and tables were on top of each other," Kim said. "I sat on the floor and almost cried, but I didn't. It was very overwhelming, but it felt good to know no one else was ready, either."
London Towne is Kim's first teaching job, outside of student teaching while earning her bachelor of arts in education and psychology this past May from Smith College.
ANDREW CAMARDA, principal at London Towne located in Centreville, is sure Kim can handle her first year on her own.
"I saw signs that she is a life-long learner," Camarda said of why he hired Kim. "She is a very flexible person."
Camarda said when he hires teachers, he looks for their instructional knowledge and how well they can work in a team environment. He thought Kim fit the bill. And she had immediately shown some flexibility.
"I really wanted to teach first grade. I love the whole reading thing," Kim said. "There weren't a lot of first-grade jobs available. Now I'm totally excited about working with 5- and 6-year-olds."
Kim said she expected the first day to be the quietest of the year, since the students would be scared. She realizes that not only is it her first day of school, it's theirs as well. After that, she plans to get down to business, teaching the first-time students the reading basics, how individual letters work together, basic rules of the classroom, and how to get along with others.
"I believe in fostering a community environment. From Day 1 we'll be becoming a family, a community, a group," Kim said. "I plan to address my students as friends. If they really feel welcome, they'll be inclined to pay attention and work to make this a better place by caring for each other."
Kim is the first teacher in her family. At first, her family was leery of her career choice, but Kim soon changed their minds.
"My family said, 'Why don't you go to medical school or be a lawyer? Do something that makes more money,'" Kim said. "But once my parents saw me in a classroom [student teaching], they said it was what I was meant to do."
Kim is originally from New Jersey but is temporarily living with her family, who relocated to Centreville a couple years ago.
WHILE KIM might be the first teacher in her family and lacks an expert voice at home to fall back on, she has plenty of support from the school system.
Each year, Fairfax County Public Schools hires about 800 rookie teachers, who have no teaching experience outside of their fieldwork while in school. To help them through their first year, the county offers a volunteer program called “Great Beginnings: Beginning Teacher Induction Program.” Since Great Beginnings was created in 1995, about 2,167 of the eligible 2,600 teachers have completed the program.
"It's a complete support network. It takes what they have learned in theory in schooling and experience in the classroom and helps them get started in the Fairfax County curriculum, with planing and with structure," said Robyn Cochran, staff development specialist and program manager of the elementary-school level of Great Beginnings. "We try to help people understand we don't think they are needy in academics. We just recognize our curriculum is vast, and the expectations are high in Fairfax County."
Teachers taking part in the program meet monthly, which provides them an opportunity to meet other new teachers and experienced teachers who serve as so-called “teacher coaches,” who are mentors to the entire group. In addition, each new teacher is assigned a mentor from within their school to help them get adjusted to the particulars of their specific work environment.
"The whole profession of teaching is isolating," Cochran, a former teacher, said. "One of the reasons I'm excited about the program and originally signed up to be a teacher coach when the program began eight years ago was because I had a rough start. And back then, the county didn’t have the programs they have now."
Cochran said one of the biggest adjustments Kim and other first-year teachers will face is the isolation. When the rookie teachers were student teaching, there was always an experienced teacher in the classroom with them. Now, the first-timers will be completely on their own within their classrooms.
"When the first day of school comes, the students come into the room and their colleagues go into their own rooms," Cochran said.
Kim said the prospect of being alone, save for an instructional aide, does make her nervous.
"It's a really big change because it's just me. There are teachers in the other classrooms, but it is just me from 8 a.m.-4 p.m.," Kim said. "I'm really excited and really scared."