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Seventh grade Baltimore County teacher Danielle MillerThe first day of school can be a confusing time for students and administrators, but even more so for rookie teachers straight out of college. That first year is when many decide whether they are cut out for a teaching career. According to the National Education Association, nearly half of all teachers quit the profession within the first five years. In this series, “Ms. Miller’s Class, Established 2013,” WYPR’s Gwendolyn Glenn occasionally checks in with Danielle Miller, a first-year, seventh-grade science teacher at Holabird Middle School in Baltimore County.

Ms. Miller's Classroom, Est. 2013, Part 1

The first day of school can be a working definition of chaos: everyone needing directions, projectors that don’t work, balky computers, students looking for supplies and parents trying to decipher an identification system  – all of it there to be handled calmly by a very nervous first-year teacher.

At Holabird Middle School on Delvale Avenue, first-time teacher Danielle Miller, straight out of graduate school, was in the midst of all this. Like other teachers and school officials, Miller wore a black school t-shirt and white slacks on the first day of school, as she tried to make order out of the first-day-of-school chaos.

Standing barely five-feet-tall, the 24-year-old Miller looked a bit nervous as she took attendance and assigned seats to her already bored-looking, seventh-grade science students. “This morning I definitely had the worst first-day jitters I’ve ever had, very nervous, not about my ability as a teacher, but in hopes that everything would go smoothly today,” Miller said.

It didn’t. Miller’s projector had to be fixed to get it going for the first-day rules and procedures presentation. And later, she had problems getting the message on her computer from the superintendent playing for students. Science Department director Margie McGarry, who stopped by Miller’s class periodically to make sure she was OK, was there to help.

As McGarry worked to get speakers connected to the computer and projected on a large screen, she told an apologetic Miller, “It’s no big deal. There’s a lot going on. I’ll pause it and I’ll get these hooked up for you.” McGarry added, “We like to support our first year teachers, especially the first day. Establishing routines can be overwhelming. That’s part of my job to help mentor her. I think she’s off to a great start.”

That was evident as the day wore on. With authority, Miller quieted students down, lined them up, and led them to their various classes. She seemed to have found her stride. “I’m feeling good, a lot better than this morning. I’m calming down,” she said.

On the first day of school, students are bombarded with forms, passwords, and numerous handouts. To make the information-filled, first day less boring, over the weekend, Miller came up with a list of questions that required her students to explore the classroom for the answers. “I wanted to give them an opportunity to move around, talk to their peers, talk to me and just become familiar with their surroundings rather than me showing them around. Kind of the inquiry-based learning that we design our curriculum off of,” Miller said. “

And the students jumped into the exercise with gusto, introducing themselves to students they didn’t know as the questionnaire required, finding bins for homework, schedules on the walls, class supplies and other items. Where can you find scissors…In the bin in the middle of the table,” two students asked and answered in unison.

After her first three classes were over, Miller was ready for a break. But it was not to be--just yet. She was informed that she has cafeteria duty. “This is actually my first lunch duty. They told me they would tell me what to do when I walked in, and it’s also a good time to get to know the kids,” Miller said. “These are sixth graders and I’ll have them next year, so I’ll can get to know them this way.”

Miller mainly had to make sure the students behaved and told them where their assigned tables were. She also positioned a trash can for them to dump their trash. Her principal, Julie Dellone, stopped her for a second to ask about her day. Dellone says she hired Miller because she stood out during the interview process. “She was energetic, she loved children, she had strong science concept knowledge and just the right fit for our school,” Dellone said.

Miller, who grew up babysitting her younger siblings and others, says being a teacher came naturally. Initially she got a degree in biology but continued going to school to get a masters’ degree in education. Landing the science teaching position  at Holabird was a dream job. “When I heard I was hired, I was so excited. I couldn’t wait but then I immediately got nervous because I know the first year is going to be the hardest year,” Miller said.

But so far, so good. Miller says that’s partly because she’s received more support from others at Holabird than she ever expected, which is making her first days go smoothly. Still, by lunch time, she said she needed a moment to herself. “I brought my lunch today, so I will eat at my desk today and try to relax a little bit,” Miller said.

After that, she plans to jump back into the mix and she said do her best to excite her students in a hands-on way about science.