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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, Pt. 3: Rookie Teacher Survives First Year

  For Baltimore County teacher Danielle Miller, Monday is not only the last day of school; it’s the end of her rookie year.

It’s been a year that the seventh grade science teacher at Holabird Middle School described it as good but exhausting. “It was physically exhausting because I rarely had a minute to sit down,” she said. “I had to take work home and was up late a lot, but I’ve gotten better at doing things here at school." Miller said she’s gotten her routine down better and “cut down on my hours as the year progressed.”

Dealing with discipline issues, “especially with students who require special services, was my biggest challenge all year long,” she said.

One of those issues cropped up last week, as Miller was attempting to give students an exam. She split the class up into two groups. One was to stay in her room and the other was sent to a classroom down the hall. All of the students followed Miller’s instructions, except two boys, who refused to leave the room when their names were called.

“I don’t want to go,” said John Ayre. “If I refuse to do it…”

Miller cut him off. “You’re embarrassing yourselves,” she snapped. “Go to room 55, right now.”

The boys still refused, and Miller moved on to passing out exams and answer sheets to everyone but them. The boys remained in their seats, laughing nervously. But after about five minutes, they noisily pushed their chairs back and reluctantly left.

Miller admitted that the incident got to her.  “I mainly got frustrated and I was done arguing with them and they had a choice to make,” she said. “That’s what’s so very exhausting about some of these kids. They’re very argumentative, so not letting that get to me, not getting caught in the argument is exhausting.”

Miller’s department chair Marjie McGarry said Miller’s feelings are not unusual for a first-year teacher. “As a first-year teacher, you continually work on classroom management and she improved in that a ton,” McGarry said. “She’s learned what her expectations as a teacher are and what she wants students to do. The kids genuinely like her and she has a good rapport with them. They respect her as a teacher because she has followed through on consequences. Next year, she’ll start off implementing those expectations and I think she’ll nip a lot of that stuff in the bud.”

Miller said that was her goal. “I know next year I’m not going to be as lenient as I was this year at the beginning of the year and I think that will help keep their behaviors in check,” she said. “I was more lenient on things like letting them use the bathroom in the first five minutes of class. They’d say it was an emergency and I’d say, ‘okay.’ I won’t do that in the future.”

Near the end of the day, veteran special educator Ted Anderson helped Miller quiet students in one of her larger classes. He co-teaches the class with Miller and often steps in when students get out of line. Anderson said the soft-spoken Miller handles discipline issues better these days because her classroom voice has become more authoritative. “At the start of the year, because she didn’t have that tone of voice, they kind of rolled over her, but now, they listen,” Anderson said. “She’ll say it once or twice and usually twice will do the trick. If you can get them to listen on the second time, you got it down.”

Miller said she’s worked on her voice a lot and added, “It’s not just yelling. My volume has increased, but it’s the tone of my voice. It’s more direct, so the students know when I mean business.”

She pointed to Cailin Dougans, a petite, personable girl who was removed from class several times at the beginning of the year for being disrespectful and disruptive, as a behavioral success story. Miller said she knew Dougans was smart, even though they butted heads a lot early on. So, she had Dougans switched to another class, away from her friends, who Miller thought distracted the girl. “She made a 180 degree turnaround and now, she’s a B student and she puts more effort in her work than a lot of kids I see in this class. She’s done amazing and I try to encourage her to keep working toward her goals,” Miller said. “I knew she was capable of being a good student and respectful, so I’m glad I helped her realize what she is capable of.”

Laughing easily as she recalled her earlier behavior, Dougans said Miller didn’t give up on her and gave her extra work to bring her grades up in the class. “Once I saw my grades come up, I liked being good I guess,” she said. “I’m going to miss her next year, she’s awesome."

Holabird’s principal, Julie Dellone agreed. “She’s really come into her own in terms of classroom engagement, student involvement, finding new ways to assess students, technology use,” Dellone said. “She’s fantastic. I see her down the road as a strong teacher leader.”

Now, after a year filled with challenges, Miller still thinks of teaching as her dream job and she’s looking forward to next year. “I’ve got all these ideas of things I’m going to do differently that might make simple management issues work better. I’m very excited,” she said.

There’s one other thing she’s going to change; her name. She’s getting married this summer and taking her husband’s last name, Brasauskas. But, like her mother-in-law-to-be, also a teacher, she’ll let her students call her Mrs. B.