If I live, I’ll be Great: Diary of a First Year Teacher


If I live, I’ll be great: Diary of a First Year Teacher


Lakeview Toastmasters, Oakland, CA

January 30, 2014

Speech delivered by Becki Cohn-Vargas

[Pretend to read from diary]


September 9, 1986, Oakland, CA

Dear Diary

Today is my first day as a classroom teacher. I will have 31 Spanish-Bilingual first graders.  I planned a packed day with so many things to do that I could teach for a week. Then I had a nightmare last night that I was getting dressed and was so nervous that I forgot to put on my dress. I got to school and suddenly found myself teaching in my slip- and what’s more, I forgot my lesson plan and could not remember what I was going to teach.


I am 35 years old and have been around so it shouldn’t be that hard. I am a seasoned professional. I lived in Guatemala and had driven ambulances and in Nicaragua worked for the National Ministry of Education and I produced educational television shows. This should not be so hard.


September 11,

Dear Diary, My first day was a disaster. Nobody told me it would be 31 against one. Well, to be honest, most of the kids were OK, except for 5 of them. Ignacio kept fighting with Sergio. Raul kept bouncing out of his seat. Ariel called out every five minutes. And you should have heard Magdalena scream when somebody bumped her.


I have a new favorite song, “If I live, I’ll be Great” sung by Chris Williamson.



My first year of teaching was one prolonged nightmare and when I pinched myself, I did not wake up. Who would think that those five kids in my class could turn me into a blubbering piece of mush? 


I knew that the first thing a teacher needs to do is to be able to get the class quiet. I tried all kinds of techniques. Dramatize this story Flick the lights. Have someone flick lights and then turn off and on as I speak. OK, I would flick the lights. Nothing happened. So then I turned the lights out and the portable would go dark. Ignacio would scream out “ooo” and everyone laughed. “Quiet” I screamed. Flash, I popped the lights back on so I could see who was making the noise.  And they froze and went silent for a second. But like clockwork, Ariel poked Magdalena on the shoulder, she began to shriek and the hubbub started all over again.


Other times, I was just too exhausted to get them quiet. I would keep talking while they did and try to teach reading. Not a good plan if you wanted anyone to learn anything. Their antics and show was much more entertaining than mine.



So, I tried what they called “positive reinforcement.” I would call it bribes with M&Ms. I would say “I like the way the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle group is sitting”- Everyone suddenly sat up with hands folded, absolute angels. I handed M&Ms to each perfect little group. But by the time all had eaten their candy the roar began again. And the fights. Joshua stabbed Freddy with a pencil. While I was stopping to deal with that, Magdalena pulled Nancy’s hair. My bag of M&Ms was getting low and my discipline system was still not working. The most humiliating part was that the Physical Education teacher would come in and they would automatically go quiet for him.


I thought to myself, I would like to see Ronald Reagan come in here and try to teach!


Maybe I just need some help. How about a student teacher? My friend Mario signed up. What did I know to share with Mario? I couldn’t control them and neither could he. And when his professor came to observe, “OMG” (well we never said that back then). A disaster and a total embarrassment. No more student teachers for me. Of course, they never should have placed him with a first year teacher in the first place.


The only time I could kind of get the kids to settle down was when I sang with them. One day after lunch was a good time to sing. I was pregnant that year and I was huge. We had these old fashioned wooden desks with the desk part attached to the chair. I was leaning precariously sitting on one with my guitar and boom, I crashed to the ground. And they all laughed. These little monsters!!!! I went home and cried. I wanted so much to be a teacher and I was failing so miserably.


I thought, OK, I will make the class so titillating that they will comply just out of sheer fascination. I had this great idea I learned about at a workshop to stimulate creative writing stories. I worked with some sixth graders to stage a scene as if aliens had come to school in their classroom during the night. They wrote on the board a message from the aliens. “Dear first graders, We came to visit you classroom and we really want to hear your stories. Love, the Aliens.” They wrote personal letters to each student. To make it more dramatic, they turned over chairs and desks and put footprints in green paint around the room on the floor and the walls.


My students walked into the class that day. Suddenly, their facial expressions went from surprise to horror. My little monsters were terrified. They all started to cry. The next day their parents came to complain that they had nightmares. 


I don’t know how I survived the year. I never was so happy for summer vacation to come.


The good news is that this story has a happy ending. I did learn to teach and so did Mario. He won awards as an excellent teacher of math. And I didn’t turn out so badly either. It was not one year, but over several that I got my “teacher voice” and built positive relationships of trust. The students quieted down and engaged with the curriculum I even I wrote a book about identity safe classrooms. (http://identitysafeclassrooms.org/) The book  gives examples of classrooms of teachers who create environments where students are proud of their identities, excited about learning, and empathetic toward one another- without bribes and M&Ms.


January 24, 2014 Kean University, New Jersey

Dear Diary,

I am giving my first keynote about my book. Last night, I had a nightmare, I dreamed that I started with a film and then couldn’t stop the DVD and so I never got to give my speech. Who knew, I would be here today back then at La Escuelita with my wild and wonderful students in my first year?

I still love that song “If I live I’ll be Great.” I may never be great, but maybe being great is about surviving and living to tell the tale.



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