WAYNE — As she drew nearer to the first day of school, teacher Danielle Nason started having anxiety dreams that her alarm would fail to go off, and she’d be awakened instead by a call from her school, asking where she was.
Just in case, she set her alarm to go off five times in quick succession starting at 4 a.m. Wednesday and wondered what her first day as a teacher would bring.
“I think I feel as prepared as I can,” the new Wayne Elementary School teacher said Monday. “Even with student teaching, you’re not there on the first day of school. I don’t remember my first day of second and third grade, so I don’t have any experience of it. I think that’s the scariest part, that you don’t really know what to expect.”
Nason, 23, graduated from the University of Maine last spring and counted herself lucky to be hired by Regional School Unit 38 in late June, after applying for about 15 jobs. She has 18 second- and third-grade students in her class at the district’s smallest school.
On Wednesday, Nason got up after the first alarm and dressed in a pink top, black pants, ballet flats and a lightweight scarf printed with elephants, not even realizing it coordinated with the jungle theme she’d used to decorate her classroom. She’d planned to wear a dress but changed her mind, because she didn’t know how much she’d be sitting on the floor.
Nason ended up not sitting much at all — on the floor, in chairs or anywhere else — until after she finished her afternoon duty of escorting students onto school buses and returned to her empty classroom to gather her things and collect her thoughts.
“I can’t believe it’s already over,” she said. “I feel like I just got here. It just goes so fast, because you’re constantly doing something.”
Nason awoke before dawn to allow time for the 90-minute drive from Brewer and because she likes to do planning work before school, when the building is quiet. She arrived at Wayne Elementary at 6:45 a.m. Wednesday, a half-hour before the first students began to trickle in.
Nason took a last look around her classroom. Realizing that the other three classroom teachers weren’t in their rooms, at 7:45 a.m. she headed to the cafeteria, where arriving students eat breakfast and have morning recess.
Armed with a sheet of name tags she’d written on with a green marker, Nason stuck close to Lynnette Stinneford, who introduced Nason’s students as they approached, curious about the new teacher.
Everyone knows everyone at Wayne, which had 70 students last fall, but Stinneford was especially helpful because she taught all but two of Nason’s students in mixed-grade classes since the older ones started kindergarten three years ago.
Nason did her student teaching at Old Town Elementary School, which has about 550 students. She said she loved the experience but was glad to be working in a small school.
“It didn’t have to be just the four classrooms, but something smaller, I think, is a good way to ease into it,” she said. “I think it provides more support.”
All of Wayne’s students wore name tags Wednesday for the benefit of Principal Jeff Boston, another newcomer, who introduced himself at the morning meeting in the small atrium located in the midst of the four classrooms.
“It’s nice to have kids in the building,” Boston said. “All summer long it was just myself and the teachers. And we were sort of lonely, because you know what? It’s not school unless you guys are here. That’s what makes this whole place special, is having you guys in the building.”
Boston led the students in a chant of the school’s initials and a review of behavioral expectations, referred to by the acronym ROCKS: Respect, Own your choices, Cooperation, and Keep Safe.
Then the students and teachers sang and swayed along to the ROCKS Song. Nason watched her students and smiled but did not sing.
Later, she praised one of her students for following the rules.
“Elliot, I love how you raised your hand,” she said.
Nason spent most of the day Wednesday on rules, expectations and getting-to-know-you activities.
The students proposed classroom rules, which Nason wrote on a large paper pad and then passed around the room for the students to sign.
She gave the students a sheet of paper with questions to ask their classmates, using each classmate’s name only once to fill in boxes with questions such as, “Who plays the same sport as you?” or “Who went to the beach this summer?”
Nason circulated among the students to ask questions and fill out her own sheet. The activity probably benefited her as much as or more than the students, who seemed to know each other pretty well.
“Do you play video games?” Eli Reynolds asked Parker McRobbie.
“Everyone asks me that!” Parker said.
“That’s because you do, and everyone knows it,” Eli told him. “You’re the video game type.”
Nason said her favorite part of the day was meeting her students for the first time in the cafeteria.
She’s already getting a sense of their personalities, informed by everything from the questionnaires that the school secretary sent home to parents, to the name tags they created for their desks. Dylan Pottle wrote his name in pen and left it unembellished; Anna Albert made at least three name tags to get the size and spacing of the letters just right; Colleen Barden drew stars on hers and colored it with at least four different markers.
After snack time at mid-morning, Nason set up a scavenger hunt so her students could learn where things are located in the classroom, and she read them “Curious George’s First Day of School.”
Nason said this week she wants to get the students settled into a routine. They’ll start more intensive academic work next week, including a test to gauge how much the students have retained since the last school year.
The students went to music class and the library after lunch, returning to Nason’s classroom just long enough to get their backpacks from their lockers and receive a thick folder full of documents for their parents. Then it was dismissal time.
Nason received positive reviews from students.
“I liked her,” Finn Sheridan-Crane said. “She really focuses on what she’s teaching.”
Once the students were safely on their way home, Nason stopped in the hallway with two other teachers about 3 p.m. to commiserate about the heat and talk about how they’ve seen the students grow in just a couple of years.
Nason said she was worried at the beginning of the day that the activities she had planned wouldn’t fill the whole day, but actually more time would have been helpful.
She said the students worked at different paces, and the thing she expects to be most difficult this year is differentiating instruction to challenge everyone appropriately. That could be especially difficult with two grade levels in her class.
Nason reflected on her favorite teacher, the one who taught her in second grade in Brewer. She said that teacher had a positive attitude and balanced a seriousness about learning with the realization that her students were still children. The teacher let her and her friends bring in their American Girl dolls and stage plays with them.
Nason said her goals are to create a fun environment and give every child the same opportunity to learn.
“One teacher told me while I was student-teaching that every kid is someone’s son or daughter,” she said. “If you look at it in that respect, she says, you’ll have a different outlook on them. You’ll be able to deal with them better, and the management will become better. Don’t think of them as students; they’re real human beings.”
Susan McMillan — 621-5645