scorecardresearch Skip to main content

First-grade jitters before a lifetime of learning

First-grade teacher Shauntell Dunbar.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

The butterflies have been gathering for weeks. And now, deep in the pit of her stomach, they are fully aflutter.

This is not preschool. This is not kindergarten. The training wheels are off. The days of milk and cookies are over.

“We will not be napping,’’ she said.

This is first grade. And it starts on Tuesday.

When the bell rings at the big school in Mattapan, she knows she will be nervous. She already is.

What should I wear? Will the kids like me? How difficult will this be?

“I am extremely nervous,’’ Shauntell Dunbar said, sitting in Room 18 on the ground floor of the Young Achievers Science and Math Pilot School. “This is my first year teaching. And, as a first-grade teacher, you want to have a lasting impact on your students. You want them to feel safe and feel comfortable enough to remember you 30 years from now.’’

For now, those 30 years are vapors on some distant horizon.


At the moment, her focus is on Tuesday morning. She knows she won’t get much sleep Monday night. She knows she will be at school bright and early. And she knows she wants to be at her best when she greets the 21 first-graders entrusted to her care.

Considering the road she has traveled, she and those who hired her earlier this year believe she is uncommonly prepared.

“I think she’s going to become a great teacher,’’ said Virginia Chalmers, the Young Achievers principal. “Every beginner is anxious. It wouldn’t be appropriate if they weren’t anxious.’’

Shauntell Dunbar was born in Jamaica, in a little town 10 minutes outside Montego Bay. She keenly recalls her own first-grade teacher, Miss Foster. She was a taskmaster. If you misspelled a single word, Miss Foster would bring out the ruler.


“I missed one word out of the list and she hit me,’’ Dunbar said. “And I was like: Never again. I am never getting hit again. I worked really hard. My penmanship was perfect.’’ She read everything put in front of her. Books donated by missionaries. The Bible.

“I would read everything,’’ she said, adopting an ardor for learning that would make her one of Miss Foster’s favorites.

The child of a single mom, Dunbar came to the United States at age 12, settling in Dorchester and attending Boston public schools. She earned a degree in African studies and sociology from UMass Boston. She got her master’s degree in business. Along the way, she worked as a mentor to foster parents, counseled adults struggling with their finances, got married, and gave birth to three sons.

All the time, the siren call of the classroom beckoned. “I knew I always wanted to be here,’’ she told me a few days ago as we sat in her classroom, then still a work in progress.

She graduated in May from Wheelock College with a master’s in early childhood education and applied for every teaching position she saw. She had seven interviews.

“But the moment I walked into this school, I kind of knew I was in the right place,’’ she said. “For one, the people who were in my interview session were parents, and teachers’’ and other members of the school community. People at this school care, really care, she knew.

She prayed she would be hired. And when the call came she screamed. Then she called her husband, her mother, her grandfather, her friends.


And now, at age 38, she becomes Mrs. Dunbar to her students on Tuesday. Fifteen out of 21 of them are boys. That’s not what concerns her. She’s got three of her own. “I am not worried about 15 boys,’’ she said.

She wants everything to be perfect. She’s already learning their names. Theo. Damani, Jesiah. She wants to build a nurturing classroom. She grew up in Dorchester, so she knows sometimes when a kid is rolling around on the floor at school, it’s not because he’s a troublemaker or because she simply has not learned how to behave.

“I understand why a child may be tired,’’ she said. “I understand that this child may not have had breakfast. I know where these kids come from.’’

She also knows that when she was a 24-year-old fresh out of college, she was not prepared for this. But she’s lived a diverse and rich life. It’s, in part, why she got the job. Now, she wants to employ what she learned in grad school. How to motivate. How to manage a classroom.

And in the few days left before her professional teaching career starts, she knows that in some ways she and her young students share similar emotions and anxieties. “Are they going to like me?’’ she wonders.

And she wonders this, too: “Am I going to reach all of my students? Because I want to be able to teach all of my students — the ones who are here on a higher level and the ones who are coming in with limited education or the ones who are struggling. Every single one of them.


“And my fear is: Am I going to leave anyone out? Am I going to miss it? I don’t want at the end of first grade to have to wonder: Did I mess up? Because I want them to be able to go on to the second grade and be the best student that they can be. I’m just very nervous about that.

“I need to reach every student. I have to make sure that I am visually paying attention; that I am listening to what they’re saying; that I am understanding where they’re coming from.’’

One of the things that attracted Principal Chalmers to Mrs. Dunbar is her clear confidence — a confidence that will allow her to know what she does not know and to lean on others for support.

So she’ll be standing on the threshold of Room 18 on Tuesday morning with a warm smile that will say: Welcome. You’re safe here. We’re going to work hard. We’re going to learn great things. And it’s going to be fun.

That all starts on Tuesday morning when butterflies will dance at 21 small desks — and at the big desk at the head of the class.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at