Review by Rep. Mindy Greiling

Nov. 19, 2010

Anyone who has struggled through a first year of teaching will relate to John Salls’s novel “First Year,” whether they taught for one year or forty, as he did.  People in any facet of education today will benefit from reading this enlightening book, and it is a powerfully good read besides.

This novel is a very effective presentation of the challenges as well as opportunities for teachers as well as school systems as born out though the characters that Salls develops in full portraits.

First-year teacher Robert Baker was a top-notch student and successful student teacher in a lab school of highly motivated students.  Real life teaching brings his successful path to a screeching halt.  He replaces a popular teacher and try as he might to put his college theories into practice, students don’t give him a chance.

Other teachers mean well and occasionally offer advice, but they have their own problems, so Baker is lost in the shuffle, despite reaching a few star pupils.  The superintendent and principal are also inundated, including constantly being turned down by the school board as they battle for a desperately-needed assistant principal and lower class sizes.

Salls skillfully weaves alternating strands of several characters’ lives into a fascinating story with a moral:  mentoring beginning teachers is essential and will not happen by chance.  “First Year” is a tragic case study of most everything that can go wrong when that essential ingredient in quality beginning teaching is not available.  The story is both wrenching and also extremely perceptive on a number of issues: domestic violence, alcoholism, divorce, racism, unemployment and assorted psycho-social problems.

This story rings all too true and is a must read for students who are training to be secondary teachers and their instructors.  Anyone wanting the best for students will be better advocates after reading this book.  It tells the truth and yet does not leave us in hopeless despair.

Rep. Mindy Greiling
Chair, K-12 Education Finance Division
House of Representatives
State of Minnesota

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