First Year follows an academic year in the life of a bright, idealistic English instructor who ultimately is worn down by student hostility toward him because of who he isn't: a charismatic, popular teacher who had resigned. The novel, Salls' debut, reveals why so many teachers leave the profession--and why some elect to stay. Even though several coaches and administrators are portrayed sympathetically, First Year also contains a critique of the emphasis on athletics over academics and the single-minded focus on "the bottom line." With well-drawn characters, vivid dialogue, empathy and gentle humor, the author takes his readers inside the lives of several teachers and students, each with his or her own struggles. He shows us the secret world that some students reveal to their trusted teachers--the troubled home lives, the abuse, the hopes and dreams. Salls, an English instructor for nearly forty years, also reveals the secret world of educators, who lug piles of student papers home with them, so preoccupied with their work and the burdens of those student revelations that they lose track of their family lives and, sometimes, themselves.
These are the educators who give the profession their all, energized and exhausted by being on their toes every minute in the classroom. They care about their students, about teaching and learning. Some of their students care about learning, too. Others--often too many--do not. As a college instructor for more than a decade, I read First Year buoyed up by Salls' obvious love for students, educators, and his calling. I read with shocks of recognition, triggered by his keen observations and insights. I read with sadness, as well, because First Year realistically depicts the tolls teaching takes on those who care about this honorable calling.
English Instructor, Itasca Community College, Grand Rapids, MN
First Year, a novel by J. O. Salls, captures the joys and disappointments, the exhilarations and despairs, of teaching. It does so with a combination of compassion and gritty realism.
First Year is a novel for parents who think that teachers "have it easy." This is a novel for education majors about to step into a classroom. This is a novel for students who think that their teachers don't care or understand. And, most of all, this is a novel for teachers, because it's so true.