Reflections and Suggestions for First Year Teachers

I was asked today what I would do differently in my first year of teaching.  My first year teaching is one that I would not want to necessarily do again (!) but one where I did grow a lot – personally and professionally.

Below, I share with you some things that stand out to me as I think about that first year.  I include suggestions for those of you facing similar situations.  Some of this advice comes from my own personal experience and things that did work for me during Year 1.  Other suggestions come from 10 years of experience and looking back with ideas of what I could have done differently.  Book recommendations included.


#1:  Honestly, my first year of teaching had a lot of ups and downs.  I remember being anxious at the beginning of the year about being solely responsible for groups of students.  I had come from student teaching where if I messed up a lesson or if the fire alarm went off, I had the back up of an “expert” who would take charge and keep everything running smoothly.  Now – that person was supposed to me.  Being right out of college, it can be an overwhelming experience to be living on your own for the first time (aside from college living) AND having the responsibility to mold students minds AND keep them safe.

Advice:  Make sure you have all the information you need about procedures, protocols, and students’ special health needs.  Don’t be shy to ask for more information about what to do in the event of an emergency or for more information about a child’s IEP.  Take time to think about all the horrendous “What would I do if….?”.  Having ideas and plans may make you feel better.  Don’t be afraid to be that “naive first year teacher who doesn’t know anything”.  This is the time to be able to ask questions and not know everything.  Do what you need to do so that you can stand confidently and comfortably in front of your students.


#2:  I remember listening to other teachers around me talk about how they went out to see a movie during the school week or went on a nice day trip over the weekend.  I remember wondering, “how in the world do you get to the point where you have a life outside of work?”.  Every minute of every day my entire first year of teaching was consumed by creating materials, planning lessons, and grading.  The idea of doing ANYTHING else seemed so far away.

Advice:  This part is almost unavoidable.  Depending on how many different classes/sections you have, the work load will vary.  However, it is almost certain that school/work will take up the majority of your waking hours.  If you’re not actually doing work, you’ll be thinking of work.  My suggestion for this is to designate a set amount of time each day for work.  When that alarm goes off – try your best to put the work away and give your mind and your heart a break.  Enlist friends or family members to pull you away.

Advice: For those of you with multiple preps:  For your first year, each day,  pick one or two of your classes for which you will do something “awesome” and the other classes will get something “decent”.  Rotate through your classes and give yourself permission to not have to be “stellar” every single day in every single class.  It’s hard for us who are drawn to perfectionism, but you do have to have (at least a little) time for yourself each day  — teacher burn out is a real thing.  

Advice:  Don’t be afraid to have students take on some of the work you think you need to do. For example, if students are making flashcards (instead of you) there is a chance they will learn something from doing it.  A lot of what teachers do to prepare lectures, activities, worksheets, and quizzes are all things that actually would benefit students and help them to think through the material.  So, within reason and when appropriate, think about letting students create some of the materials to use in class.  This helps promote ownership as well as engage differently with the material – and may lessen your preparation time.


#3:  I had an amazing mentor during my first two years of teaching.  This particular person was not my assigned mentor, but took me on and gave me tremendous amounts of emotional, personal, and professional support during this time.  If it were not for her, I’m pretty sure I would have quit teaching.

Advice:  Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself.  You need a mentor in several areas.

  • A mentor to guide you through lesson planning, creating materials, and who will  provide you with resources
  • A mentor to observe one of your classes to get honest feedback. It’s better to get your first bad feedback from a colleague than an administrator.
  • A mentor to coach you on how to respond appropriately to parent emails, host parent teacher conferences, give appropriate feedback at IEP meetings, etc.  You need someone who will guide your transition to becoming a professional.  
  • A mentor who knows general tidbits of your personal life so he/she can help you balance whatever it is that you have going on in your life.  
  • A mentor to go to when you are about to burst into tears.  It will happen – and it’s always nice to have someone waiting with a hug and some words of encouragement!

Note:  These areas may come from more than one person.  But as you meet your colleagues, try to pinpoint a few different people you can start identifying as possible resources for each of these areas.  You may or may not need to officially ask them to mentor you in these ways — it may happen organically over the first few weeks.  If you work in a school where this is not happening naturally, or you have been assigned a mentor who is not helpful, you can certainly ask your principal to suggest (or to help you link up with) some extraordinary teachers


#4:  I remember having absolutely no clue who I was as a teacher.  (Why would I?  I haven’t done it yet!)  I did not have a “teaching style”, felt overwhelmed by lesson planning,  and wasn’t quite sure how to handle the multiple unexpected exchanges that happen throughout the day.

Advice:  Observe other teachers in your school.  Get a sense for how other teachers conduct classes and how strict they are in the classroom.  This may help you to get a sense for the general climate of the school.  Even though it feels like you do not have any extra time to do this, I suggest you do it anyway.  Here is a post where I explain more details. 

Advice:  As you observe other teachers or get advice from other teachers, do not feel obligated to “copy/paste” what they do into your own classroom.  Take bits and pieces from various people – take what you like (and ignore what you don’t like) and try it on.  You’re evolving as a teacher and it will take time for it to feel natural and like you have your unique teaching identity to offer your students.  Don’t force teaching styles that don’t match your personality and/or your philosophy of education.

Advice:  Typically as a new teacher to a building (and particularly a “new” new teacher to the school), students will test you.  One of my favorite bits of advice for this came from the book “Teaching with Love and Logic”.  You do not have to give a student a response in that moment.  Do NOT REACT to a student or allow yourself to be thrown off by an unexpected question, rude comment, or situation.  If you are not really sure what to do, do not feel pressured to come up with a final response in that moment.  Simply say, “let me think about that and I’ll get back to you”.  This will get you out of not only saying things that maybe you will regret later, but it will also give you the time to calmly and rationally think about a situation without the pressure of a student staring you down.  You can assess the situation, seek advice as needed, and then calmly and confidently address the situation with a student.  I highly recommend reading “Teaching with Love and Logic”  at some point in your first year of teaching for other really great easily implementable tips!

Advice:  Understanding by Design – by Grant Wiggins is another good book for any teacher to have as a resource.  If you did not have any type of training or experience with this in your teacher preparation or student teaching experiences, or you come from a different career background, this is a staple as far as Education books.  It’s Unit and Lesson Planning 101.  There are also plenty of Youtube videos about this topic as well.


#5:  I also remember wanting to have everything figured out before the first day of school:   my grading policy, my syllabus, my website, my homework assignments, my extra credit systems, absence systems, make up work, etc, etc.  I thought that if I had everything established, then I would come across as more confident to parents and students.  This was stressful because I didn’t really know what these policies should be but I felt pressured to have all the answers before Day 1.

Advice:  Be very careful with what you decide to implement at the beginning of the year.  One of the worst things you can do is to give students a whole list of policies and rules on Day 1 and by Day 10 realize you can’t possibly continue to implement these procedures.  

Advice:  My mentor recommended to me that I should provide information while still giving myself an out – and I found this to be really good advice.  This particularly relates to course syllabi, procedures, grading policies, and class rules.  For example – You can hand out a syllabus that outlines which topics you will cover throughout the year – but you do not need to hand out your daily agenda for the entire year – as inevitably things will change  (I’m exaggerating to make my point.)  

Advice:  Be very careful about what promises you are making.  Pick one or two things that you truly feel confident you want to implement and then casually experiment with the rest. You can try your other ideas little by little – but explain to students that you are going to try something for a couple weeks – if it works, it will continue — if it doesn’t work, you will try something else.  But start slow — do one thing at at time.  

Advice:  Know that in your first (and every single) year of teaching, you will be doing a lot of experimenting.  You’ll have some great ideas, but when you go to actually implement them, the ideas may not be realistic or you may find it’s not as effective as you had originally thought.  If you made a big deal about these things on Day 1, now you’re in a tough spot.  However, if you casually try something out (without having posted it to your class website or class handout), now you can more easily adjust things as you need to.  


#6:  Admittedly, I had problems with classroom management.

Advice: Listen to your students.  It won’t take long for you to overhear bits and pieces of conversations about teachers they like -vs- teachers they don’t like.  You’ll also start to get a sense for what teachers do not get pushed around.  Your mission:  Figure out who is respected AND also liked in the school.  Then visit their classroom to observe the magic.  Take notes and arrange a time to chat with this teacher outside of class to get some tips.  Consider asking this teacher (or your mentor) to observe your class and give you some specific ideas on how to improve.  (Yes, this can be awkward and embarrassing – but it is absolutely something you have GOT to figure out – and figure out fast.)

Advice:  The First Year Teacher’s Survival Guide was a book I randomly came across mid-way through my first year of teaching.  It was very helpful to finish out the school year – it has easy to read and implement resources and tips on a variety of topics – but over the summer, I really sat down with the book and reorganized the way I started Year 2.  I felt much more prepared after having gone through each section of the book and used many of the resources provided to start and maintain an effective school year.  It’s definitely a book I would recommend getting to be friends with –  ASAP.  There is now an updated version which I’m sure is relevant and helpful for today’s first year teachers.


#7:  My first year of teaching, I was fortunate to have several other new teachers in close proximity.  This provided a lot of support since we were all miserable and doing work all hours of the night together.

Advice:  If you are one of the only new teachers in your department or school, try to network with other fellow new teachers so you can compare your experiences to someone in your same situation.  If you solely hear from 20 year veterans, you may feel overwhelmed and frustrated by your workload.  Reach out to other new teachers in your district.  Another idea: there are tremendous education chats on Twitter.  There are plenty of new teachers who can support you in your journey (as well as experienced teachers who can offer encouragement and ideas).    One example is #ntchat – which is specifically for new teachers.


The bottom line:

The bad news:  Your first year of teaching will most likely be remembered as a really difficult time.  I have yet to meet someone who fondly talks about his/her first year teaching.  That’s the unfortunate truth.  However, having the right support system around you can have a really big impact.

The good news:  Some of my best work is still (10 years later) some of the work I did during my first couple years of teaching.   Your first year is full of excitement, dreams, possibilities, and tremendous dedication – and from this, you will create a lot of amazing teaching materials for your students.  So I hope you find reassurance in the fact that the time is time well spent and you will thank yourself for years to come.

I’ve yet to meet a teacher who does not have vivid memories of “Year 1”.  Embrace the experience – there will be ups and downs.  But, on the last day of school that first year, you will feel absolutely amazing.  It’s an incredible feeling of accomplishment!  Before long, you will find that teaching is a very unique and rewarding profession!!  Welcome!

One last piece of advice:  As you go through the school year, keep notes and copies of cute, funny, or heartwarming things or quotes that come up from your students.  As your collection grows and as you progress through your career, you will love looking through these for a good laugh and inspiration to continue to do what you do.  

 

If you are a teacher mentor, you may be interested in this post about how to support beginning teachers during the five phases of the school year

 

Discussion:

  1. What are you most excited about for the first year of teaching?  the most anxious about?
  2. What has helped you to feel prepared in certain areas? any resources or experiences in particular?
  3. What do you think your biggest challenge will be this year?
  4. What are 2-3 goals you have for yourself this year?
  5. How will you develop a support network?
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