tips from a first year teacher (and a few more experienced ones as well)

On the last day of my first official year of teaching, a student I had taught as a long term substitute the previous year congratulated me and said, “So, have you fixed the world of education yet?” 

During that long term assignment, I taught a gifted ELA class with several district mandated essays that had to be completed throughout the year.  When the students complained, I told them to brainstorm ways these essays could relate to real life…and we found very little connections.  And apparently my naive, frustrated substitute self said to my students “One day I will fix education.”  While I’m still working on that part, as all educators tirelessly do, that student made me realize it’s not the papers and homework they remember, it’s what we say and do.  

At the close of my first year, I identified all the things I did wrong and kept imagining how I would do them differently.  I thought about the kids who didn’t read the novels we assigned, and the ones moving on to the next grade that maybe weren’t entirely ready and worried about the doubts that undoubtedly arise.  But as I was reading the notes from students and colleagues throughout the year, and the sweet signatures in my yearbook, I realized that we as teachers can’t accept being entirely defined by our failures (of which there are many), but by our successes (of which there are far more, but much less recognized).  Most of all, it made me realize that teaching is a profession of growth, and there is always something to learn. 

 Here are the best tips to help you through your first year teaching!  You can do it, I swear.

Be a Safe Space for Your Kids: No school has perfect kids.  There will be hungry kids, hurt kids and angry kids.  They will not want to learn or have been told they can’t.  They will need someone to say Good morning and Have a great night.  They will need someone to be fair but firm, an ear to listen and sometimes snacks to get them through the day.  They will need someone to say you like their shirt or their ideas or their smile.  They will need structure and expectations, and they will need you to prepare them for life after adolescence.  They will still be hurt and hungry and angry, but sometimes your words or actions will help them be a little less.

“Ask for help. I’m finishing up my 7th year in special ed and the longer I teach the more I ask for help. You just realize that you don’t have to know it all..and how much easier the job is when you’re not going at it alone.” -Liz Clapp

My first year was completely crazy- I was brand new to the paperwork ridden world of special education, I was teaching a 9th grade English class and intensive reading class all on my own, and feeling out two co-teaching situations with new coworkers.  I felt that if I showed I didn’t know something I would be seen as ineffective or dumb, so I tried to solve every issue on my own, which resulted in me staying at school until 9 pm and breaking down in tears more often than not.  One of my very straightforward coworkers said “Look, you’ve been given an incredibly difficult job and you need to stop taking on everything by yourself and internalizing these things.”  I needed to find that asking for help was not a bad thing, but actually something really good that would help me improve.

Use the (many, many) resources that are available: I am a pretty creative person, and using premade lessons and activities seemed like the easy way out.  However, after my first week when I had three separate classes to plan for, plus a boatload of complex IEPs to write and review, I realized that it was completely implausible to create everything myself. Those resources are out there for a reason, and there’s no shame in pulling from other people’s brilliance.  I love Teachers Pay Teachers, and follow a ton of teaching blogs for ideas (my favorites are B’s Book Love and Fairways and Chalkboards).  In addition, save and organize the resources and units you do create so you don’t have to redo it year after year.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff! And laugh! If you don’t you’ll never make it out alive!” -Miranda Thompson, Educational Diagnostician

It is impossible to worry about every single thing.  Things will go wrong.  Technology will not work, parents will yell at you, you will get sick, paperwork will be filled out incorrectly, and at the end of the day, it’s not going to ruin you or anyone else.  I wouldn’t have survived my first year without my hilarious office mates who always found the humor in a bad day, or the happy hours with my department where we actually talked about our lives and families, or the texts with my co teachers when we saw something that reminded us of our cute but exhausting student.  There is always a way to find the sparkling silver lining at the edge of a dark cloud!

Prioritize and Organize (or as Craig says, Priorganize): At first I drove myself insane giving out way too much work that I didn’t have enough time to grade.  After I realized I was making my students and myself miserable, I started only giving meaningful work that didn’t always need hours of feedback on my part.  I set up files for each class and wrote myself reminders, checking everything off as I did it.  I tried to develop systems to help me keep track of my students with IEPs, including files with all of their data and accommodations.  I took afternoons to clean up my workspace and organize my computer files.  At the end of the year, I started setting up resources for September.  It takes a little more work when you’re tired and don’t want to, but in the end leads to much less stress.

“I truly believe it depends on the age of the kids but relationships are key. You can’t be a push over, but respect must be given in order to receive it. I think your trust in a student’s ability to actually complete a task in always written on the face of a teacher. Whether good or bad. Students can read us as well as we think we can read them if not better.” -Eva Grider, Special Education, 14 years 

My students brighten my day even when they’re rowdy or tired or forgot pencils, books or shoes (it happened, srsly.)  Our superintendent said at the start of the year our students learn best when they like you and respect you.  If they only like you, they will walk all over you.  If they only respect you, they won’t be excited to walk into your class and learn every day.  There has to be a balance of both, and while it’s difficult to do, it is possible.  The most successful teachers I’ve worked with have rules and structure, but hug and comfort their students when they need it. 

Go Digital: My student teaching mentor (who is now my department chair) was an innovative teacher who taught her classes almost primarily using an online platform called Schoology.  Using digital resources leads to less paper, which leads to less mess and wasted resources (perfect for my Go Green idealism!)  I also realized this year that while my students are constantly glued to their iPhones, they have very little knowledge about how to effectively use technology (I discovered this after I needed them to email me something and they were clueless).  I started incorporating more technology based assignments, like a travel brochure using the app Canva, review games through Kahoot and Quizlet, and social media accounts for Romeo and Juliet through a template I shared over Google Drive.  I had them write their research papers and submit through Google Docs, and now have samples for my following classes, and no papers floating around my office.  Our school doesn’t have 1-1 technology (we have 15 iPads per class, and a few computer labs), so phones became my friend instead of my enemy.  It can be challenging to work in meaningful technology, but it helps your students and makes your paper load a little lighter.

“For first years I would say, ‘don’t live to work, work to live.’ Have a life outside of teaching, we are still people, no losing yourself, time, and energy in the job.” Jackie Nelson, 22 years, special education, all subjects, grades 1-3 ( one year and that was plenty!), 6-8, 9-12 and Transition Coordinator and Vocational Evaluator

I didn’t realize what a workaholic I was until my first year.  I never liked to take work home with me, and stayed at school way too long.  Eventually I realized I needed to go to dinner with my friends, spend time with my boyfriend and dogs, and watch tv instead of prepping for school all the time.  It’s important to find a life outside of school, whether it’s taking an art class, doing Zumba or just sitting outside during lunch and soaking up some sun.  They say more than half of first year teachers leave the profession due to burn out…which is incredibly scary!  Having a hobby or passion outside of school isn’t a luxury but a necessity.

Get Involved: My co teacher asked me to help with the lacrosse team and at first I thought it would interfere with my work and be a huge burden to take on.  However, being a part of the team helped me build my school pride and I got to know a group of girls that lifted my spirits on bad days and taught me about hard work and balance.  I started looking forward to forcing myself away from my desk at 3 pm, even when I still had work to finish.  

I also volunteered to chaperone dances and events, which gave me a chance to interact with my students and coworkers without any school pressure.  I went to the plays and games and helped remind myself of why I love to teach in the first place.  Don’t overload yourself, but figure out what it is that makes you enjoy your job !

Other Words of Wisdom…

“When I taught in Missouri my superintendent Dr Lawrence, spoke to all the new teachers at a beginning of the year lunch. He told us that over the course of our career we would make thousands maybe millions of decisions that would impact kids lives. He asked us to remember that our students were someone’s kids. He said that if every time we made a decision we ask ourselves, ” If this was my child what would I want the teacher to do?” then we would never go wrong. He said that even if we made a bad decision we would be making it with what was best for the child in mind. I have followed that advice my entire career. After 26 years, I have to say that Dr Lawrence was right. There may have been times I’ve made decisions that were not technically”right”, but I know I have always made the decision I felt was best for the kid.” – Robyn Howton, English and AVID teacher, 26 years (half in rural Missouri schools and half at Mount)

“You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” Oakley Orysiek, 5 years old

“You get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar”. Great advice from a teacher friend on my hall the first year I taught.” -Cheryl Gollicker Gorman, Special Education REACH Program 5-10 year olds.

“Today, I finished my sixteenth year in teaching. I have taught both ELA and French (highly qualified and certified in both). My words of “wisdom” are these: be kind, but firm; know when to let go and when to hold on; use discernment, not judgement; never dim the light of a colleague to brighten your own; seek to inspire; and, always remain true to yourself.” -Victoria Sorg 

On the last day of school, our district director told us teaching is a thankless job, but that we all do it not expecting to be thanked.  I’ve realized that while teaching is hard, emotional, frustrating and ever changing, our thank you’s come from the students who unknowingly show that they’ve learned a skill, the encouraging words of a coworker, the parents who recognize how hard we work, and from deep down in your own self.  Happy Summer teachers!

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