How to Survive Your First Year as a New Teacher: 10 Helpful Tips
What to Expect as a New Teacher
While it's been years since I was a new teacher, I remember the feeling like it was yesterday: panic, followed by exhaustion, followed by more panic. As if student teaching weren't hard enough, the first year for a teacher is a trial by fire. A beginning teacher learns everything the hard way, from dealing with a range of student and peer personalities, to knowing content and staying ahead of the students on curriculum. The act of thinking on one's feet takes on a new importance; a new teacher must anticipate a thousand questions and problems at once. Emerging from the confines of a college classroom, a rookie teacher must suddenly adopt the role of psychologist, advisor, advocate, disciplinarian, negotiator, and educator.
Aside from these issues, a first year teacher may have to figure out how to live on a salary that doesn't compensate for the level of constant turmoil. Particularly considering the required years of education as a prerequisite for the job, money might feel like an afterthought to a beginner. Frustration can easily overtake a new teacher, if proper steps aren't taken to minimize the overwhelming impact of the first year.
1. Prepare Over the Summer. While you might feel like this summer is your last summer before you have "to be a grown up" or before you're stuck in a regular job cycle (yes, I know most teachers in the States have subsequent summers off), you can't afford to be lazy through those long, hot days. Sure, you can go to the beach everyday and lounge around, savoring your liberty, but you're going to pay for it. Trust me, you're going to pay for it. While I have seen new teachers overdo this, assuming you have enough notice, you do need to prepare for autumn. Review/memorize book lists, sequence of instruction, important school information; construct drafts of your behavior chart, unit plans, mission statement. Do whatever you can to make those months ahead less of a constant struggle to catch up. Your February-self will love your July-self for the effort.
2. Now Forget Almost All of Your Preparation. While preparation over the summer is important, the next step is to acknowledge and accept that most of it will not be practically applied. Most of what you did over the summer was rehearsal for a play that hadn't been written. That's both the beauty and terror of teaching: you are going to be the unwitting star in a production of Before I Got Here, I Thought I Knew What I Was Doing . Your college classes will have little bearing on your first couple years of teaching; your portfolio is meaningless to a crowded room full of restless adolescents. The new teachers who feel they have it all together are regarded suspiciously by veteran educators, because the older teachers know better; the older teachers know that a cocky first year teacher is in for an unfortunate fall. Lock earlier preparation in a mental back room for safe keeping, with the understanding that most of it was as useful as putting on a raincoat in the face of a category 5 hurricane. It was all a good idea that won't save you from getting drenched.
3. Listen to Those Around You. Perhaps it's the very first week of school, and your nerves are getting the better of you. You find yourself talking too much, both to students and to peers: your lessons involve long-winded explanations of how you came up with your ideas and why the students are bound to enjoy them. You can't seem to stop. You drone endlessly in the faculty room about the creative ideas you're planning on incorporating into your lessons to anyone who will listen, and your banter only serves to make you more anxious. It's normal to be a jittery at the start of a new year, but, well, stop talking. Listen to those around you. I can't tell you many new teachers talk too much, both in and out of the classroom. It's hard to do at first, but remember, teaching is about learning. You can't learn from others if you won't listen. Your students will gladly tell you what they need; your colleagues have a wealth of hands-on experience to share. Just get yourself to a quieter place. You'll be far better off for it.
4. Visit the Staff Room Only Sporadically. While you need the advice and counsel of veteran teachers (you do...don't think you don't), the faculty room can be the wrong place to receive it. Keep your eye out for the experienced teachers who pop into your room to ask how it's going; these are the professionals who truly care about your progress, and are potentially capable of aiding your first-year journey. You may have been assigned a mentor teacher, but either way, be wary of advice you get in the staff room. Like any place of employment, different teachers handle the stresses of the job differently, and some teachers who frequent the faculty room are walking complaints. They see the job as a great burden, rather than as a great opportunity, and you don't need that stress your first year. Or your second year. You don't ever need that stress, but later on, you'll have the fortitude to resist it. I've personally saved a handful of new teachers from the vice-like grip of what I'd call Personus Ragamusses, or those-individuals-who-rag-all-day.
5. Be Proactive With Parents. Parents can be your greatest allies or your worst enemies, and rightly so. You have their prized possessions held captive in front of you every day. If parents sense that you devalue what they hold to be their greatest achievements, they'll turn on you. You don't need to agree with parents all the time, but as a first-year teacher, you're in no position to be contrary for the sake of being contrary. Do what's right and communicate through emotionally level, logical statements, but listen to and appreciate what your students' parents think, too. Later on, you can take vocal stands on the state of education in general; for now, let parents know of potential issues before they show up on their radar, and listen more than you speak. You have enough on your plate without adding needless friction with parents. Avoid language that can be misunderstood (especially through e-mail), and always invite parents to let you know if they have any questions.
6. Know the Benchmarks for Your Subject. Now that you have your feet wet that first month or so, revisit the standards that you must be meeting in your discipline or subject area (even if you set these up over the summer, you'll need to relearn them). You should always try to teach with a sense of outcome. What is it that your students should know or be able to do by the end of your lesson/unit? This may relate to standardized testing or your school's learning objectives. New teachers are sometimes better at this than older ones, actually, since there has been such a paradigm shift in education. You aren't going to be perfect in your quest for objective-based teaching, but any effort in that direction will go a long way towards satisfying the administrators in your building, so try. Really, that's all you can do is try. The added plus is that examining teaching based on its outcomes naturally leads to lesson plan ideas.
7. Be Honest With Students. I've watched many first year teachers navigate the difficult road towards choosing their in-class styles or personas, and the best, most productive approach I've seen is an honest one. Don't lie. Some new teachers make up answers to students' questions, in order to cover their own lack of knowledge; some offer meaningless suggestions, as a result of their own confusion. This deception hurts students almost as much as it stymies your growth as an educator. No one likes to come off as less than perfect, but kids, particularly adolescents, are great at seeing through nonsense. You're not perfect. No one is. Admit that you're not sure about an answer, and you'll notice the world doesn't end and the kids like you more. After many years of teaching a subject, these opportunities to model humility and integrity will diminish, so embrace them while you can.
8. Don't Volunteer for Anything. Your new career has one of the highest burn-out rates of any profession. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, almost half of all teachers quit within the first five years. It may be that one of the conditions of your employment was that you'd coach the volleyball team, but hopefully not. Focus all of your energies on classroom management and understanding content and delivery of the curriculum. Don't volunteer for some committee; don't take on a union role. Invest yourself in what you've decided to do. Learn the necessary facts and figures, read the stories and essays, reflect on how you can make your students' experience in your classroom better. Save the extra stuff for later on, when you have your head on straight. You're likely to be approached repeatedly, given your novice status, so remember: the answer is always no.
9. Never Leave School Without Being Set for the Next Day. I've seen veteran teachers who slip on this every now and then, but as a first-year teacher, you cannot afford this mistake. Never, ever leave the building without being entirely ready for the following school day. You're likely to feel unbelievably exhausted at times during your first year, and once you get home, there will be days when you can't raise the willpower to plan. Don't put yourself in this position. Make all your photocopies, write out your lesson plans and seating charts, create your answer keys--do all of this before you cross that parking lot. It may be that your school requires daily or weekly lesson plans in advance, but regardless, develop this habit early. You'll have a much easier initiation if you do.
10. Enjoy Yourself. Given the fact that your class is going to be far from perfect regardless of what you do, make sure to enjoy your first year as a teacher. It'll never happen again. Laugh with students on occasion, rather than reprimand them for off-task behavior. Lighten up when it comes to what you might have done as a child, too. Poke gentle fun (avoiding sarcasm at all costs) at yourself as well as your students, creating a warm, easy environment. Remember that discipline issues will likely only get worse if you're entirely humorless, but also don't put pressure on yourself. Don't feel like you have to be a stand-up comedian every day in order for your students to enjoy themselves. Part of enjoying your first year as a teacher involves a little going-with-the-flow, but another part involves your students knowing their boundaries. Just don't confuse control with attention; don't replace assertion with sheer dominance. If you can keep your perspective, and help your students to balance work and play, your first year as a new teacher is bound to be successful.
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