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First Year Teacher: 12 Survival Strategies

Updated on January 12, 2018
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Cynthia is a digital marketer, writer, and artist. She writes about diverse topics, from digital marketing to languages and culture.

The first year of teaching is challenging, but there are ways to make it easier and even fun!
The first year of teaching is challenging, but there are ways to make it easier and even fun! | Source

Tips and Tricks for the First Year Teacher: From Someone Who's Been There

My first year of teaching was at a high school. It wasn't an easy first year and I later learned that with my introverted personality, I was better-suited toward younger children.

Still, I learned many skills during that first year.

If this guide helps someone else, then I've succeeded in doing what I do best: teaching to help others.

The following tips and tricks are strategies that I learned as made my way through that first year, or things that I wish I'd known before starting.

While this list isn't exhaustive, these tips stand out, for me, as what was most important during that first year.

Your first year of teaching can be challenging but also triumphant!
Your first year of teaching can be challenging but also triumphant! | Source

Triage What's Important

This may seem like an obvious tip.

But everything is new your first year: the building, colleagues, principal, parents, students, curriculum, classroom management, the job itself.

How do you know what's most important and what can wait?

You don't.

But in survival mode, you do what has to be done and then give yourself a break.

  • You have to create lesson plans.
  • You have to take attendance.
  • And you probably have to call parents of any student who's struggling.

Prioritize those. Pick your battles as best you can.

Do you grade every single piece of paper that comes your way?

Absolutely not. Have the students grade their own papers. Have them exchange with a peer and grade them. You don't have to record every single grade.

I also had students fill out weekly self-evaluations to help combat against students being surprised at their grades. I asked them to honestly look at their participation and effort at learning. Most of the time, students were really honest.

The ones who weren't? Well, they were also the ones who hadn't turned in homework for a month, either.

A good teacher can inspire hope, ignite the imagination, and instill a love of learning.

— Brad Henry

Colleagues and Work

Strike a balance between creating relationships with colleagues but getting your work done.

You don’t want to go too far to either side.

Not socializing can get you enemies - they can think you snubbed them. You’re going to need your colleagues’ support at some point.

But socializing too much will make your work suffer and can keep other teachers from getting their work done - which can also create enemies.

Beware of sharing a classroom with another teacher at the same time, too.

If another teacher has study hall in your room and you have a planning period, go elsewhere.

Trust me. You end up talking when you don't mean to and it can create friction.

Something else: avoid the complainers!

Invariably, there are always disgruntled types to who show up to work but love to complain about everything.

They will drag you down. Be polite and professional, and then get away.

Why Did You Go Into Teaching?

See results

Remember Why You're Doing This

You will meet every kind of student from all walks of life.

Some you will naturally click with and others you won't, and of course you always want to act professionally.

But, there are some students who will just inspire you.

It is those students who will keep you going when you're having a bad day.

There is nothing sweeter than a student who, after months of struggle, begins to understand the subject material and you were the only one in the building who could say it in just the perfect way to help him or her understand.

Then, the next semester when they don't have you for a teacher but they come to hang out in your room because you're just "cool" to them, you know that you've made a difference.

Maybe not in a huge way - but you honestly never know.

My Spanish teacher made me love the language so much that I decided to study it and teach it, too.

The students make teaching what it is.
The students make teaching what it is. | Source

New Teacher Induction

Welcome the New Teacher Induction: it’s there so you can ask questions and have the support of others in a safe environment.

Do you want to know how kids' brains work at 7am?

Got a classroom management idea?

What about a bathroom policy?

What happens when you have a student who loves a power struggle?

These are the the sorts of things that teacher inductions address. While it's not always fun to go to meetings on top everything else, they can be a great way of establishing relationships and getting ideas.

If there isn't a teacher induction program where you are, at the very least, find yourself a mentor who's willing to work with you and help show you the ropes.

Find a Seasoned Teacher to Help

Find a seasoned teacher you resonate with regardless if there's a teacher induction program.

Schools often assign mentors in addition to the induction.

That's great!

But what if your mentor is...a little hard to get along with?

It's entirely possible that your mentor's teaching style and personality are completely different from your own.

That’s okay: maintain a professional relationship, but seek out that teacher with whom you resonate.

Ask a question or two. Just be careful not to depend too heavily on any one person: they are as busy as you are, even if they have learned to streamline their workload.

This happened to me. I had the teacher induction and I had a great mentor.

But, she also scared me a little. She was incredibly driven and had a personality that was almost aggressive compared to my more relaxed style. And that was just fine.

However, I did seek out a teacher who was nearing retirement who had a personalty that I could understand a little better.

She had so much advice and wisdom and ideas that I appreciated so much. Her gentle way of teaching resonated with me and many of her ideas for teaching are ones I still use years and years later.

Teach like a pro, but make sure to maintain balance.
Teach like a pro, but make sure to maintain balance. | Source

The Second Year is Easier

Understand that because everything - everything - is new, you invariably have to spend a good amount of time building relationships, getting to know students, getting to know the school culture, understanding the curriculum, learning classroom management, and overall just learning how everything works.

It takes a tremendous amount of energy to do this.

Hang in there.

The second year will mean that you have established relationships, curriculum knowledge, and even as you get new students, they themselves will be new, but everything else won't be: the school culture, the classroom, school rules and expectations, etc.

Thus, the second year, you can actually spend more time getting to know students.

Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher's First Year
Educating Esmé: Diary of a Teacher's First Year
This funny book will remind you why you went into the profession in the first place. I read it a couple times for inspiration.

Get a Journal

If you can, journal about your experiences. You can make it as professional or lax as you want. Just be sure it's always secure and that no one else will read it - unless you want that.

It’s hard to fit in one more thing, I know.

But the funny things students say, their triumphs, and the tough situations can all go in there.

Those are the things that when you look back, can really help to recharge your spirit - even the not so fun experiences.

Remember the book, Educating Esme? She was able to craft that book together because she’d kept a journal.

Who knows? Maybe your journal entries will lead to a book you can publish!

Keep Student Mementos

Do you remember a time when you gave your teacher an apple, a card, or a coffee cup?

I came to live for those things: just the idea that someone was thinking of me would melt my heart.

Just as with the journal, these help when you’re feeling down. You can look back through and smile knowing what a difference you’ve made.

Even when you're not feeling down, but just want to smile and go down memory lane, those cards and notes will remind you how the things you do every day matter.

Just grab a shoebox and start filling it.

First Year Strategies at a Glance
Balance Time with Coworkers
Establish Routines
Classroom Management Techniques
Read Books
Talk to the Counselor
Keep a Journal
Keep Mementos
New Teacher Induction
Seek Out Seasoned Teachers
Know that the Second Year is Easier

Talk to the School Counselor

Talk to the school counselor - if you trust him or her.

She or he can be a great resource to help you manage your time as well as give you insights about your own students.

That first year, I had students I would refer to the counselor. But, when I was juggling many things and feeling stressed, I could talk to my favorite counselor (there were six where I worked) and get perspective.

Establish Routines

Adopt a classroom routine from the beginning. Students need routine and it pays to have those established from the get-go: what to do with homework, when students are finished, when students are absent, when students are tardy, when they first enter the room - all of that can help a classroom run more smoothly.

But that advice isn't just for students.

If you're really tired when you get home at the end of the day, try getting up earlier in the morning so that you don't have to rush out the door.

Take time to get on the treadmill or take your dog on a walk. Take time to sip that tea or coffee and not do it while you're trying to shower, get dressed, pack lunch and scrape the frost off the car windshield.

Starting your mornings calmly really can help set the tone for a better day.

Experiment with Classroom Management Techniques

These techniques need to be the least labor-intensive things you can find.

Classroom management is a lot of trial and error, too.

During my first year, I tried placing stars on student desks when students were doing what they were supposed to be doing.

I ended up scrapping the idea within a week - after I’d laminated and cut them out, spending more than a couple hours of my precious time doing so.

What I realized was that passing out and collecting the stars over the course of seven or eight classes meant a lot of extra walking (when I was already on my feet all day) and a lot of time thinking about those stars when I needed to be focusing on other things.

I finally found Teaching with Love and Logic at the library the summer before my third year of teaching and never looked back.

Positive reinforcement and choices became the name of my game. And it worked better than anything else.

Some books that I refer to often.
Some books that I refer to often. | Source

Read Books

During breaks or over the summer, read books that will help you in whatever area you want to improve.

There are so many books out there on the first days of school, curriculum, classroom management, and more.

Doing so may sound boring.

I mean who wants to spend their free time studying bulleted techniques of the trade?

But, there are so many interesting, inspiring books that really help your teaching, too.

Books like The Essential 55, Freedom Writers, and The First Days of School are incredibly helpful and even entertaining.

© 2016 Cynthia Calhoun


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