15 Things to Know Before Starting Your First Year Teaching

1. Your relationship with your kids will be your greatest pride.

I can honestly say the relationships I formed with my students were unlike any relationships I have ever had.  Even the students who drove me absolutely bonkers on a day-to-day basis stole humongous pieces of my heart.

Perhaps it’s inevitable. You spend so much time with these unique little humans that you begin to know them on an immensely personal level.  You may never have envisioned yourself feeling emotional when a student finally can distinguish between the words “though” and “through,” but rest assured, it just might happen.  Before you know it, you might find yourself crying in a parent-teacher conference when you hear about the hardships your student has overcome (not that I’m speaking from personal experience, because that would be highly unprofessional).

Take the time to give your students the love and affection they deserve.  You might be tired or stressed. When twenty-some littles come sprinting into the room at 8:00 a.m. all trying to tell you what they ate for dinner last night, you might feel *slightly* agitated. But keep in mind that every word that comes out of a child’s mouth carries weight. As we get older, it becomes easier to forget the limited experiences our kids have had. Listen to your kiddos. Congratulate them on their little victories. It means so much to them.

2. Experience counts more than academia.

I received my Master’s of Education in 2017, and just about none of it had any relevance to what I do on a daily basis.  You may be familiar with classes such as “Literacy Assessment in Elementary Education.” You might know theories regarding education and best practices in mathematics instruction.

But when you walk into that classroom on the first day of school with over twenty pairs of eyes on you, and you realize that you alone are responsible for a group of beautiful, goofy souls, something shifts.  It’s like you have put on your adult disguise and you realize that you have absolutely *no* idea what you are doing.  When all responsibility falls on you, you will a) most likely fall in love with the children within your class and b) realize you have a whole lot of work cut out for you.

They don’t teach you how to connect with your students. They don’t teach you what to do with a student with oppositional defiance. And they certainly don’t teach you how to bide seven hours a day with the same group of students, five days a week. Nothing can prepare you for this. But if you have this knowledge–that you can’t open a textbook to figure out the dynamic within your classroom–you will be all the more prepared for this upcoming year.

3. You cannot, I repeat, cannot do it all.

Planning as many as eight subjects a day. Grading the work of 20+ students. Formatively assessing these students daily. Conducting standardized tests. Sending parents updates. Planning field trips. Attending IEP/504 meetings. Providing accommodations to meet the needs of your students. Supplying emotional support. Seeking assistance for students who may need special education support. Advocating for students being treated unjustly. Meeting the needs of your English Language Learners.

Writing substitute plans. Cultivating relationships with students. Seeking professional development. Attending staff meetings. Differentiating your instruction and assessment. Attending students’ events outside of school.  Participating in collaborative planning meetings. Copying papers. Creating learning experience. Maintaining a classroom conducive to learning. Facilitating student discourse. Purchasing classroom supplies (out of your own funds, I might add).

These are just a few of the demands you will face as a first year teacher.  And I repeat, you cannot do it all. You will not do it all. We live in the era of Pinterest-perfect teachers, and we have access to so many incredible ideas we can bring into our classrooms. The down side of this is that it can breed insecurity. If THEY can do it, why can’t I?

Keep in mind that this is your FIRST year (of many to come, I presume)! You are just figuring out the ins and outs of classroom management and how to multitask as if there was no tomorrow. There will be days that you have to leave the building and your to-do list will still have eight things unchecked.  The profession of teaching seemingly attracts perfectionists, but ironically enough, leaves no room for perfection.  And that, my friends, is OKAY.

Prioritize what’s important.  Make a list. Write down the four things in life that are the most important to you that you absolutely do not want to jeopardize this year.  Laminate that list. Frame it. Teaching is a beautiful profession, and if it truly is your passion, it can consume you. There is always something you could do that would improve the learning of your students.  But they cannot truly learn from you if you lose your sense of who you are.

4. Embrace your classroom parents.

The relationship you have with the parents within your classroom will vary greatly depending on where you are located.  I went from student-teaching at a Title I school in Howard County with very little parental involvement to working in an affluent community in Montgomery County with a completely different demographic make-up.  Regardless of where you are teaching, remember that 99 percent of the time, parents are there to support you (not to get you in trouble).  Again, most of the time, parents want to see their children succeed, and so long as you demonstrate you vested interest in their children, you may be amazed at the lengths they will go to to support you.

This past year, I was absolutely blown away by the number of parents who wanted to help. Some even volunteered to complete mundane tasks, like cutting apart cards for centers. Involve your parent community, whether it consists of forty active parents, or maybe just one or two.  Pick up the phone and call a family with an update regarding how their child has done well, even if they don’t respond. Invite parents in to come listen to their children recite their latest writing pieces (which, let’s be honest, will be entertaining for all parties involved). Let them know that you care, sooner rather than later.  You might be surprised at how positively they can impact your year.

5. Find your people, and use them relentlessly.

This could be your team.  A friend from another team. The guidance counselor, the staff development teacher, the reading specialist.  Find your people–the people who have your back 100 percent of the time, and go to them WHENEVER you need help. There are so many people who want to see you succeed (I know this of course also varies depending upon the climate of your workplace).

Fiind the people with whom you are the most comfortable and choose them to ask the most absolutely ignorant questions. I had a few people like that this year (you know who you are) where I, without the slightest of hesitation, would waltz into their rooms, an army of questions behind me.  This is normal. Find the people you can trust, and rely on them. They will guide you.

6. Remember that the impact of your words is profound.

I can still remember the day in kindergarten.  The lights had been turned off, a signal that we were to quiet down. But just at the moment, I looked behind a small felt board and saw the most exciting thing I could have imagined…cut-outs of buses, students, and other school-related materials that could be *gasp* attached to the felt board. My logic fell to the wayside, and I was overcome with dorkish kindergarten glee.  “THIS IS INCREDIBLE!” I shouted in a piercing pitch to the friend beside me.

My kindergarten teacher, who was one of the sweetest, kindest souls, said “Taryn,” in what my delicate five-year old ears perceived to be a very harsh tone, and ushered me to the carpet with the *bad* kids, who were also in trouble. Granted, I had a problem with crying within class up until fourth grade, so I’m probably not the most typical child in terms of my recollections, but that memory is as vivid in my mind as our latest election (*insert cringe here*), That moment impacted me.  I cried when I came home from school because I started to perceive myself differently, and I thought that my teacher didn’t like me anymore.

I had a much more negative experience in high school, when a teacher accused me of cheating when I had not.  Holding my paper, I walked over to tell him that there was clearly some sort of misunderstanding, but before I could speak, he looked me in the eyes and said, “You’re lucky I didn’t give you a zero.” He was an incredible teacher; honestly one of the best at my high school.  But in that moment he was mistaken. I had lost face in the eyes of someone I respected greatly, and my perception of him shifted. Not a lot, but slightly. In that moment, he didn’t give me the benefit of the doubt. I always thought he would have believed in me.

That is not to say that students do not need to receive logical consequences, and of course, this is an essential part of classroom management.  (I deserved to be ushered to the carpet in kindergarten, certainly). But take a second to think before you speak because our littles’ memories are selective, and you want to elevate them each and every day, not tear them down.  They will remember things that you will forget by the following morning, and hopefully, in the majority of their memories, you will be their biggest advocates.

7. Forgive, forgive, and forgive…yourself.

You are going to make so many bad decisions it’s unreal.  You will laugh about all of the ridiculous scenarios you get into and have some of the *best* stories to tell.  Mistakes will happen repeatedly, but this is expected (and veteran teachers do this too)! At your very core, if you have your students’ best interests at heart, then you will not fail. You will not let them down because you simply won’t let yourself.  And when you do make mistakes, learn to laugh at them and get right back on up. Your kids will forgive you, so you need to, also.

8. Remember that it’s okay to be wrong.

While this applies to everyone, I mean it specifically in relation to your students.  I cannot tell you the number of times I have told my students, “Okay, we’re going to try this again tomorrow because Ms. Quaytman has to figure out a better way to teach this.”  One time, I taught my students the completely wrong thing, and the next day I looked at them and said, “Alright, you know what I told you yesterday? You’ve got to unlearn that, okay?  Because Ms. Quaytman made a BIG mistake.” Their flexibility, and willingness to forgive me and try something new was totally unreal. Admit to your students when you are wrong (because if you don’t acknowledge it, they cannot *wait* to point it out).

9. Acknowledge your ignorance (it’s there, I promise), and seek help whenever you need it.

Some first-year teachers are afraid to ask questions for fear of looking inept, weak, or quite simply, like a first-year teacher who doesn’t know what’s going on.  But let me reiterate…you are a first-year teacher that doesn’t know what’s going on. Asking questions will show that you genuinely have your students’ best interests in mind.  So seek help when you need it.

I had a student that challenged me immensely for the first few months of teaching. It got to a point where I was failing, and I knew that I was. So I went to my administration, and I went to my evaluator, and I told them, “I need help.  I am failing my students.” Instead of shunning me, or seeing me as weak, they supported me. (Again, I acknowledge that this will not always be the case, and for teachers in environments that lack support, you truly are inspiring). But if the support is there, use it.

10. Seize teachable moments, exercise flexibility, and screw the rest.

There are just going to be times where a child raises their hand and asks an utterly brilliant question.  You will have two choices: a) address that question, see where it takes you, and end up somewhere far, far away from your original lesson plan or b) ignore the question, and power through your lesson.  What will make for a more memorable learning experience for everyone? Cater your instruction to your students’ interests…it will make learning so much more invaluable to all of you.

11. Be a rule-breaker (sometimes).

Administration will tell you one thing. The county will tell you another. Your team will tell you something else. And your education will tell you something completely different. To be honest, you’re never going to please everyone.  Figure out your teaching philosophy, and figure out what your students need. Maybe you have been told that you need to meet with them in small group everyday for math, but you stumble upon a whole group lesson that you are positive will peak their interest. By all means, DO THE LESSON! (I am not at all discounting the importance of small-group instruction; and in fact, rely on that about 90 percent of the time).

However, you know what your kids need. If they need a break from the routine to reset and get excited about learning, do it! Don’t fear that an evaluator will walk in or criticize you. If you’re making a decision that you can justify and you know is right for your kids, you will be okay.  Break the rules occasionally. Sometimes it is necessary.

12. Establish a positive classroom culture first, and academic learning with follow.

I wholeheartedly believe that learning cannot take place until students feel safe, acknowledged, and respected.  My primary goal this year was to develop a caring classroom community amongst my students. I am happy to profess that I believe I achieved that. But that meant that there were numerous times we had to deviate away from the curriculum to discuss values such as kindness, honesty, respect, etc. There were SEVERAL times where I had to halt instruction altogether because a crisis had happened at recess, and I knew that if we didn’t tackle it right then and there, the students were going to be too distracted to learn.

A few months into the school year, my class referred to themselves as a community, without my prompting. It was a beautiful thing to watch take place. I spent so much time cultivating this culture that I, admittedly, worried my students’ academic performance would not reach the county’s expectations. When my students took their middle of the year assessments, and I saw growth, I breathed a tremendous sigh of relief. Taking the time to create this climate of kindness will pay off in the long run.

13. Don’t take anything personally.

Whether it’s negative feedback from administration, another teacher, a parent, a student, etc., you very well might receive feedback that hurts your feelings. In this profession, you have to have a thick skin, and you have to be open to constructive criticism.  At the end of the day, your goal is not to prove that you are an amazing educator, but to provide your students with the best possible learning environment they can have. If you receive negative feedback, consider it, evaluate it, (make changes if you think it’s constructive), and otherwise, don’t worry about it!  You know your classroom and your kids the best, and you will continue to make decisions that are right for them.

14. Cherish every moment you have with your littles…it will go by so quickly.

There might be stretches of the year that seem exceedingly long, but it will go by in the blink of an eye.  Every student is going to have impacted you in some way, so embrace the limited time that you have together. Love them, laugh with them, go out to recess and play tag with them. Enjoy how truly unique each of them are.

15. You are about to embark on a roller coaster of a ride, but I promise, it is so very worth it!

Good luck!

 

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