12 Tips for a Successful First Year
Dear New Teacher,
Summer is coming to an end, and soon you will be walking into your first classroom. You are probably excited, nervous, and maybe a little naive about the year ahead. Try not to worry. I have been in your spot twice in my 21 years of teaching. The first time I was 23 years old, fresh out of college, and starting a job as a high school English teacher. That year was my hardest year of teaching thus far, but I also made great friends and great memories. My first year in the classroom taught me so much about the teaching profession, kids, and myself.
Years later, I received a Master of Library Science degree, and I decided to try teaching at the elementary level. At that point I had plenty of teaching experience: I had taught high school, worked at Sylvan Learning Center, and instructed adult students who were getting their GED. But I had never taught young children all day, every day. Again I found that I was a “new” teacher, and again I had a year of trial and error.
The following list of tips is hard-won advice that I offer to help you through your exciting, fun, and challenging first year. I hope you will enjoy this year of firsts and embrace the hard work that is to come.
- It’s important to have a good mentor. When I first started teaching, I didn’t have an official mentor. There were teachers who guided me through student teaching, but there was no official mentor. During my first year, I leaned heavily upon the teachers on my hallway, and it made all the difference. These days, school districts typically assign a veteran teacher to mentor you. But sometimes that mentor is not as accessible as you would like, or maybe isn’t the right fit for you. If that’s the case, find someone you can talk to and share ideas with. Your mentor can be a teaching friend in another building, a buddy across the hall, a former teacher, or even the school secretary. Just make sure this person is someone who will listen, answer questions, and coach and encourage you through this first year. Having a good mentor will make your first year much easier.
- Teaching always requires more learning. If you thought you were done learning when you got your diploma, you were wrong. You can probably guess the basics of what you will need to know: where is my classroom, who are my students, what will I teach, and how will I teach it? But there are a thousand other things to learn, too. No matter how long you teach, there will always be more to learn. Prepare yourself to be a lifelong learner. This is an idea we share with students, but it is true for teachers, too. To be successful in teaching, we must always be learning.
- Learn to be flexible. You will deal with change, change, and more change throughout your teaching career. Flexibility is a must. On any given day, you may think you have a great lesson plan, but as you are teaching it, it may turn out to be a bomb. You have to know how to change the momentum of your lesson on a dime. You have to be flexible when you get a new student two minutes before class begins. Or maybe the curriculum changes, and you need to adapt to what is new. Perhaps you’ve had a snow day or two, and now your schedule for the week is different. All of these situations call for adaptability. If you can roll with the punches, you will be a more effective (and happier) teacher.
- Take the time to talk with coworkers. I was busy all the time my very first year of teaching, and if someone came to talk to me at the end of the day, I kind of panicked. My mind shouted, “I have too much to do to stop and talk!” But even if your mind tells you this, stop and talk anyway. It is important to work with your colleagues and develop relationships. Besides, there will never be a day when you don’t have tons to do. So take a deep breath, give yourself a few minutes, know the work will still be there for you later, and engage. In my current position, I have worked hard to develop strong bonds with my coworkers. Because I have listened to them, they have also listened to me and helped me work through tough situations. I feel that I am a better teacher because I know I have the friendship and support of other teachers in my building.
- Don’t listen to people who tell you that new teachers aren’t effective. I know my first years at both the high school and elementary levels were filled with mistakes – things that I would never do now. But at the same time, I was driven by my inexperience. I took risks. I tried new strategies. I worked really hard because I wanted to do a good job. So, although there are stumbles during your first year, there are also awesome, innovative techniques you will try precisely because you are new. You may not be perfect this first year – who is, really? – but you’ll do some creative things because you’re not afraid to try. Enjoy this time when you are unafraid, and remind yourself to try new things throughout your entire teaching journey.
- Even as a new teacher, you can have a tremendous impact on kids’ lives. I remember my first year at the high school level. I had a junior English student who despised me – or so it seemed. She would come in, put her backpack on her desk to hide her face and attempt to become invisible. I tried to do my job and ignore her unwillingness to contribute. Somehow, in the course of that year, she and I developed a mutual respect for each other. By the end of the year, she had joined the Scholars’ Bowl team I was coaching, and was a completely different student in class. I felt like I had made a positive difference in her life, and it felt really good. In fact, this is one of the best things about teaching.
- Students also have a tremendous impact on you. You will find that students will affect you, too. A school year will end. Students will move on. And you will realize that you’ll miss those kids, even the ones who sometimes drove you crazy throughout the year. You’ll find that you’ll keep in touch with a few of them over the years, because you’ve built a special rapport. Better still, you’ll run into former students – maybe even students who caused you some trouble in the past – and they will have blossomed into lovely adults. You never know. But the connections you make with these kids sometimes last a lifetime.
- Take the time to have fun. Teaching is exhausting, especially that first year. So get out from under your stacks of grading and go out and have some fun. You will be better equipped to tackle the work if you allow yourself some downtime. Some of my best memories from my first year of teaching come from things I did with my fellow first-year teachers traveling to basketball games, chaperoning dances, participating in assemblies. Even today I make sure I have time for reading, walks, and yoga – things that rejuvenate me. Taking the time to have fun will fill you up and recharge you for the daily challenges of teaching.
- Find humor in what you do. Kids are funny. They are weird. They see things from different perspectives than we adults do. That is part of what makes teaching fun and unpredictable. So don’t be afraid to laugh. Sometimes a quip made by a student can offer well-needed comic relief during a class period. I’m not saying you should make fun of a student, but it’s okay to laugh at something funny or even to laugh at yourself if you make a mistake. Laughter throughout the day helps ease the gravity of our job.
- Let students know you care. This doesn’t mean that you have to be their best friend; in fact, they don’t want that from you. But students do want to know that their teachers are legitimately concerned about them, their schoolwork, and their lives. Let them know you care about them, and you’ll often find that students will perform or behave better for you.
- Let students know you are passionate about what you teach. Kids, even the young ones, are smart little buggers. They know when you’re faking it. So show them that you really like what you’re doing. Let them see that you care about your subject matter. Tell them what you find cool about your content and why. Students may tease you or think that you’re a nerd, but they’ll also respect the fact that you’re being honest and that you love what you do. Students will appreciate your enthusiasm and, with any luck, your enthusiasm will rub off on them.
- Be proud of your profession. This is a turbulent time for teachers. We are undervalued and sometimes even demonized. But being a teacher, in my opinion, is about the best thing a person can be. We make all of the other occupations possible. We give students a solid educational foundation. We build relationships and coach kids to work hard and try new things. So be proud of what you do. Be proud to tell people that you are a teacher. Most often you will find that people are interested in hearing about what you teach and have great respect for you. Teaching is a hard job, and not everyone in the world can do what we do.
I’m not going to lie – this will be a challenging year for you, and you will have a lot to learn. But there are wonderful things that will happen to you, too. I hope these tips will help make your first year of teaching a success. May the joys you experience outweigh the struggles that you face!
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