In celebration of my very last school day as a first-year teacher, I have decided to share some of the vast amounts of wisdom and experience I’ve gleaned (let’s be honest–mostly from my own mistakes). And, to make it even more exciting, you get to hear one for every week of school I’ve taught so far (that’s 39 weeks, folks, for those who have been out of school a little while).
1. You might have already heard this one from veteran teachers, but it bears repeating: be “mean” and overly strict with your students for the first several weeks of school. Don’t joke around too much, don’t laugh at their jokes, just make it seem like it’s all business, all the time. That way, when you can’t stand the facade anymore and need to crack a joke or two to lighten the mood, your students will still know they’re expected to work hard while having fun. I know this is a hard tip to swallow because most first-year teachers really want their students to like them, so it’s tempting to pull out the “fun teacher” card right away. Seriously though, I owe most of any success I’ve had as far as classroom management goes to this tip.
2. The first couple weeks of school can be referred to as “the honemoon stage”–your students still aren’t comfortable enough with you to express their grosser flaws, and the majority still aim to please, please, please (whatever the cost). Take advantage of this natural pliability and teach and re-teach all the classroom expectations and routines while they’re pretty much all willing to listen and obey.
3. If you haven’t taken up caffeine yet (my drug of choice being Diet Dr. Pepper), maybe you’d better start–around the 3rd or 4th week in, the “real” work of teaching actually starts to set in, and you’ll likely start finding yourself overwhelmed after spending several late afternoons or nights at the school grading homework, which brings me to…
4. DON’T TAKE HOMEWORK HOME WITH YOU. Even if it means staying at the school until all hours of the night, do not take grading or lesson plans or anything work-related home with you. I know this would be difficult to swing as a mother, but the main reason why I was able to stay mostly sane this year is because I kept my work at work, which meant that when I get home, I had absolutely nothing hanging over my head–I could simply put up my feet and relax. Other teachers who have taken work home their whole careers will think you’re crazy, but trust me on this: this will SAVE your sanity (and help you to have some semblance of a normal life).
5. Take some time to get to know your fellow educators, especially the ones in your own department. You don’t have to become best friends with everybody, but it IS important to establish professional relationships with your colleagues. Not only does this make you more of a team player, but it sure is handy when you just can’t think of another lesson plan to save your life and you need to bum some ideas off the other teachers.
6. On the flip side of that, I recommend sometimes taking your lunch alone. Not only do you tend to get more work done, but at most schools, lunch in the faculty room (or another teacher’s classroom) is where all the drama happens, and if you think like me, drama = no good. This whole year I’ve been trying to walk the fine line between being friendly and getting too involved in the school’s politics, and for me, it’s worked really well.
7. Since you hopefully learned all of your students’ names the first week, once you’ve established your classroom routines, make a goal to go out of your way and talk to at least one of your students about something other than school at least once per day. For some teachers, this step comes more naturally and they can handle talking to several students each day, but I tend to be more reserved, so it was good for me to just focus on one each day. If you try your best to turn your focus on a different student each day, you’ll find that you’ll eventually establish much better relationships with all of your students (esp. if you can follow up with them about something they told you earlier).
8. Find a trustworthy, sensitive person in your life whom you can go to to vent your frustrations and celebrate your successes. After spending all of your time each day with people younger than you, it’s absolutely essential to get some quality adult time in so that you don’t start, you know, acting like one of your students. I am sure that I would have quit teaching halfway through the year had I not had the stabilizing force of my husband’s listening ear to carry me through.
9. Prepare yourself for parent-teacher conferences (both logistically and emotionally). The more contact you can have with parents before this first conference (even if it’s just a generic letter or email), the more smoothly that first conference will go. If you can let the parents know before the actual conference as well if their student is struggling, you’ll save yourself even more trouble. I had a pretty negative experience my first round of parent-teacher conferences, but much of that could have been avoided had I taken the time to contact the parent beforehand and had I been mentally prepared for what I would do in an angry parent situation. In the end, try to maintain a positive relationship with all parents, even the ones who have offended you. You never know, they might turn out to be your biggest allies.
10. Know the maturity level of your students, and make sure you only share personal experiences and/or talk about subjects that they will be comfortable with. From firsthand experience, I have definitely learned to not bring up anything to do with pregnancy, childbirth, kissing, or puberty with my 7th graders, unless I want to have a jittery, giggly, blushing bunch of kids for the rest of the period.
11. Since many first-year teachers are rather young, make sure you set your boundaries early for your students so they don’t mistake your kindness as an invitation for you to become their friend. Luckily, I haven’t had to learn this one the hard way as I was very careful about my boundaries from the beginning (no hugging from students, limiting myself on how much I asked about their lives outside of school, no having current students as Facebook friends, etc.). As you get older, I would imagine you can loosen up on this one a bit to some degree, but since I was the youngest teacher at my school, I really had to watch that I stayed professional at all times.
12. Even though this probably won’t surprise most of you, it really came as a shock to me–you will not like all of your students. I strived to always CARE about each one of my students, but that’s not the same as liking. Plain and simple, you will have kids that get on your every last nerve. You will have kids that make you secretly happy when they decide to be absent for the day. The important thing on this one is to still earnestly try and reach out to those kids the best that you can. I literally found myself praying on multiple occasions for help with the students that I didn’t really like because I didn’t want anything to prevent them from getting the education they deserved. It’s a hard battle, but in the end, if you’re persistent in your efforts, you might even win some of those harder kids over to your side to the point that they won’t act up for you even though they will for everyone else.
13. Since week 13 is when the first trimester’s grades come due at my school, my last piece of advice for this first bit would be this: discipline yourself to do a little bit of grading each and every day. I seemingly have to learn this lesson over and over and over again as the end of the trimester always seems to find me scrambling around with a stress ulcer trying to get everything done before the deadlines. If you can get over any procrastination habits, your spouse, your students, your principal, and YOU will all thank you later.
What tips can you add? Any tips you wish you could have shared with your teachers growing up?
For Part Two of the series, click here.
For Part Three of the series, click here.