Tips for Surviving your First Year of Teaching {Part Two}

Tips for Surviving Your First Year of Teaching {Part Two}

Here’s a continuation of the list I started last week of 39 tips to help you get through your first year of teaching (one for each week of the school year):


14. One of the best ways to praise your students is to contact their parents, either through an email, letter, or phone call. Of course, students appreciate any praise you can give them, but when you tell their parents how wonderful their student is doing, it means even more than just writing it on an assignment or telling it to the student’s face. I tried to set a goal to do at least one positive email/phone call home per week, which really helped my relationship with both the students and the parents. It’s especially wonderful when you can do this with students who don’t tend to get a lot of praise because you’ll really give their parents a shock (in a good way).

15. If you haven’t already, take advantage of the retirement benefits generally inherent as part of an educator’s benefits. For example, my school monthly puts in the amount of what would be 10% of my pay, and since I’m also putting in 10%, it’s the equivalent of putting in 20% of your paycheck at only half-price. And remember, the younger you start saving for retirement, the more the power of compound interest can work for you. Not only will saving younger get you much more money in the long run, but if you get into the habit of saving 10% in your poorest days as an educator, you won’t feel a financial pinch when you decide to get smarter five or ten years down the road.

16. Find a way to keep track of what you’re teaching and when. I’ve never been a teacher to make lesson plans, and I made the mistake of not recording what I was doing or teaching for the first half of the school year. That probably was one of my biggest mistakes I’ve made to date because even though I’ve kept all the materials, I have no idea what order I went in or exactly what I did each day, so now it’s like I have to partially re-do the first part of the year’s planning all over again. Stupid, stupid move on my part. Near the end, I started entering in brief summaries into my teacher roll book of everything I was doing each day so that I’d be able to refer to that next year. I just wish I would have learned that lesson sooner.

17. While I’m on the topic of organization, create a system to manage all the paper that will be coming into your life throughout the course of the year. At the beginning of the year, I bought cheap plastic bins and marked each with a number (one for each class period I was teaching), and then I put those along one wall of my classroom. Students were trained the first week to put all their assignments that needed to be graded in there. Halfway through the year, I got smart and bought a metal paper divider to sort through all the graded stuff to make it easier to hand back, but I think next year I’ll be even smarter and buy other bins that will be the “graded/outgoing” bins so that students can be in control of picking up their own work (because heaven knows I forgot most days to hand back stuff).

18. In addition to needing an organization system for assignments, you also need some kind of system to keep track of your unit materials, lesson plans, exam keys, class sets of stories, etc. My major advice on this one is to organize a little bit at a time into clearly marked filing folders (preferably that are organized by when in the year you’re planning on teaching that subject); if you don’t, you’ll find that on the last day of school, you’ll be like me and have an entire year’s worth of papers that have just been piling up on top of each other to go through and sort (trust me on this one, it was NOT the way I wanted to spend the last day of school!).

19. Do yourself and your students a favor–don’t assign any homework over Christmas break. I was as tough a teacher as they come, but just don’t go there. You ALL will need a break from everything by that point (and that way, you won’t have anything more to add to your grading pile!)

20. Speaking of Christmas, if you can afford to do a little treat for your kids before they leave for the break, you might be surprised (as I was) at how much they appreciate your thoughtfulness. We had been reading A Christmas Carol and all I bought for them were those little chocolate coins, but that coupled with me telling them that I loved them and appreciated that I could be their teacher increased the levels of mutual love and friendship. So even if you think your students are too old to be told stuff like that, just tell them that you love and appreciate them anyway. It’s funny how statements like that can help them start to generate those types of feelings back to you.

21. As students come back from their Christmas vacation, make sure you review your class policies and procedures with them. It’s crazy how much they forget in 2 weeks.

22. Now that you’re more than halfway through your first year, try the following strategy when planning your units (kudos to you if you want to try this sooner–I was just so much in survival mode that I felt like I couldn’t possibly take on one more thing): instead of planning your units solely around what you want to teach (say, how to summarize), focus your unit around a question that will be of interest to your students. Here’s an example: for my summary unit, I had the students explore the question, “What are the deeper issues behind the new school policy that states that all school lunches must now follow strict nutritional guidelines and fall under certain calorie restrictions?” (trust me–nothing gets my 7th graders so riled up as the issue of school lunch, with the exception possibly of the school dress code policy). After I came up with the question, I found some general background info (articles, Youtube videos, etc.) that explained the tenets of the new policy, and then I had the students practice summarizing with those. A unit plan like this works double-duty because not only are the students learning the skill, but they’re learning it under a meaningful real-world context that gives them more background information to apply to future scenarios. It’s especially easy to use this strategy with literature you’re teaching–for example, I taught the question, “Does money make people happier?” while teaching A Christmas Carol and “What makes a person important?” while teaching the biography/autobiography genre. I can unequivocally state that the units when I tried this strategy were by far my students’ favorite as well as the most productive.

23. When you’re lecturing, make sure you’re not just doing an information dump all at once (because I can assure you that most of your students will hardly retain any of it). Frequently break up your instruction and do something every 4-6 minutes that will get some direct involvement from everyone in your class (ideas include having your students summarize what you’ve just explained for a neighbor, having a discussion based on a question with a small group of 4, having the students write down a response or a practice problem from the board in their notes, etc.). Your students will not only learn the material better (because they’re being forced to actually interact with the information), but you’ll find that you “lose” far fewer students this way.

24. Speaking further of the response strategies mentioned just barely, this is perhaps one of the greatest secrets I’ve learned during my first year of teaching: try to avoid an instructional style that is simply based on questions that only one student can answer at a time. Even if the questions are the most open, thought-provoking questions, you’ll still lose some of your students because they are not personally engaged with the subject matter. Seek out ways to constantly get all of your students to participate in some way. I’m a huge fan of partner-based work and discussion, which (bonus!) also helps your students work on their social and articulation skills. Because I often employed whole-class-engagement tactics, I usually had close to 100% on-task behavior during instruction time.

25. Although I should have covered this one near the first part of these tips, establish your classroom management plan well before you start running into problems. In other words, try to plan what you would do in hypothetical situations so that if it ever arises, you’ll have a plan in place. Some issues that were not handled well by me because I hadn’t pre-planned for them: a girl in my creative writing class bad-mouthing a fellow student not in the class by name while she was reading aloud her response to the daily prompt, a boy defiantly talking back to me and moving glacially slow when I told him to leave the room, a student who was consistently off-task and disruptive during an after-school club in which I had not explicitly set ground rules, etc. etc. I now know what I need to do in those situations so that the problem doesn’t escalate, but I was always relieved when I knew what to do when bad situations arose because I had already thought about it beforehand. Remember this, though: your greatest tool to aid in classroom management is to have your students constantly engaged in meaningful learning activities. If your students always have something worthwhile to engage their attention, that will take care of 99% of the problems.

26. No matter what you decide to do as far as discipline and classroom management goes, make sure you treat each student with dignity and respect (even when–especially when–you’re upset with them). I have heard countless stories from educators of “funny” things they’ve said or done when a student has misbehaved, but most things that appear “funny” to the teacher come off as cruel, demeaning, or vindictive to the student. For this reason, I tried my absolute best to avoid sarcasm whenever possible when dealing with students, and I tried to handle most discipline problems in as private a manner as possible, by quietly going to the student’s desk and asking to see them after class or walking by and whispering a reminder to them to stay on-task. There will be times when you will want to deal with a misbehaving student in an immediate-gratification kind of way (by yelling at them, embarrassing them, etc.), but DON’T DO IT. You will have students that absolutely push all of your buttons and drive you up the wall on nearly a daily basis, but the second you give in to your urge to really “show that student who’s boss,” you’ll not only lose that student’s respect, but usually your whole class’s respect. Students watch how you treat other students, and they will often base their perception of you as a teacher on that kind of information (NOT on what you’re explicitly teaching them during instruction time). Although I wasn’t perfect, I could end this school year with a pretty clear conscience that I had done my best to preserve the self-dignity and self-worth of every single student by treating them civilly, even when they were being uncivil.

What tips would you add? Anything you agree or disagree with?

For Part One of How to Survive Your First Year of Teaching, click here.

For Part Three of How to Survive Your First Year of Teaching, click here.




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