Tips for Surviving Your First Year of Teaching [Part Three]

In honor of back to school, I present to you the third (and final) set of my teaching tips for first-year teachers. For part one, click here. Part two, click here.

27. Since this set of tips has to do with last third of the school year, here’s my first tip: use some of your personal days to take off some time in March (or whatever month is seriously lacking in holidays). At my school, our spring break isn’t until April, so March was a VERY long stretch of teaching without any breaks. Do yourself a favor and take some time off. We went to Bryce last year, and it was the best thing I could have done for my students because I wasn’t such a stress mess when I came back.

28. You’ll have probably discovered by now that teaching is often a thankless job (if you’ve found it to be otherwise, please share your secret!!!). When times get tough and you find yourself getting down about whether or not you’re really making a difference, make a list of the triumphs and successes you’ve seen that week (or that month, or over the year). I know I’m definitely more likely to only focus on the negative stuff going on, so this practice is super important for me to keep my perspective.

29. By this far into the year, you might be enough out of “survival” mode that you can concentrate on adding some more flavor into your classroom. The easiest way to do that? Give students choices, or bring the kids in when it comes to planning how you’re going to present something. Not only will they be WAY more invested when they’ve gotten to choose, but it also takes some of the pressure off of you.

30. As you sit down to broadly plan your last semester or trimester, make sure you have your students working hard up until the very end. Nothing’s worse (as a student or a teacher) than a class where there’s not enough to do.

31. Since by this point, your classroom routine and management should be well-established and your students should overall be behaving (hopefully), try to loosen up a bit. Play around with your typical lesson plans and make them more fun. Crack jokes with the students. Give yourself permission to get creative in your teaching. I left this tip until later in the year because at the beginning, I really stress being strict and tough (it will save you SO much grief later). But it’s hard to stay that way all the time, and you know the saying about all work and no play…

32. This far into the school year, the kids who have always driven you crazy will likely be driving you crazier still. Try the following two strategies (if calling the parents and getting the administration involved haven’t done anything): one, meet with the student one-on-one and either give them a special responsibility in the class or make a behavior contract with them (“if you do this, I’ll give you this reward…”), and two, pray or meditate specifically about that student each day. I pray daily about teaching and about kids, and I can’t tell you how many times my feelings have been softened towards a particular student because I’m praying for him/her. If prayer isn’t your thing, try meditating about the student—not in a “I hope this student gets strep throat” kind of way, but in a “let’s try to see things from his point of view” kind of way. Make plans to go out of your way to serve and love that student–it’s amazing what little acts of kindness can do.

33. The kids will start to get tired of school and antsy by the end. Make sure you build in learning activities throughout the year that will give your students a chance to move around (and a chance to get outside every now and then, weather permitting).

34. Although teaching is somewhat of a lifestyle instead of just a job, try to set boundaries wherever possible. After several months of teaching, I realized that my students and classroom were almost all I ever talked about, especially with my husband. Once I recognized this, I made much more of an effort to talk about the kinds of things that we used to before I became a teacher (like books, movies, and non-teaching experiences), and I found that it made me feel much more like the “whole” version of myself (if that makes sense). I imagine that becoming a parent probably has a similar effect.

35. Don’t neglect taking care of yourself, especially when it comes to diet and exercise. I learned this one the hard way, as the end of the school year saw me putting on about five pounds of stress weight. The truth is, when you take care of your physical self, you’re so much more able to take care of everything else. So make a goal to exercise at least 3 times a week and to not rely on sugar and simple carbs to get you through a massive pile of grading. Not only will you feel better, but you’ll be more focused, too.

36. Ask an administrator or experienced teacher to explain the standardized testing procedure to you beforehand. I had been meaning to do this, but what ended up happening was that on the first day of testing, I suddenly realized with a sick feeling that I had no idea how to get the students onto the computers or what my role in everything was. Trust me, it is NOT the way you want to spend a day that’s already kind of stressful anyway, so do yourself a favor and make sure you understand everything beforehand.

37. Speaking of standardized testing, try to keep in mind that standardized test scores are only a miniscule measurement of your success as a teacher. And, if I could do it all over again, I would try to avoid comparing my students’ scores with the other teachers’. (But, as it happened, I was so excited that 91% of my students reached proficiency that I raced over to the other teachers to share the news, only to feel silly and insignificant when I realized that the other teachers’ scores were far better than my own). The sad thing about comparison is that it almost always robs you of any joy you might have felt—I was overjoyed with my scores when I first saw them, but it was only after comparison that I felt bad about the whole thing. Avoid comparing. Better yet, just keep repeating this to yourself: “My worth as a teacher is not determined by test scores.”

38. Buy a yearbook. I wasn’t sure if it would be worth it to me to buy one, but I was shocked at how many of my students really wanted to sign mine (plus it’s the only way I have pictures of all my kids). Since teaching can often feel like a thankless job, it was cool for me to read some of my students’ comments thanking me for the difference I’d made in their life.

39. My last tip? Get out there and celebrate! You’ve successfully completed your first year, and you probably helped more kids than you screwed up. I’ll tell you one thing—the second those kids graduate your classroom, you just love them unconditionally (because they’re now no longer under your charge)–it’s like being the fun grandparent. And now that’s YOU! Congratulations!

Any teachers out there? What tips would you give a first-year teacher?

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