Confessions of a First Year Teacher
By: Eric Fisher @Mr_EFisher Congratulations, new teacher! The good news is, you’ve found a gig and are all ready to begin your work planning lessons, setting up your classroom, and bonding with students. The bad news is, there are many, many things between now and the end of your first year that your excited mind hasn’t had time to register the possibility of happening yet that will happen, and some of them will be challenging. All the great things you’re excited about will likely happen too, but I encountered a learning curve I can say was equal parts challenging and exhilarating.
More good news, though! I survived my first year. And you can too. And hopefully, by reading this, you’ll even acquire some wisdom that will help you do so with a bit less suffering than this rookie subjected himself to with novice mistakes.
That said, here is the list of the most essential pieces of advice I have to offer for anyone preparing for their first year as a teacher. Some of these suggestions are ones that were passed to me by more experienced educators throughout my first year, and some of them are observations cultivated through my own occasional ineptitude and subsequent self-reflection.
Pavlovian Classroom Management
Teachers like well-managed classrooms. Students like Skittles. This overlap of interests creates a window of opportunity that can be seized to take an effective but still fun step towards establishing better classroom behavior. My good friend and mentor Mr. Zac Leonard taught me this exercise to help establish classroom expectations and rules when I was struggling with these areas, and next year, it’s something I will be doing on Day One.
Step 1: Buy a large re-sealable pouch bag of Skittles.
Step 2: Have the Skittles prominently on display when your students come in.
Step 3: Explain what your classroom rules are. Then give students opportunities to follow directions quickly and show they understand your rules and expectations for the classroom. Give one skittle to the first few students to follow each direction and/or rule. Example: “What’s your favorite color?”—first student to raise their hand and wait for you to call them without blurting gets a Skittle. Googling images can also be a fun exercise for this process if your class has iPads or computers in it.
Step 4: Continue positive reinforcement via Skittles as needed.
Learn to say ‘no’ and mean it.
If you’re a laid-back or emotionally sensitive individual like yours truly, one of the things that is most difficult starting out in the classroom is learning to set your boundaries for classroom procedures and behaviors. Don’t be afraid to say no and stick to it, no matter how many times a student may try to ask. One of the biggest mistakes I made as a rookie was allowing students to set some bad precedents before I had thoroughly thought through a request, and then had to deal with having allowed the behavior to begin in the first place when I found out I had made a mistake letting something go.
Get friendly with your students’ parents and guardians.
For those of you who are young enough to have grown up with Pokemon, you may remember this phrase that would occasionally pop up during a battle when a powerfully strategic blow was landed: It’s super effective!
For some stubborn students who might be giving you trouble as a rookie, there’s only one weakness they may have, and it is the phone call home. If the student has a positive support system at home, miracles can happen overnight after a phone call. Even if they don’t, it’s a key step in the discipline process to keep parents posted if things are going rough with a student before you just start writing kids up left and right, so take a deep breath, take counsel from a seasoned teacher in your building, and make those calls. Being too hesitant to do this was one of my biggest mistakes. Don’t follow my example on this one.
Ain’t too Proud to Beg
Never let pride get in the way of advancing your own learning as a teacher during your first year. As humbling as it can be to constantly feel like the lost puppy dog seeking out someone wiser than yourself, the building you walk into will be filled with years of invaluable teaching experience. The neat thing is, many of the owners of these years would like nothing more than to answer that question you have that you think is stupid. They also want to know that you’re working to improve and establish yourself as a legitimate teacher in their school. So no being nervous, go get to know the vets in your school and start picking their brains. It will help you better serve your students and transition into your staff’s eco-system.
Don’t be afraid of tough love
For me, coming down on a student who is disturbing learning in the classroom with their behavior is one of the hardest parts of my job. I’m not a natural disciplinarian, and I like to assume the best in everyone. If you’re like this too, don’t change it—I think this type of positivity is a huge asset as a teacher—you just need to know there can be real value in being willing to make the tough calls that don’t come natural to you and do what you need to in order to establish management of your classroom. Sometimes, you might even be surprised. It’s true what I’ve heard adults say all my life—kids need boundaries, and sometimes you’ll actually be rewarded with an even more genuine respect and connection with a student after you show them that you’re willing to be tougher if they make it necessary.
Eliminate the fear
This is something of a general summation of my advice at the end of my first year. One of the things that bothered me early on as a teacher was a fear of embracing the opportunity teaching provides to insert your own style and personality into the process—I felt an anxiety that more experienced teachers would look at me and say “look at this kid—he has no idea what he’s doing.”
The thing is, sometimes, that will be true. But more often, if you’re working with a reliable and uplifting support system in your first year, it won’t be true. You will know what you’re doing. Trust your gut. Remember why you got here in the first place—you wanted to make a positive difference in kids’ lives. You can’t be perfect. But you can be you.
I can truly look back and laugh at some of the things I let myself get psyched out about when I started. Teaching is unpredictable and challenging in new ways every day. Nobody shoots 100% from the field when you’re working with so many real human beings on a daily basis.
So don’t be afraid to be yourself, and don’t put an undue amount of pressure on yourself to be like any other one individual or group of teachers at your school. They, too, encounter challenges that leave them flustered. They, too, were once newbies. So don’t feel afraid of being the new guy or gal. Your colleagues will respect you if you show them that your desire to grow is present, and that your interests lie in serving the students whom you have been entrusted with—even if you still fall on your face every now and then.
The best experienced teachers I know still work daily to improve—complacency isn’t part of the equation for any of the greats—so remove the fear of thinking outside the box and doing things the way you think will work best for your classroom. At the end of the day, if you’re still working to get better at your craft, there will always be another class, another day just around the corner. And you’re gonna knock it out of the park, dude.