One of the reasons I started by TpT store (and blog) over two years ago now (I can’t believe how fast time has gone!!) was to help first year teachers. I wanted to create products with EVERYTHING you needed to teach a subject for those walking into a school or department unprepared for what they were assigned. I was blessed with my first teaching job to get the two subjects I wanted (biology and physical science) but I was coming fresh out of student teaching where I worked with a teacher 2 years away from his retirement that only gave me a filing cabinet full of overhead projector sheets to work with. Needless to say, I walked in empty handed my first year and it was HARD.
Not only did I have a lack of resources in my repertoire, I remember that first-year-teacher-tired like it was YESTERDAY – the pure exhaustion emotionally, physically, and mentally that each day brought. Everyone told me it would get easier, and they were right! But that is still hard to hear when you are in the trenches and you are just looking for some support to get you through. I’ve already written some blog posts before on my tips for surviving and thriving in a public school and a separate post about teaching in a private school, but I’ve been getting contacted more and more by college seniors specifically inquiring about entering into their first year teaching that I thought it would be fun (and hopefully helpful!) to take a trip down memory lane with some advice for new teachers that I wish I had known.
1. Ask ALL OF THE QUESTIONS!
This is so important, and honestly needs to start before you even accept your first teaching job (if possible). Get as much clarification as you can as to what you are walking into, and don’t be afraid to ask what will be expected of you. I cover a couple of important things to consider, in my blog post on deciding between teaching at a public vs. private school. Know what your expectations will be both in the classroom and out. Know how much time you will get to plan, and how much of that time will be interrupted by meetings (and then take that number they give you and know that is a MINIMUM.) It is so important to have appropriate expectations set from the get go to protect from disappointment when you get into a teaching position and it wasn’t as you expected, or you are spending way more time doing hall duty than you are actually able to prepare for your class. If you are a science or specials teacher that requires a lot of materials, know what is available and what your budget will be.
Lastly, know the school’s viewpoints on collaboration and mentorship. Having a mentor teacher (especially in those first years) is a GAME CHANGER if you get one that is really passionate about helping first year teachers. I was able to meet with the department chair at my first school and hear how the 4 existing biology teachers all prepped and planned together, so I knew going into it I would be on a team, which was encouraging. For physical science, it was just one other teacher and I, who had really different teaching philosophies, so for that class I was more on my own. But if I hadn’t asked, I would have been blindsided.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions throughout the year as well. EVERYONE remembers what it was like to be a first year teacher, and will be willing to help you out. Don’t feel guilty bothering people either – you can pay it forward later (like I have) by signing up to be a mentor teacher yourself. It’s one of my favorite parts of my job currently!
2. Do as much prepwork and planning the summer before to ease your load once you are teaching 8 hours a day.
I can’t emphasize the importance of this enough. I know this can be challenging for some, as you may not even know what subjects you are teaching or even WHERE you are teaching until August, but if it is possible, do as much planning as you can in the summer. The irony of a “planning” period is that you rarely even plan during that time AT ALL! That short window of time (mine is currently 50 minutes and since I have 5 different preps that is 10 minutes a day to prepare for each of my different classes – HAHA) will get filled up QUICKLY with meetings, drop ins from other teachers, grading, and responding to emails. Especially if you teach science, you will need the majority of that time to test out and prep labs and activities. Because of this, I never actually do any planning at school. Planning and designing curriculum is actually my favorite part of our job (hence why I started my TeachersPayTeachers store) so it is my “treat” to work on this during summers and mid-year vacations. This frees up my evenings during the school week to grade, recharge, and REST.
I am pretty passionate about avoiding taking work home AT ALL COSTS during the work week because I really care about protecting my home as a place of rest and creating work/home life balance. I know this isn’t always possible – I held strong for 5 years and then AP biology this year on top of my 4 other preps and all of the things related to our adoption ruined my streak and I had to take stuff home usually one night a week, plus one weekend day. This has been draining for me though y’all to not have my home time protected. Do whatever it takes to protect your nights and weekends during the school year!! If that means working 20-25 hours a week in the summer to get prepared, DO IT. If it means investing in some TpT resources to give yourself a break, DO IT. You will thank yourself later!!!
3. Decide on your classroom management strategy and procedures NOW and START STRICT!!!
I am going to boldly say the number 1 hardest part of being a first year teacher is managing your class. You don’t really know what you don’t know, and classroom management training is really learned “on the job” and not in a textbook or college class. Student teaching will give you a bit of practice, but even that isn’t realistic training because you are stepping into someone else’s systems and not your own. I highly encourage you to spend some time the summer before you begin working thinking about your classroom and the environment you want to create. Make a list of what you want your class to look like and feel like and create systems and procedures to get you to that place. Have a standard and a procedure established for EVERYTHING and teach the students from day one. It will be a lot at first but students do best when they know what is expected and you are consistent and fair. Click here for a sheet I give out to students as a reference on the first day of school that goes over some of the basic procedures in my class.
The most important thing is that you run a tight ship at the beginning of the year to have successful classroom management. YOU MUST START STRONG!!! You can always loosen the reins as the year goes on but it is pretty much impossible to backtrack. This book was super helpful for me as I thought through how I wanted to start my year.
4. Be organized and consistent. YOU are the authority.
I kind of mentioned this with the classroom management above, but I think one of the reasons I have been able to successfully manage a wide variety of students over the years is because I am so organized and consistent. My students know exactly what to expect from me, thus it is very easy to maintain order when disciplining because I clearly outline what I expect and the repercussions if those expectations are not met. I also have a class that is really FULL. Every minute of my class period is always planned out. I never waste a second. When students know that they are in a class where things will ALWAYS be happening and they have to stay engaged to keep up, they don’t have time to work on assignments for other teachers, fall asleep, get in fights with each other, or ask to go to the bathroom 2938123 times. They will save all of those things for a class where the teacher isn’t the authority and they can run the show.
My first school I taught at had some really rough students, and every 45 days a new group of students would be released from the alternative school and sent back to the public schools. I always volunteered to take in these students because I didn’t mind the challenge and I knew I could get them integrated with the rest of my class quickly because I had such clearly organized systems and expectations. Now this doesn’t mean that we don’t have fun or have discussions or creative and student-led class periods. We absolutely do! But all of that is executed best in a framework where the students trust me and respect me as their authority and teacher. I truly believe all students benefit from clear expectations and an organized teacher. It is worth the time and energy to invest in these areas for your day to day to run smoothly. You set the tone for the year day 1 but the tone for each day in the first five minutes of EVERY class. Check out my blogpost about this “Prime Time” here.
5. Know your weaknesses and get support in the areas you need support in.
Piggy backing on number one, you have to know where you are weak so you can get help in those areas. You will not be good at every part of this job and you can’t do every part perfectly. Figure out what parts of the job match your gifts and/or bring you joy and invest in those areas. Share those gifts with the teachers in your department and school and they will share theirs in return! Especially if you are at a larger school with a team of teachers who teach your subject, divide the tasks based on each other’s strengths and work together! In my first teaching job I was one of 5 biology teachers. One of my coworkers was awesome at demos and coming up with new and creative ideas, so she ran with that. Another teacher was AMAZING at review materials and remedial resources, so he created those for us to share. I loved making resources for lower level students, so I took on that job. Another teacher did all of our honors resources. We ALL got together and created tests collaboratively by bringing our best to the table. It was amazing to see what we could do as a group! It was also nice to use the same test across the department because we could compare scores/data with each other.
Now I will say, the longer I taught, the more I came into my own and wanted more autonomy in my classroom and a little less collaboration. That’s when we moved for my husband’s job and I chose to transition to a private school. You can read more about that here. But I DEFINITELY think, especially in the beginning, it is so important to find a team to work with. Even if you are at a small school like I currently am and are the only one who teaches your subject, reach out to other teachers in your area at different schools. You can find anyone’s email online! Create your own collaborative group that can rely on and strengthen each other.
You are about to enter into one of the most challenging and yet rewarding careers. I know that many tired mornings are ahead of you, but also many, many students whose lives can be changed because of you – and that makes every overpriced caffeinated beverage and late night grading session worth it.
Veteran teachers – what other advice would you give to first year teachers? New teachers – what other questions do you have as you prepare to enter into the education field? I’d LOVE to hear in the comments below.