I know everyone says this, but it truly feels like yesterday that I was a first-year teacher. I will never forget the feeling of walking into my first classroom the summer before school starting and taking a big deep breath, reveling in the fact that this space would soon be filled with students that I had the privilege to teach!! Truly such a gift.
I had all of the enthusiasm, optimism, and energy in the world. But you know what I DIDN’T have a lot of? EXPERIENCE.
Sure I’d had 4 months of student teaching and countless practicums in my undergraduate training program, but nothing compares to the real thing. I’ve learned SO MUCH over the last decade since I was a first-year teacher – a lot of which is from my own experiences, but most of which is from other, even more experienced, teachers than me.
So I want to share with you the 5 things I’ve learned from veteran teachers and my own experiences that I wish I had known during my first year:
1. Leave work at work.
If I could be with you in person and shout this face to face to you, I would. That’s how intensely I want you to hear this one. LEAVE WORK AT WORK. Do NOT start the habit of bringing work home. Just don’t do it. I know it is tempting. I KNOW you have so much to do. But you HAVE to set some boundaries if you want to last in this career. And I want you to last!
If you start this habit it will be really hard to break it. I am speaking from firsthand experience. When I was a first-year teacher I was 22, fresh out of undergrad, single, living with 4 other girls, and taking grad school classes at night. Yes, I had grad school, but I didn’t have a lot of other responsibilities, so I naturally started bringing work home. It started with just cutting laminated station cards while watching Say Yes to the Dress. After that, I was bringing home stacks of lab reports to grade. Soon enough I was regularly lesson planning and even emailing parents from home.
If there is one thing I wish I had done differently, it is this. I promise you that you can still be a GREAT first-year teacher and not bring work home. To read more about WHY this is so important and HOW to practically do this, check out this blog post here.
2. Systems will save you.
One thing I underestimated as a first-year teacher was how many spur-of-the-moment decisions I would have to make. Teaching requires you to make 23,094,823 decisions a day, all while having an audience of teenagers waiting for your response. It requires immense adaptability and spontaneity – two qualities that I do NOT do well with.
But you know what I DO excel at? Systems and consistency. And what I’ve found was that my students were definitely in need of consistency in their lives. Most of them truly lived in mass chaos, and by creating a classroom culture where expectations were clear and actions and reactions were consistent, my students were able to relax, engage more, and trust me. I didn’t realize what a big factor trust would be in building relationships with my students.
Having systems allowed me to create a classroom culture that students felt safe to learn in. They also helped me to have a default to refer back to when I was making all of those spur-of-the-moment decisions. If systems aren’t really your thing, I get it. We don’t all have color-coded closets and alphabetized spice racks. But I do think there are 4 must-have classroom systems that will make your life, and your students’ lives, so much easier.
3. Parents are an asset, not a burden.
If you had told me I would say this when I was a first-year teacher, my mind would have been blown. Communicating with parents was by FAR my least favorite part of my job. I dreaded calling them. I would wait until the absolute last minute to do it – when a student had TONS of zeroes or had pushed me to the brink discipline-wise. And WOW – this was a terrible strategy.
My much-more-experienced teacher friend Jamie was the first to open my eyes to see how working with parents could actually help me be a better educator. But I’ll admit, it wasn’t until I moved across the state and transitioned from teaching at a public school to a private one that I was really forced to take parent communication seriously.
When I did, I really started to see how parents were actually an asset and not a burden. Keeping up with parents wasn’t just ONE MORE task on my long list of things to do every day. I could serve my students better if I engaged their parents in what was going on in my classroom.
Not sure where to begin? Click here to read about a parent communication system I had that was both manageable and effective.
4. Use your sick days.
When I was a first-year teacher there were two women in my department who were within three years of retiring. Both shared so much wisdom with me over our Friday department lunches, but one of the main things that has stuck with me over the years was the way that they both implored me to use my sick days.
Yep. They both told me to use sick days even when I wasn’t physically ill.
Our mental health is just as important as our physical health and is SO OFTEN OVERLOOKED as teachers. Especially as a high school teacher, you are most likely interacting with 100+ students a day with some pretty heavy stuff going on in their lives.
Not only that but teachers are expected to do SO MUCH with SO LITTLE. So little time, so little resources, and so little compensation. Running at the pace most of us do (or at least, most first-year teachers do, and fueled by adrenaline and Starbucks) is not sustainable for the long term.
So take the sick days. Don’t be scared to leave your students with a sub. There are so many meaningful things your students can do and learn without you there. Keep your expectations while you are gone simple.
Use the time away to rest and recharge. You can even use it as a catch-up day. I would take about 1 day off a month and use it to batch lesson plan. By doing this, I was able to do all my lesson planning for the entire next month at one time. My planning period was then used for lab prep and grading. This is one of the main ways I was able to maintain a work/life balance.
Even if you are using the time to work and not simply rest, treat yourself to lunch or work in your pajamas all day.
I really cannot emphasize with you enough how both of these women expressed this with intensity. They had both saved their days – stockpiling them for maternity leaves and payback days when they retired (our district had a policy where you were paid at retirement for days off that weren’t used). They both said they wish they had Short-Term Disability insurance to cover their maternity leaves instead (I highly recommend this) and that the money they were making in the end from the saved days wasn’t worth it.
So take the sick days. Prioritize your mental health as much as the physical. Your students deserve the best version of you, and they can’t get that if you are constantly working overtime and never getting a break.
5. Ask for help.
Last but most certainly not least, PLEASE don’t be afraid to ask for help. I was so worried as a first-year teacher that by asking questions I would look stupid. This worry of mine actually reveals a pride issue.
When I was finally willing to humble myself and admit that (1) I did not know it all and (2) I desperately needed help, I grew so much as a teacher.
So please, ask all the questions. If you need help, ask. The worst-case scenario is a “no”, and then you aren’t any worse off than you were before.
To all of you first-year teachers out there, I am sending you all the virtual hugs! I love your energy and drive, and I am SO excited for you to start this amazing career. I hope these suggestions have challenged you and encouraged you. I seriously love you all. You are my people! So much so, that I wrote an entire virtual professional development course just for you. You can check it out here, if interested, or DM me on Instagram if you ever have any questions. I am here for you!!