I am taking a leave of absence from teaching this school year to take care of Fire Monkey and to prevent the household from sinking into complete mayhem while Science Guy finishes his doctorate. (Mayhem levels are still expected to rise.) It is definitely the best decision for our family but that doesn’t stop me from longingly making eyes at the school supply displays at the store or
abusing the labelmaker neatly organizing things at home.
Last week I met with the teacher who will be filling my position next year and she asked if I had any advice for a first-year teacher. I sort of blinked stupidly for a second, not just because I’d already been awake for 6 hours by 11am, but because my life as a teacher already seems so distant, consumed completely by my new life as a mother. And no one’s asked me about teaching in awhile. But in many ways teaching and motherhood are not dissimilar (although they seem increasingly incompatible these days): you spend a great deal of time convincing small(er) humans to become slightly better versions of themselves each day, you face a more or less constant stream of tiny disappointments in said small humans, and you keep going because you believe that they will grow as a result of, or perhaps in spite of, your efforts.
It’s been six years since the start of my first teaching job, and I taught for three of those six years at three different schools. I think I would have liked to take on a student teacher during that time, but being a quasi-first year teacher three times I never felt quite with it enough to do so. (Definitely good I didn’t take a student teacher while I was pregnant because he or she would have learned nothing from me but rage and chaos, which incidentally could be the title of my memoir.) Before I started teaching, I heard, as probably every new teacher does, several things repeatedly:
- Everyone’s first year is terrible.
- Actually the first three years are really hard.
- Half of teachers will quit before their fifth year.
- But it’s okay, you’ll be fine.
None of which is super helpful though it is all true to some degree. So when asked to give advice to a first-year teacher, I tried to avoid dwelling on the hardships and provide practical tips for survival.
- Find a way to stay organized. Teaching is still a paper-heavy profession, probably because we’re all not-very-secret school supply junkies. We all know teachers whose desks are piled above their heads with papers and books and other materials and they are able to function and some even thrive. But by and large, it helps to have systems to manage student work, grades, assessment and intervention, parent communication, and teacher evaluations. (And you thought it was all about writing good lesson plans? You have much to learn, public opinion.) It took me three years to figure out a semi-sustainable system and I had to borrow from my experience in office management to make it happen. Organization looks different for everyone and will evolve over time and at different teaching assignments. But put something together ahead of time so you’re not drowning in a sea of homework two weeks into the school year.
- Be consistent with expectations for work and behavior, while balancing the necessary process of experimentation and change. With students and parents, say what you mean, mean what you say, and follow through on your words with actions. This was a perennial struggle for me and I left a trail of abandoned classroom management tricks in my wake. I eventually realized that the only way to do this was to dramatically simplify (not lower) my expectations and procedures. (Large note to self for parenting.) This usually means banning myself from Pinterest because while some teachers might be able to train their students to move a numbered magnet from one labeled square to another to signify that they have gone to the restroom, I certainly can’t. Here’s a written pass, get out of here and come back within a reasonable amount of time.
- Communicate openly with students, parents, and administrators. For the most part, students want to succeed, parents want to know their kids are cared for and learning, and administrators want to know that you have what you need to do your job. Going back to tip 1, make a plan for when and how you want to communicate with students and parents. Even if it’s just keeping your classroom webpage up to date, let parents know what’s going on and where their students can find resources to help with classwork. Last year I used an app called Remind which lets students and parents sign up for reminders and text-message me without using my personal cell number.
- Don’t reinvent the wheel, especially when it comes to homework or practice assignments. This was perhaps the biggest mistake I made during my first year of teaching (and, admittedly, something one of my mentor teachers called me out on and of course did I listen, no). Having always been an overachiever, I wanted to be all creative and critical-thinking and multi-level Bloom’s taxonomy and multiple intelligences and inquiry. For every. single. thing. It’s one thing to incorporate all those shiny elements into a 10-page lesson plan for a graduate class; it’s quite another to write a 10-page lesson plan every. single. day. for every. single. prep. Which you will probably never actually do in real life. Beg, steal, or borrow whatever you can!
- Learn the following before the first day of school:
- how to take and report attendance
- how to enter grades
- how to make copies and when the copier is busiest and alternate copy/print locations and how not to be the new teacher who jams the copier at 7:54am
- how to submit discipline referrals
- how to help students get more intensive intervention
- how to order supplies
- how to contact the main office, principal, nurse, and resource officer (if applicable) from your classroom
- how to operate all technology in your classroom (computers, projector, document camera, lab equipment, etc.)
- most important: the names and faces and good sides of the janitorial and secretarial staff
That’s my practical advice. From a more abstract perspective, I’m going to pass on wisdom I heard from colleagues in my first year.
- Every student is someone’s child. When teaching high school, it’s easy to forget that inside the adult-size bodies are the hearts and minds of children, even (especially?) in students who had to grow up too fast. That simple truth has helped me avert a lot of frustration and try to treat my students with patience and compassion that they might not exactly deserve. Now that I’m a mother myself, it’s easier to imagine the grace I’d want someone else to show my kid when he’s being less than totally lovable.
- Make it fun for you and the students will follow your lead. The late and great colleague who gave me these words lived them out and was beloved by students and staff alike. I’ve found that this goes beyond making engaging lesson plans because there will always be students who just don’t care about the material or even their grades the way you do. It means not taking yourself and your content so seriously that you can’t make horrible teacher jokes at least once a day, or play Apples to Apples with your students for the last five minutes of class, or laugh it off when a lesson goes bust. I’m not sure if it’s because I felt pressure (mostly from myself) to cover more content this year or because with more students than I’ve ever had there wasn’t as much time and energy or because I was pregnant and angry all the time, but I lost a little bit of the fun this year, which made it hard to stay motivated. My personal belief is that if teaching stops being enjoyable for the teacher, it will never be truly educational for the students.
- Know where your responsibility as a teacher begins and ends. I had to figure this out on my own and this was and is the hardest part for me. No matter what school you’re in, there will be students and parents who expect you to do the student’s work for them, but our job is to teach them to teach themselves. Then there are those students who desperately need parenting and you can’t be a parent to every one of them either; you can only set safe boundaries and consistent expectations for the brief time they are in your class. It will also be tempting to judge your success by your students’ grades and test scores, especially because that’s how politicians and sometimes the public judge teacher success, but that’s a recipe for frustration and burnout. You don’t want to go too far the other direction either and let the students become nothing more than numbers and test scores because teaching takes far too much work to be fulfilling without a personal connection. So you must walk a delicate balance between caring too much and caring too little and I suppose the best way to go about it that I’ve found is to hold everything dear but lightly.
I write all of this with the knowledge that perhaps I’m not the best person to give advice to a new teacher. I’m stepping out of the classroom not just to care for my son but also to reevaluate how (or even if) teaching will fit into my new life as a mom. Would and could I do it to make ends meet, absolutely. But I believe that teaching is a calling, not just a job or even a career, and as such it is so demanding that you must believe in the value of what you are doing or you will be miserable. So I guess my final piece of advice to new teachers is this: If you find yourself questioning the value of your work (and you probably will because the system is stacked against you), it is okay to take a step back. This doesn’t necessarily mean quitting. It might just mean saying no to some of the thousands of things asked of you every day to focus on the things you actually want to give. And whether you teach for 30 years or 30 days, if you truly believe in the value of what you have to offer, you will make a difference.
Have a great school year,
P.S. Send me some Flair pens!
P.P.S. Because teachers are still paper junkies, here’s a handy-dandy motivational printable!