Now that all the papers and projects are graded, my grades are submitted (after three tries and two days), graduation is over, and the secret snack drawer in my desk is cleaned out, I can finally reflect on this school year…
I officially survived my first year of solo teaching at a new school!
More importantly, so did the kids.
My first year of teaching was a wild ride. In addition to moving 300 miles from home, without the prospect of a job or place to live, and only having one year of student teaching under my belt, I somehow managed to land a job at an amazing school with a killer administrative staff, incredibly welcoming and supportive colleagues, and sweet and driven kids.
I finished my first year with very few majorly negative incidents to speak of, I somehow collected a handful of (unsolicited) votes for Teacher of the Year, was Teacher of the Issue in the May issue of the school paper, built some wonderful new friendships, and over all, I’m not sure I could have imagined a better first year.
Despite how it might sound, my first year of teaching wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine. It was really tough sometimes, and there were a few tears, but a big part of teaching is learning – and man, did I learn a lot! So much so, that I thought I’d save my fellow new teachers a little bit of legwork and frustration by paying it forward and giving my top 10 new teacher tips that no one has told you.
In college and our various programs, we are given SO much advice; however the following are tips and tricks that I didn’t pick up in college, but through my own experiences and with the guidance of my amazing veteran teacher friends and colleagues. Once I figured these things out, I was able to have a life outside of planning and grading. I even often received the compliment that I seemed “too calm and organized for a first year.” Whoa!
I hope you find the below tips helpful, and good luck and congratulations on your first year(s) in this amazing profession!
1. You (Probably) Don’t Need A Portfolio
My first piece of first year advice actually comes before you get the job. Throughout my credential program, I was told that I would need a portfolio to show to prospective employers. In my experience (and the experiences of every newly employed teacher I know), this is not true. Yes, having good lessons ready to go is ideal, but no potential employer has ever asked me to provide sample lesson plans or student work. As long as you know what your strengths and weaknesses in the classroom are, are prepared to discuss some past lessons, and know what your philosophy and approach to teaching is, you will generally give your interviewer(s) everything they need.
2. Ask For Help
You’ve probably heard that “there is no such thing as stealing in education.” This is true. But before you go searching the web for everything, ask your colleagues and friends for help. I feel that as new teachers, we often don’t take things from our peers when they are first offered. Instead, we have to prove something by scrolling through Teachers Pay Teachers and Pinterest and Google for 16 hours before we realize that we don’t need to reinvent the wheel. Your first year isn’t about being the most innovative and memorable teacher — that may come with time, but this year, your focus is to put forth your best effort, make the kids feel comfortable and safe, and teach solid content that meets standards. That is why it is so crucial in your first years to ask for help from your colleagues and use the resources available to you rather than doing all the legwork yourself. I have never had a friend or colleague tell me no when I asked for material, nor has anyone been offended when I made tweaks to their content in order to make it fit my needs.
Asking for help means asking parents and guardians too – reach out to parents and ask for materials. Your first years are going to be your most expensive, but parents are often happy to help, as long as they know how. Put a list of donation suggestions in your syllabus, make it known at Back To School Night and Open House, and don’t be shy when asked what you need help with.
3. Don’t Grade Everything
Near the end of the fall semester, as I was sitting at my desk trying to finish grading notebooks, essays, and tests, when a colleague dropped in to check on me. This colleague gave me some very valuable advice: “Don’t grade everything – cut some of the shit out.” Huh. I hadn’t thought of not grading everything. I took this advice with me into the next semester, and it helped. I felt guilty at first, but students didn’t notice when some things went ungraded, because whether points were attached to it or not, it wasn’t busy work — it all served a purpose in teaching them a specific skill or concept. Lightening up the amount of grading I did was a huge gift to myself. Now I had time to invest in planning or just, you know, having a life outside of work. Because I still conducted formative assessments routinely, I still had a sense of what my students did and did not understand, but now it the benefit of not having to grade every piece of paper.
4. Eat Lunch in Different Places
As a new teacher, it’s important to get to know the people around you, both in and out of your department. There’s a teacher on my campus who eats lunch in a different place and with different staff every day. While I didn’t venture out that far, I did make sure to switch up where I ate – some days I would spend lunch on my floor, other times on the floor below me, and some days I would go to the main lounge. In doing this, I got closer to my colleagues and got different perspectives on class-related questions I had. Whether you visit different places on lunch or not, it is important to get out of your room – do not spend every lunch alone or working in your room! On my floor, we even check in on one another if someone hasn’t been spotted in the lounge lately (when I started, I was told I was not allowed to stay in my room for more than two days per week — I am so thankful they held me to this!). Get out of your room and make some professional and personal contacts — you need them to save your sanity!
5. Don’t Say “Yes”
This doesn’t necessarily mean say “no,” but it means use “yes” with discretion. As teachers, we want to help, and sometimes this makes us suckers. Saying yes to buying fundraiser items or doing supervision for school functions is one thing, but when you are asked to advise a club or oversee something on campus, take some time to think it over. Make sure you know up front what is expected of you and what your time commitments are. I learned this early in the year when I agreed to advise a club. Within weeks I was informed that as the club’s advisor, I was expected to attend weekend meetings as well as a convention over spring break… uh, what?!? Luckily, they found another advisor when I told them I couldn’t give that much time, but had I thought to ask up front and make my boundaries clear, both the club and I could have saved ourselves a lot of stress.
6. Have a “Good Guy” File
When I was in college, a professor told me that there would be times during my teaching career when I would feel overwhelmed and under-appreciated. For days like these, she said, a “good guy” file is key. This is a file full of the little things students do to remind you that you’re amazing (you are, by the way, amazing). I have a file on my laptop that has pictures of notes students have left on the whiteboard and pictures we’ve taken, and I have a physical folder with notes and cards from students. On bad days, it’s the boost my ego and heart need to keep me going.
7. Have a Time Out Corner
“Time out” here means you time. Put yourself on time out in a sacred, a kid-free corner. 99% of your classroom is dedicated to your kids — making them comfortable, showing off their work, bulletins and announcements, course-focused posters… but this is your environment too, and you should have a space that caters to you. Your classroom is your home away from home, so pick a spot to decorate, put up pictures of friends and family, have a comfy chair or pillow, keep a blanket, stash some snacks in a drawer – do things that make this markedly your spot. Having a space that is solely yours and off-limits to students will do a lot for you mentally. This is a space to get comfy to grade and plan, or to recharge with a nap or a snack and cup of tea on your prep… which brings me to my next point…
8. Take Your Prep Seriously
Your prep period is sacred. You may give in to the temptation to answer a knock on your door or to let students make up tests during this time, but your prep time is your time. You might grade and plan, or you might feel the need to take a walk or a nap. I have done all of these things. If the weather is nice, I’ll usually walk across campus to check my mail and make copies, or just to get some and fresh air. I might lock the door and turn off all the lights and take a nap, or I’ll pick a podcast, grab a stack of work, and start grading. On occasion, I’ve even taken a short drive up to the nearest coffee shop before settling back into my time out corner to get things done. The point is, your prep is your time to do what you need and want to do. Cherish this time!
9. Take Your Days Off
Teacher burnout is real. We work too hard and we forget to care about ourselves. If you’re like me, teaching is the first profession in which you’ve been told to take days off when you need them, and I cannot express to you how important it is to take a day off when you are getting sick, are sick, or are feeling the burnout. This has been such a novel idea for me, and one that I am still trying to get used to. In all my past jobs, taking a sick or personal day meant being wracked with guilt for not being somewhere I’m needed. In this line of work however, my colleagues remind me when I’m feeling under the weather or am visibly overworked but try to push through anyways, to take a day off. We have sick and personal days for a reason, so use them! You can’t take care of your students if you aren’t taken care of.
10. Set Boundaries
Speaking of burnout, the most important piece of advice I can give is to set boundaries. Set boundaries with the time you are willing to give up for students, for how much time you devote to grading, for how much work you take home. If you don’t set boundaries, you’re doomed to live 24/7 in teacher mode – always thinking about the grading and planning to be done and unable to talk about anything other than work. It helps to know from the get-go what your boundaries are, and to make them known. I made the mistake of telling my students and parents that they can always reach me via email, and some were pretty upset when I established a new “no emails after 6pm” policy. In my experience, it is best to have these boundaries outlined from the start, and I am absolutely writing my email response and office hours in my syllabus this upcoming year.
I also find that it helps to have someone at home to give you a gentle reminder to snap out of teacher mode for the night when you’re still sitting up in bed grading at midnight. In my first year, I spent too much time grading in bed or sitting on my phone planning during social gatherings. The result? Often not being present and feeling disconnected from my own life. The solution? Ask for help. Use what’s available to you. Set limits. And remember why you got into teaching in the first place — you’re making a difference in young lives, so keep your chin up. The first years are the hardest, but you are part of a community that wants to see you succeed!
I hope this list is useful and helps you prepare for some aspects of preparing to teach that you may not have considered before – I know I hadn’t thought of many of these before I began. I’m sure I will continue to add to this list as time goes on, and if you have some lesser-known new teacher survival tips, please let me know in the comments below!