By Andrew Hawk
Years ago, I attended a multiple-day workshop on how to mentor first-year teachers. A large portion of the training called on the participants to reflect on their first year of teaching. We (there were about thirty of us) shared stories of the difficulties we faced during our first year. While no two stories were the same, some basic themes were easily identified. Teaching candidates spend four or more years daydreaming about being a teacher. They show up full of excitement. This is often followed by a period of dismay as they realize how taxing it can be to teach. The new teachers then start a slow recovery that usually lasts the rest of the school year.
The trainers at the workshop were really insightful. I remember one of them telling us that the first year of teaching “is the best and worst year of a teacher’s life.” This is one of the truest statements I have ever heard regarding teaching. Here are ten things that I wish I had known prior to the best and worst year of my life:
- You do not have to be so self-conscious. Everywhere I went in my school, I worried that I was being judged by my peers, especially regarding my line procedures. I was always asking myself if I was fitting in with the rest of the teachers. The worst part was, my colleagues were great coworkers. All of my worries were in my own head. Trust me: Veteran teachers understand the challenges of teaching for the first year. It is far more likely for experienced teachers to view a new teacher with empathy rather than judgment.
- Don’t get behind on grading. Work that needs to be graded stacks up fast. Our generation of teachers tend to like to do projects in place of worksheets. These projects often require more time to grade. One problem is that new teachers have not fully developed a lesson-planning system yet. While trying to figure out how to plan for daily instruction, it is all too easy to let grading get log-jammed. Take it from me, stay caught up on your grading.
- Assign the right amount of homework. I assigned too much. The worst part was, when parents complained, I felt like they were not supportive of their students’ education. The truth is, parents are often people who work all day. When they come home, they would like a little quality time with their children before going to bed. Spending an hour or two arguing about homework is often frowned upon by parents. I do not remember where I learned this, but ten minutes of homework per grade level is a good rule of thumb. This means a first grader would do ten minutes of homework per night, a second grader twenty minutes, a third grader thirty minutes, and so on.
- Know how to please your principal. I’ve heard several first-year teachers complain about the feedback they received from their principal. Often they go out of their way to plan an exciting lesson for their observation and are disappointed when the principal does not ooh and awe as much as they’d expected. Experienced principals have seen most lessons in one form or another. Once a preservice teacher has been hired, he or she may rest assured that the hiring principal thinks he or she is a good lesson planner. If you want to please your principal, do something to make the principal’s life easier. Volunteer for an extra duty. Show up for extracurricular events. Things like these will get noticed fast and be appreciated by your principal.
- Don’t forget to vary teaching strategies. All through college, preservice teachers are told that it is imperative to vary instructional strategies. While trying to navigate the first year of teaching, it is all too easy to latch on to what seems to work best. The problem is that students enjoy variety. In addition, if you are using only a handful of strategies, you probably are not serving all of the multiple intelligences that are present in your classroom. When you start developing your lesson-planning habits, remember to vary teaching strategies.
- Realize you’re going to get sick. I remember several people mentioning this when I was in college. However, nothing could have prepared me. It’s not as though you will be in the hospital. You may not even miss work. It is more like a nagging cold that never goes away. Plus, you are working so hard that you don’t get enough rest to recuperate. Even though I got a flu shot, I still had a couple short bouts of the flu and a cold that lasted from January to the beginning of April. Be sure to get a flu shot and take a multivitamin every day.
- It’s hard to get students to focus on special days. Regarding student behavior, the hardest days of the school year are special days. The last day of school, that last day before winter vacation, Valentine’s Day, and picture day are some of the hardest days of the school year. Often, students show up full of excitement on these days. The excitement can translate into misbehavior if the teacher does not plan accordingly. The amount of instruction that is expected on these days is often different from school to school. I would recommend incorporating a lot of activities that involve movement or small group discussion.
- Be smart about working with teaching assistants. Even veteran teachers struggle when working with teaching assistants. I do not remember this ever being mentioned in college. Difficulties vary from teachers feeling self-conscious about having another adult watching them teach to teachers not knowing how to approach the work relationship. Some teachers become too bossy, while others sit back when teaching assistants need support or direction. Some simple advice is to be straightforward about your expectations. Also, try to develop a partnership with the teaching assistant rather than a supervisor/subordinate relationship.
- Know how to communicate with parents. I cannot stress enough how important it is that the first parent-teacher communication be positive. If a parent does not show up at open house, I recommend placing a phone call to make introductions. If the time comes to make a phone call about behavior, be upfront and nonjudgmental. A certain amount of resistance is to be expected. Also, do not get too wordy and do not use jargon when talking to parents.
- Build relationships with students. This item is regarding student behavior. Most classes have one or more students who don’t seem to want to listen to the teacher. Developing a relationship with these students will work wonders. Invite them to have lunch with you. If you keep them in at recess, sit and have a conversation with them. Find time to spend with these students. These challenging students need to see their teacher as more than just another adult giving orders to them.
Andrew Hawk has worked in public education for fourteen years, starting as a teaching assistant in a special education classroom. He has taught first, second, and fifth grade as a classroom teacher, and for the past three years, has worked as a resource room teacher, providing services for fourth and fifth graders. Working as a special education teacher has given him the opportunity to work with a variety of age groups and exceptionalities. In 2011, he earned his master’s degree in special education from Western Governor’s University. When Andrew is not preparing for school, he enjoys spending time with his wife and daughter.
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This really looks like a comprehensive list, Andrew. I’d perhaps add ‘be mindful of your own wellbeing’. Life balance and burnout is notoriously prevalent in pre-service teachers. There is a lot to worry about day-to-day, as your list points out. I’d advise young teachers make sure they have the right communication and support networks, to contextualize their school days. That’s really the most important thing. Without a solid foundation, these skills will never even be able to be utilized.
Liam from PRAC-E
I soaked all of this up! I work as a SWD Para and am currently working towards my BAISK8 degree at WGU. I really appreciate the perspective that was shared here. Something that I especially took in is the reminder that the other teachers are likely looking at you in an empathetic way. I have seen teachers pass in the hall when one is having a challenging day, and they give each other knowing glances and grins rather than any version of an unkind response. Thank you for that reminder, because it really is important to have the most respectful interpretation of the actions of others. Another thing that I especially appreciated was the suggestion to spend some quality time connecting with students who are communicating by making poor behavior choices. The suggestions of when that might take place were simple and would be effective. Thank you for taking the time to share your insights!
Good advice. I think it is important that supervisors of pre-service teachers are honest about the work that is involved in teaching. They need strategies for working effectively, as well as for survival.