I may not remember much about the first half of September through December of last year, but I do remember this day perfectly.
It was a few days after hosting Thanksgiving. I had just finished grading 47 essays. I had seven preps. I was having doubts about my teaching abilities. I was exhausted and I was stressed. I spent little time sleeping and a lot of time working and even more time wondering if I was really cut out to do this– if I really could make it to the end of the school year.
I handed back the essays that following Tuesday; my students were visibly upset. They felt I had graded too harshly. One crumpled up their essay and threw it in the trash as they left. Another told me (respectfully) how upset they were with me.
I remember being so taken aback (so much, in fact, that I let the extremely disrespectful behavior of paper crumpling slide, and also that I had to remind myself that I am the teacher who gives the grades, not them); I remember how the alone I felt in that empty classroom, despite the noisy hallway of passing students. I remember standing there, with the door closed and the lights off, taking deep breaths and blinking back the tears I couldn’t, wouldn’t allow to come. I put on my game face and got through the rest of my (thankfully) short day.
Source: LA Johnson/NPR
I recall feeling like I was on the edge of a nervous breakdown when I left work that day. I was grateful that I had had just a half day that day– and that I wouldn’t run into anyone– students or staff— on the tram that afternoon on my way home.
I remember coming home and starting to cry. I remember thinking to myself, “I really, really don’t know if I can do this. How am I going to get through this year? Am I really cut out for this profession? My students will never pass and they will suffer because I am so terrible. I’m never going to get ahead and I’m never going to get better.”
I frequently had this scene of La La Land running through my head.
Shortly afterwards I stumbled upon a poignant article entitled, Hey New Teachers, It’s Okay to Cry in Your Car. The article talks about how after the first six or seven weeks of teaching, disillusionment tends to set in– October and November can truly be some of the most grueling, intense months for new teachers. There were also a few quotes that hit home. One teacher quotes herself saying, “Lots of jobs are hard,” says Elden, “But with teachers, it’s like, ‘Wow, I’m hurting kids because I’m as bad as I am.’ You have these exaggerated thoughts like, ‘Well, what if I break my leg? I’d get three weeks off.'” Funnily enough, the article finishes with, “The students from this class are in their 20’s now. I’m friends with many of them on Facebook, and they don’t seem to have been permanently scarred by the mistakes,” and, “You want to be that amazing teacher from Day 1, but you have to recognize it takes time,” she says. “It’ll get better.”
Thankfully, my first year teaching full time at the international bilingual school did get better. I got better. I gained confidence. I faked it ’til I made it. I learned the system and I learned the dynamics of my classes and my students. I recognized my mistakes, but even better I began to also recognize my successes and my triumphs. My colleagues were nothing but extremely supportive and helpful, and I made some great lifelong friends this year. But the best thing? My 12th graders / Terminales passed the Baccalauréat in English with an 18 average– I had done something right. Booyah! I’ve never felt so proud. A few of them even thanked me for such a wonderful year when we all met for the results in July.
So, low and behold, I present to you a list of do’s, don’ts, and confessions of a first year teacher. Hopefully with this, I’ll be able to help you avoid mistakes I’ve made as well as pass on some of areas in which I was able to succeed this year.
- As a first-year teacher, the most important thing to focus on is your classroom management. Have a plan for rules and expectations, discipline, grading, absent students, and parents. Become familiar with your school’s or district’s disciplinary policies (assuming there is one.) Make this clear on the first day, implement it, and stay consistent, especially during the first few weeks. I cannot stress the importance of setting limits enough, because man oh man, after two years teaching at the university, I had a lot to relearn. And believe me, as I speak from experience– if you do not establish this within the first week, it is going to be a really long year. Laura Randazzo’s videos, resources, and blog was literally my God send. My students and parents now sign a contract stating that they understand my classroom expectations– and then I am able to refer to this when dealing with discipline.
- Curriculum will come with time; just do what you can. Sites such as Teachers Pay Teachers, Teach It, TES, as well as your colleagues will become your best friends (and resources) this year. Stick to familiar works of literature and ready-made materials at first, and adapt what is necessary, especially if you are inheriting a heavy class load.
- Students like and need structure (especially the more difficult classes). Make sure your classes are structured and you have a routine– plan more than what is necessary. Do not let that little bit of downtime linger for even a minute. It will quickly turn to chaos.
- Be sure to sleep, exercise and take care of yourself. Get a hobby. Seriously. Do not underestimate the power of sleep. I found that some of my worst and most stressful days correlated with a lack of sleep and exercise. Don’t let that American rat race mentality sink in. There’s a lot to be said for self-care. You are worth it and you’ll be better at your job because of the time you took for your own well-being and hobbies. Sometimes, work can wait.
- It doesn’t matter if your students like you or not. However, it does make the job more enjoyable– and students like you when they respect you (and you respect them.) This comes from an established classroom management plan (see number 1). But above all remember, your popularity and likability among students does not equal job security. First and foremost, you are there to teach and they are there to learn. You are the teacher and the adult.Students are teenagers and teenagers are children. (Although I do admit that I found this gets easier to deal with over time, and with a larger age gap.)
- Be gentle with yourself, and don’t underestimate yourself. You’re probably doing a better job than you think you are. I had to overcome a lot of confidence issues I had this year, in regards to my job and my competences (more specifically, confidence issues I had in other areas of life which spilt into the classroom.) I had to remind myself that I was hired for a reason. My students’ results were good; my observations were positive; my ideas were fresh; my colleagues and staff supported me and backed me up. I’m not going to make the students dumber, in any case. I also had to learn that new teachers are humans and that humans make mistakes.
- Be open to feedback from staff and students, and ask for help when you need it. Constructive criticism in the form of observations from colleagues, department heads and admins are a good thing– this is how you get better. Surveys and questionnaires regarding assessments, learning, and progress among students can be beneficial to both you and them. Finally, I never hesitated to ask for help– to pool resources, to look things over, etc.
- Keep it Simple and Go Deep. The best professional development seminar I attended this year was a UbD (Understanding by Design) Conference. In a nutshell, when creating a unit of study: First decide what the overall learning goals / targets are. Then decide how the students will demonstrate said acquired skills through various assessments. Then come the individual lessons. Make room for adjustments and changes. The best lessons are those which the students speak 90% of the time. State the learning goals/ expectations before each lessons. Trial and error is key. Keep it simple, go deep.
When I look back on the year, I know I did the best possible job I could have done with the resources I had and the class load given to me. Did I make plenty of mistakes? Yes. But did I do some (or even a lot of things) right? YES! Did I try to do the best I could for my students? Absolutely. Did I make improvements and learn from my mistakes? You know it. Did my students succeed and learn, despite the ups and downs? Of course. Am I a terrible person who deserves nothing but to drown in my own sorrows because I wasn’t a perfect, flawless teacher from day one? Wtf? No.
The only way to go is up. Although I am soaking up the summer vacation, I am already looking forward to this upcoming year, because I know it will be easier and I know I will have improved immensely. I guess it shows that I’m in the right profession.
Have you completed your first year of teaching? Do you remember how difficult (or easy!) your first year of teaching was? Do you have any advice to add? I’d love to hear your stories or thoughts in the comments section.