Confessions of a First Year Teacher

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.

woman-crying_slide-ea85d5be0cf80c17f6e76b28495f3f0cb4b65a52-s800-c85.jpg

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.)
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

Bisous,

Dana

23 thoughts on “Confessions of a First Year Teacher

  1. Hey Dana! I’m a bit late on this post since I was traveling. But it reminds me a lot of this one I wrote after my first year teaching full time:
    https://likeafrog.wordpress.com/2012/06/26/unattainable-resolutions-of-a-professeur-stagiaire-for-next-year/
    I think you should be really proud of the year you’ve had. I know I’ve said it before, but 7 preps is a lot, and I actually think most French teachers wouldn’t put up with it.

    I do have to say that though I agree with you that classroom management (or what the French call “autorité”) is of supreme importance, I think it’s nigh on impossible to hit that note right the first week of your first year. I know I had no idea what the students were capable of and thus setting the right rules was impossible. So even though I know it would have been best to get that down the first week, I also think there’s maybe unnecessary pressure to somehow get that right before you know what you’re getting into—especially if it’s in a foreign culture.

    Anyway, when I get down about some of this stuff (I definitely still do even after six years though it has gotten 10x better), I remind myself of this citation attributed to Mother Teresa (though it’s more of a paraphrase):
    “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.”
    In short, I don’t think I’ll have much effect on my students’ English in any given year—but the love (yes, love) I have for them behind the teaching and the reasons why I do it will hopefully carry over into small progress in, if not always English, their self-confidence, their self-knowledge, their knowledge of other cultures, or any number of things.

    1. Thanks Eileen for your kind and thoughtful comment. It makes me want to be kinder to myself in regards to my struggles with classroom management. “We can do no great things, only small things with great love” is SOOO true. I like what you said about teaching English– it’s not what we teach, but it’s how we make them feel. It’s not the content they remember, but the kindness/dedication/compassion shown. Thanks for being so supportive this year! x

  2. This was a great post to read! As I prepare for my second year as a TAPIF assistant, I’ve realized all that I learned last year and really resonate with some of these; especially 6 & 7. At the beginning of last year I just kept thinking “is what I’m doing in the classroom good? Is it right? Is it helpful? Does it matter?” After I ended up teaching in front of one of the English professors, she came to me after class and told me she thought I was doing a great job and that she was happy to have me as a valuable resource at the school. With that I figured I must be doing something right and that was reflected in my work with the students!

    I hope to remember your advice as I return to France this year, and as I work toward getting into a classroom of my own in the future! Congrats on your bac results and thanks for this post, Dana!

    1. I think the first steps of a good teacher is to be reflective on our lessons and our teaching. It’s always good to have some reassurance (but equally I’m learning to just have more confidence in my abilities.)

      Thank you very much!

  3. I’ve worked in the peripheries of teaching (assistantships, full-time subbing, enrichment classes and camps) for around 5 years now, and have SO MUCH respect for the amount of work that goes into teaching. I sometimes feel like I have a lot on my plate with just prepping lessons, let alone having to stick to a curriculum and devising evaluations on top of it all. Maybe one day I’ll finally bite the bullet and have my owl classroom, but until then, just know I am in awe of all the work you put in and the amazing job I am sure you are doing!!! ❤

  4. wow, this is a great post Dana! I’m going to have to save this for the future when i *hopefully* will have my own classroom one day 🙂

    your advice is SO good and encouraging. Especially number 1, i think classroom management is definitely a big factor in how productive your teaching and class can be. i fear that i may, however, struggle with number 5. i just want everyone to liiike me!! haha, but really, i know i will need to work on this…in the classroom and in my life outside of work, too!

    but all your points are great and im glad your year got better and better! congrats on your bac results for your terminale students, too!

    1. Ha yeah I totally get wanting people to like you– but the truth is not everyone will, and teenagers are just children. You’re there to teach them, and there will always be students who have a problem with you. It gets easier to deal with that over time. I feel like women are also taught growing up that likability is the most important thing and it’s tied to worth– but really it isn’t. And your supervisor cares more about your students’ results and if you are an effective teacher, not if they like you or not. 🙂 thanks always for reading!

  5. This post is an absolute gem for those embarking on a career in teaching, and so many of your do’s and don’t’s really resonate with me – especially #6, as I was constantly putting myself down when I first started as a lectrice, always thinking that I could have done a better job, when the reality was that I did the best I could with the time I had.

    1. Exactly! I feel like as women especially, we feel that extra pressure to be perfect in our careers and without flaws. But we need to remember not to be so hard on ourselves. We are doing fine 🙂

      1. You’re bang on there – and I also think that with teaching it’s easy to compare ourselves to our colleagues and completely forget that they have many more years of experience under their belts 🙂

  6. Congrats for getting through it, Dana. You’re better than you think and I’m sure this post will help a lot of other teachers out there.

  7. SEVEN PREPS?? The Teaching major in me just died a little.. When I was student teaching in the USA I had five classes and four preps, and that was considered a full load! (with one study hall duty and one prep period). I honesty can’t even imagine doing seven preps. I think you fared better than I would have in your position, so props to you!

    1. Yeah, I have a really full load and teach 23 hours instead of the normal 18– but our school is like that because we have shorter classes (45 min. vs the normal 55 min.) among other reasons… I guess it’s more like 6.5 as one class only meets once per week for 45 minutes… but still, they do have to prep for an exam at the end of May.

      When I student taught for French I also had 6 preps (3rd-8th); I remember it being a lot of work but not terrible… I think just after 3 years of assistantship / lectrice work, it was a shock to get back into full-forced teaching, esp. children. No need to have much classroom management with adults!

  8. Thank you for this post Dana! I was a graduate teaching assistant this past year, and unfortunately, because the French department is so small, I did everything aside from write/choose the curriculum/syllabus. I wrote lesson plans, taught lesson plans, wrote tests, and graded, and I had to stick to the syllabus laid out for me by the department head. The amount of times I felt like I completely messed up because of my lack of consistency (which was usually because I was trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t work), trying to learn how to maintain classroom management, trying to make my lesson plans both interesting and helpful, deal with individual students needs/expectations, as well as retaining a firm hand in my expectations all while doing so with students who were only a couple of years younger than me and even with some that were older than me led to many of break-downs. There were days I felt like I wanted to throw in the towel completely. I felt like the worst teacher alive. I’m still trying to figure it all out, but I’m trying to be more patient and accepting with myself. It’s so inspiring to see that I’m not the only one struggling. thank you for sharing!

    1. Given what was all on your plate (an enormous work load, it seems!) it certainly sounds like you did the best you could– probably better than you thought. In fact, I’m sure you rocked it! No one talks about how difficult the first year of teaching is — or perhaps wants to remember it. But it’s brutal! Fortunately it gets better, if we can just push ourselves over the hump! x

  9. I’ve only taught through TAPIF for two years now, but this post really resonated with me. I have a hard time of telling myself that I’m doing an okay job in teaching, even when it doesn’t seem like my students are learning, let alone caring, about English. Also having to constantly remind myself that it’s not all about making the students like you (although it would make teaching more agreeable), but rather a professional relationship between teacher and pupils; as you said, we are here to instruct, and the students are to learn. Still learning to become confident (as well as thicker skin), but your points have given me the boost to help me do better coming into this new year of teaching. Merci beaucoup!

    1. Confidence is key– we have to give public speeches everyday as teachers!! We all want to be liked and it can be so difficult to find that professional balance. Again, it gets easier with time! We all struggle with it and we’ll all get there in the end. Keep working at it, I’m sure you’re doing great!

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