10 Tips for New Teachers:
Before I share my tips, I want to explain where they come from. I feel that my background in social work helped truly shaped me as a teacher. I understand if you want to skip my background and go right to the numbered list below!
My journey to teaching was NOT a typical one, and could have gone very differently. I accepted my first teaching position with zero education experience. I got very lucky, countless times. And part of this luck was being surrounded by the most amazing people that taught me all of the strategies I use today. I hope sharing my story along with my favorite passed-down advice will help you too 🙂
I studied criminal justice, Spanish, and psychology in undergrad. Two months before graduating in 2011, I was offered a job in the social work field as an Intensive Care Coordinator. The supervisor had seen me translating in Salem Juvenile Court (internship, thank you Endicott for requiring 3 of them) and was in need of a Spanish speaking ICC. I jumped at the opportunity. I had a feeling I wouldn’t want to be in social work forever, but it was a job offer and I was about to graduate with no other firm plan. So I jumped in. And for almost two years, I enjoyed working in the social work field surrounded by some of the most wonderful people I have ever met.
As I approached my second summer as an ICC, I started to think about my long term plan. Did I want to go back to school to earn my LICSW? Not really. Did I enjoy my job? Yes. Did I work with the most amazing people and families and children? Also yes. But I also cried a lot. I struggled with repeated trauma of children, and the seemingly very repetitive cycle of the court system. I also had a hard time having a work cell phone and being on-call at night for emergency situations. My department was “the last step before hospitalization” for many children. I lived within the community that we served, which on top of the on call / cell phone made separating my personal time from work time a very difficult task. (For this reason, I will not live in the town where I teach. I understand many love this. Because of my history, it simply isn’t for me.)
My oldest sister has been a science teacher for 20+ years. I have always looked up to her, and when I was younger I used to take “sick” days from my own school to be her assistant for the day at HER school. I should have known I wanted to be a teacher back then! Anyways, I decided to take the MTELS that summer. I printed a few practice tests, signed up (for all three tests in one day? WHY!?) and passed. Again, this was lucky. I am not taking credit away from myself, but acknowledging that things could have gone very differently.
A few weeks later, I had one interview at a middle school in my home town, and one at a regional high school in my state that I had never heard of. The middle school position was a .6 (not full time), and the regional high school was offering full time but only as a 1 year long term sub. I decided to take the risk and go for the long term sub position, since I had a feeling I would prefer high school and because I thought the full time experience would be more valuable for me. I had a wonderful year and I was surrounded by some of the most supportive and truly KIND people I have ever met. Much of the advice below comes directly from them. They are the reason I survived my first year teaching… and also the reason I survived a more difficult second year at another school.
((For the record, I promise that I have since gotten a Master’s Degree and am actually now at Master’s +75, having taken 30+ education and technology courses 😉 I may have jumped right into the deep end, but I did go back and learn to swim!))
I truly feel that my years in social work combined with the support I received at my first school truly made me the teacher who I am today. I spent my second year teaching at a school that simply wasn’t for me, and decided to take a risk and move again for my third year to a district that I now call home. Many, MANY people questioned my decisions along the way. And as I have said, things could have gone very differently for me. But somehow, they didn’t. And I’m here. And I have been in my district for 6 years (!) now and have again gotten very, very lucky. I am surrounded by colleagues who are simply the best. As I enter my 8th year teaching, I want to reflect on the things that have absolutely helped me to not only survive, but thrive in this career that I decided to love and thank goodness has loved me back.
1. “Just survive.”
In my first district, I had a mentor that must have been sent from heaven. If I ever decide to mentor a new teacher, it will be because I simply owe so much to Jim and need to pay it forward. When I asked him for advice on the first day I met him, he told me to “just survive” the year. He told me it was my job to keep my head above water, and nothing else. He wasn’t trying to be harsh, or to make me feel inadequate. This was one of the best teachers in that school telling me to “just”. He was dedicated, ran the senior internship program, spoke only in Spanish to his students, and was widely respected by all I met. And yet, he wasn’t giving me advice on how to be HIM. He was giving me honest, human advice. He wanted me to know that it was OK to struggle. It was OK to not try to be perfect. He motivated me to ask for as much help as I needed, and I did. I would email him on the weekends, and meet with him in the afternoons. He would always bring me back to center, reminding me that I WAS doing “enough” and that more would come later.
That first day we spoke, he also told me that he honestly didn’t remember most of his first year teaching. Another teacher was there, and he laughed and agreed! They said that the purpose of your first year is to survive, and THEN reflect. I laughed with them, but I remember thinking “yeah, ok buddy. I’m going to remember this year.” But if I’m being honest… I don’t remember much. I taught mostly out of the textbook and I didn’t create much of my own material. BUT IT WAS VALUABLE. For both me, and the students. My students learned (Spanish 1, 2, and 3… I had 5 different preps that year) and so did I. I learned how to connect with my students. I learned some things that worked for me, and lots of things that didn’t. I learned how to set limits for myself as well as for my students. I survived.
2. “Ask me that next year.”
During my first year teaching, I would consistently ask my department head Nancy for constructive feedback. I would ask her after each observation, or just during general conversations. I wanted to know what I could improve. How could I improve this project, how could I improve my communication in the target language, how could I have better classroom management … how could I…. how could I…
Instead of giving me lists and lists of things to work on, she would remind me of my strengths. She would tell me to focus on those. If I kept asking, she would say “ask me that next year,” or “you can work on that next year.” (Yes I was only in that district for one year, but she really did mean it. If I emailed her today, she’d answer because she’s simply lovely, even though she has since retired.) She suggested that within my first few years teaching, I focus on just one or two things each year. “Maybe this year, you focus on making your lessons really engaging. Next year, you can focus on your quizzes. The following year, you can make sure your projects are awesome. Don’t do it all at once.” She wanted me to build brick by brick. She wanted me to feel really confident in one area before moving onto the next. She didn’t want me to get overwhelmed, because she knew I would try to take on too much at once. She was very, very right. And I am so grateful that she allowed me to simply be and grow as a first year teacher.
3. “Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.”
As I said in #2, I would often ask my mentor and department head for advice during my first year. They were both so wonderful that I looked up to them and wanted to be like them.
One Saturday morning, I woke up to an email from my mentor. There was no subject line, and no text in the email. Instead, it was a link to an article with this title. “Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.” The article was about embracing where you are. It was about accepting your beginning struggles, and giving yourself some grace. When you look at someone who has been teaching for 8 years, you only see the strategies and techniques they have developed over those 8 years. You don’t see all of the things they tried that didn’t work. You don’t see their failures. And so it is very, very unfair to yourself to hold yourself to that expectation.
That article really helped me survive my first year and accept myself as a growing educator. I think it was the most valuable email I have ever gotten, and it came unprompted at 9am on a Saturday morning.
4. Find your people
No matter where you are teaching during your first year, please find your people. Find one or two people (or more, but it doesn’t have to be many to be valuable!) who you simply connect with. Surround yourself with the people who bring you up, and not down. The people who want to help you, not compete with you. You don’t have to connect with everyone, or collaborate with everyone, but it is very difficult to try to survive alone. In foreign language I know there are many “departments of 1” where you do not have foreign language colleagues. That’s OK! A teacher in another department can still provide the type of support I’m talking about.
If you are surrounded by people who are unhappy, that unhappiness will spread. If you eat lunch every day with someone that complains about coworkers, or students, or hates on your principal, those feelings will spread. If you surround yourself with people who motivate you to be creative, and provide constructive solutions when issues arise, those ideas and feelings will spread. Which fire would you rather fuel?
I also motivate you to reach out to other teachers in your field online. I have met so many wonderful teachers through instagram and @teachmorespanish… and I know I can turn to these people with my deepest worries or struggles. They will not judge me, they will only listen and support. And as teachers we need these people.
5. Allow yourself to develop your own teaching style
As a new teacher, it is important and so helpful to observe other teachers. You can learn so much from them, and get ideas for what might work for you in your classroom. During your first few years, however, it is also easy to observe strong teachers and feel like you want to be just like them. But the reality is, there is no cookie cutter for teachers. You cannot force yourself to behave just like someone else. You will most likely find pieces of yourself while observing other teachers, and that is key. Teaching is not a one size fits all profession! You cannot simply observe a teacher and try to be just like them. If you try that, you will most likely stress yourself out and leave yourself feeling inadequate. That’s because you are your own person, and your teaching style will be truest when you let your personality help shape it. A classroom management strategy that works for one teacher may not work AT ALL for you. You may end up feeling like you are forcing something, or being fake. Ok so maybe their management strategies don’t work for you, but you love that teacher’s participation policy. But maybe you can make THAT work for you. It is absolutely OK to take pieces and strategies from other teachers along the way, but please don’t force yourself to become what you see in someone else. You deserve your own style. You deserve to enjoy your career every day. You deserve to be yourself. What fun would it be to come to work every day just to try to be someone else?
6. Collaborate, don’t compete
Teaching is hard. You know that and I know that. What makes teaching harder? Feeling like you aren’t good enough, or feeling like you can’t ask for help. As a new teacher it is easy to feel like you have to prove yourself as capable, deserving, able. Some easy ways to do this are to try to do everything on your own. “I have to prove I can!” …. no you don’t. You absolutely do not have to do everything on your own. Your world will become a much happier place if you open up to collaborate with your colleagues. Ask for help. Offer help. Offer ideas. Don’t be insulted if someone doesn’t use your idea… and still offer the next idea. Try things that other teachers suggest. If they don’t work for you, OK! If they do work for you… OK! Yeah! Collaboration is never 50/50 and isn’t always perfect. Sometimes you need more help, and sometimes you are the one that can offer the help. Don’t keep track. Just keep going 🙂
7. Rate your days objectively
I have written about this in another blog post, but I feel it is worth repeating. During my third or fourth year teaching, I was having a hard time seeing myself as a teacher for the long-haul. I would have a bad day, and think to myself “Wow this is the worst. I can’t do this.” I would tell my friends how I was miserable and wasn’t sure I was going to survive. One of my friends came up with an idea. He works in tech, but now that I think about it his mom is a teacher. So he understood my cry for help. He suggested that in my planner, I start rating every day on a scale of -5 to 5. He said I could only rate a day a -5 if it would be considered one of the worst days of the year. And 5s were reserved for absolutely perfect, dreamlike days. He suggested I do this for two weeks, without stressing too much about the numbers, and then check in with him at the end.
At the end of the two weeks, none of my days had been in the negatives. I had a few days that were 2s, but most of my days were 3s and 4s. He asked me then, did I think I was happy as a teacher? And I realized that yes. Small difficult moments during my days had made me feel like I was drowning. I was focusing on those small moments instead of focusing on the big picture.
If I ever start to feel down, I start thinking about this scale. And by the end of the day, I usually write down a 4 🙂
8. Be kind to yourself
Please find small ways to be kind to yourself. My favorite ideas:
1. Allow yourself to buy your favorite coffee on Friday mornings.
2. Choose one night a week that you commit to bring NO work home. For me, it was always Monday. Now, I am much better about leaving work at school in general. At the beginning, I needed to start with small steps.
3. Do something right after school for you. This could be going for a walk, or having a dance party in your car.
4. Cry if you need to. Ask for help if you need to. You do not need to be perfect. Teaching is hard.
5. Speak up for yourself. This is much easier said than done. But if you do not speak up for yourself, nobody else will. This is not harsh, it is reality.
6. Do not give up your hobbies. You deserve to have a life outside of school. Hold onto yourself, and your favorite things.
7. Give yourself some grace. Some nights after work, I simply cannot be social. At all. My energy has been spent and while I desire company, I don’t have much to offer in return. It feels like I need to literally recharge before having the energy to interact again. Full honesty here: On these nights, I want my husband to sit with me and watch TV, but I do not want to talk. It sounds ridiculous, but it’s what works for me. Find what works for you and allow yourself to ask for it. Do not judge yourself for what you need.
9. Allow yourself to say “NO” sometimes
I have always been a YES person. This past year, my 7th year teaching, was the first year I ever “just” taught. I had always coached and/or ran a club at school… and outside of school I had always, tutored, waitressed, tended bar… you name it. As a new teacher I felt like I had to volunteer for everything and say yes to everything. Then I realized… if you are a YES person you might become THE person. It’s not bad to be the person that gets asked to volunteer for X, Y, and Z… but at a certain point you realize that you have a personal life. You are a person. You are a teacher, but you are also more than a teacher. Your personal time is already limited, and it is so valuable. If I continued to say yes to absolutely everything, I may have started to resent my job. And not because I don’t enjoy it, but because of all the extras I felt I was *supposed* to do. And not to be negative, but your job/career does not depend on all of the extras you say “yes” to. There is no reward for being the earliest at school and the last one out. I promise. If you look around at the more experienced teachers, you may notice that they volunteer but not for *everything.* I originally thought this was because they were jaded, or didn’t like their jobs. Nope! Not necessarily. It’s just because they’ve discovered the importance of BALANCE! If you are a female, in my opinion this is especially important for us. We feel the need to say sorry more, explain ourselves more… to give more. But please find your balance. Allow yourself to say no every once in awhile. I am not saying say no to everything — I am just asking, please allow yourself to acknowledge that the word no exists.
10. Build relationships first
Focus on connecting with your students and getting to know what matters most to them. I promise you that if you do this first, everything else will come easier. Classroom management will be easier. Work completion, effort, participation… everything changes. It is like a domino effect. I really started focusing on student relationships about 4 years ago, and it has been the shift that made the biggest change for me. When I was a new teacher, I was always told to be firm! Make sure they respect you! Of course you still here the old “Don’t smile until Christmas” every once in awhile. I had emailed one of the teachers from my own high school for advice when I started teaching. I emailed him this lengthy explanation about my switch from social work, thanking him for his guidance in high school and asking him for some advice as a new teacher. He sent me back a short email with basically one line; “Remember, they aren’t your friends.” UM, WHAT?! This was the worst piece of advice I have ever gotten. I know my students aren’t my friends. and I know how to set boundaries… but this “advice” scared me! I went into teaching thinking I had to be this strong authoritative figure. But that’s just not ME. I’m not “authority.” I’m soft-spoken. I turn red easily. I like to joke around. Maybe it is more your style to be tougher, and that’s fine! But for me, I can treat my students with respect and set high and firm expectations without being overly-authoritative. I develop a mutual respect with them… and honestly I much prefer that approach. So my one line email to you? It would say “Remember, respect them first.” I promise you that many more aspects of your teaching style will come easily to you if you allow yourself to be a human teacher that makes honest mistakes and also makes connections with others. You don’t need to be a big scary teacher to be a big effective one 😉
I truly love my job and I am so grateful for the advice and guidance that has helped me to make it this far. I know I didn’t speak much about Spanish content in this post, but I feel these are the things that make me who I am as a teacher. They have all helped me to survive and balance my sense of self with who I am as a teacher. Thank you for reading, and I hope you have a great first (or second, or twentieth) year 🙂
Thank you for reading!