When I think back on my own journey towards becoming the warrior-teacher I am today, I laugh gently at myself for the mistakes I made along the way. Especially the mistakes I made with my very first group of students. Wherever those wonderful souls are today, I’m sending you all the love in the world for living through those first months of teaching with twenty-two year old me. You’re all angels.
Teaching is not a profession for someone who is unwilling to give more than they get. Most weeks we zombie-walk through Fridays simply because our hearts have given so much love and attention to so many kiddos all week that we absolutely need the weekend to recharge. Anyone who tells you that teaching is merely babysitting adolescents and getting summers off has clearly never stepped in front of a classroom full of hormonal teenagers and had to make learning engaging and meaningful.
Today I drove an hour, one way, to check out a space for our group’s prom this coming May. My co-class advisor met me there. Both of us were a bit tired out from the week and our personal lives, yet we were there as two of the students from our class oohed and aahed at the beautiful space. We remembered being so excited for prom, even if the sparkle of the event didn’t appeal to us anymore. It was during this time that I looked at my co-worker and thought, “Her and I have changed so much, even during the four years we have known each other”. I knew I needed to write this post for all the new teachers out there who are watching the veteran teachers and wondering, “How do they do it? How do they make it look so easy?”
The truth is, teaching never was nor will it ever be easy. You will spend some days after school curled up in the fetal position with tears streaming down your face, wondering why in the hell you ever thought you’d be a good fit for this job. There will be days you questions whether you can keep going, and wonder how you are supposed to be a teacher as well as a student’s stand-in parent, therapist, disciplinarian, life coach, guardian and everything else that comes with the job. Teaching is complex and emotional – and the best part about YOU is that you want to help little human beings grow into the most amazing version of themselves possible. That is commendable.
So, here are a few major mistakes I made my first year of teaching that made life harder than it needed to be:
With youth, came this unexplainable self-doubt. Despite the fact that I had spent years developing my skills of Literacy and English Language Arts at a renowned teaching establishment, there was this tiny voice in the back of my mind that questioned whether I was truly qualified to teach humans. At some point during my time in college, I had transitioned from being a kid getting her degree to the adult in the room, and that sudden shift was not something my subconscious was having an easy time with. I was also only two or three years older than some of the students I was teaching, which was very challenging in itself.
“What if they ask me a question I don’t know the answer to?” Immediate cold sweats just thinking about it. I was not a strong public speaker either, having gotten out of many class presentations in high school since most kids whined enough in my class that the teachers just quit assigning them. I had to develop my voice as well as my own inner confidence in a very short amount of time. To say this was a stressful time in my life is quite the understatement.
Advice: This is called imposter syndrome. Don’t listen to that little whiny voice telling you that you are a fraud who is not qualified to teach these amazing little geniuses. They need someone who is exactly like YOU to guide their learning, someone with a heart just like YOURS to foster their hopes and dreams. You chose this career for a reason. Personally, I loved everything about reading and writing, and I wanted to impart that love onto as many kids as I could. Take that voice that says you’re not enough, and snuff it out. Find your confidence. Teach like a rockstar (even if everyone else watching thinks you’re absolutely nuts).
Classroom management – the one aspect of teaching that college neglected to actually prepare me for. I had NO idea how to manage a classroom of students the right way. My greatest mistake was coming in SUPER hard on my upper level students before establishing any sort of relationship with them.
Don’t get me wrong – having high expectations and sticking to them are essential. However, I barely allowed them to twitch in their seat without giving them the evil eye. I was hyper-aware of potential infractions. This, my dear new teacher, only seemed to encourage my students to continue to test me in order to establish just how hard of a line I would draw. It also left me stressed out. I didn’t want to always have to be so strict. I felt like I couldn’t even be myself in my own classroom, because if I let my guard down I imagined they’d all mutiny.
As the months went on and I started to slowly develop relationships with the students. I grew lax in some areas, while remaining hard in others. I was unknowingly giving my students mixed signals about my expectations, and could NOT understand why they weren’t being model students. This led to many tearful drives home, questioning my own adequacy as an educator.
Some days I worried I was too much of a softie, cutting breaks when I knew a kid had a hard home life. Other days, I worried I was too strict for this current generation of kids and obsessed over how to properly police the behavior of my cohort of students. It was a nightmare that lasted for months until the school year ended. I remember feeling miserable, and wishing I could start the year again with the knowledge I had gained from the year itself.
Advice: Before you step in front of your group of students, ask yourself exactly what type of educator you need to be for these kids. Firm and unemotional? Gentle and understanding? Go ask their previous teachers about their personalities, their strengths and weaknesses (yes, even if you’re brand new and you don’t know their previous teachers. I promise you, those teachers are a gold mine of information. They won’t bite, no matter what your anxiety is telling you).
Develop a syllabus that has clear expectations, clear grading policies, and clear consequences for behaviors. Be TRANSPARENT in the type of teacher you are. Let the parents know your rules as well, so that everyone is on the same page. Consistently use your mentor teacher for help and advice. Mostly, whatever you choose, stay the course even if things get bumpy with a student or a parent. Staying consistent is key to avoiding issues, as your expectations were made clear and you are merely upholding them.
I can hear first year teachers rolling their eyes saying, “I would NEVER not plan ahead”. Slow your roll. I did not say that I didn’t plan ahead. I said, I did not plan my year out fully, September to June.
I am a PLANNER and a PERFECTIONIST. I started planning for September and October, using those planning forms that my college gave me for each individual lesson. I estimated the times of lessons, sketching out how long units would take without any true knowledge on how long it actually takes students to transition between activities.
I began the school year with these awesome units for the first two and half months of school, thinking that I’d have time during nights and weekends to continue my perfectionist approach at planning my lessons. None of my pacing was right. Some of my lessons did not fit my students well and had to be scrapped. Last minute changes were a daily thing. My social life slowly dwindled to nothing as I tried to keep up.
Advice: The plain truth is that once the year starts, you have very little time for much your first year of teaching. September through December are a whirlwind of back-to-school and then multiple holidays. Before school begins, sit down with a yearly calendar. The best way I have found to plan is to determine what skills I want to teach during certain parts of the year, then write down the texts I plan to use to teach that skill. I plan out what my final assessment will be, and get the rubric prepared. Then, I can start to dive more into individual daily lessons. I try to have September – February mostly planned out before school starts, because we have a few breaks in the winter that I can use to plan out the rest of the year.
Very few lessons will go to plan, so take it easy on yourself if a few of them bomb. Analyze why things went off-course, reassess and move forward! Just as they tell us to give our students a fresh start each day, give yourself one too. Don’t worry that the kids are judging you over the previous fail – they only use it against you if they can sense that it bothers you. Learn to let the bad days slide off your back and you will be doing just fine.
I think back to my first year and cringe. I woke up and absorbed teacher social media. I went to school and was overly-prepared for each day. Whenever I spoke to my co-workers, the only words coming out of my mouth were around students and assessments and units and school. Bless their sweet hearts for listening to it all and still wanting to associate with me. They knew I was just REALLY excited about teaching and had a million ideas flowing out of me for how I was going to change the state of education. Every new program that came out, I jumped on board. My friends learned more about teaching in those months than they ever wanted to know. My family was SUPER supportive but even they mentioned that I needed to stop spending so many of my weekends re-decorating my bulletin boards.
I wanted to engage my students every second of every class, and in order to do that I had to create visually appealing walls and perform my butt off everyday for the kids. That kind of energy is addicting and the kids loved it… but it wasn’t sustainable. By mid-February I was flat out exhausted. I am a morning person, yet I was having to convince myself to roll out of bed everyday. Coffee became my elixir of life. I was burning out.
Advice: Find actual balance between teaching and your personal life. Draw a HARD line for yourself, and do not “cheat” on it. For example, if you say, “I will not work past 5 PM each night and will only come in on weekends for SPECIAL occasions”, make sure your vehicle tires are turning towards home at 5:01 PM. Those papers you have to grade will still be there tomorrow. As will you, since you took the time to rest from your work, and so can continue showing up everyday for your kids.
Plan one to two high-energy lessons a week, and then more mid- to low-key lessons the rest of the week. Kids will love the variety and you get a break from being non-stop on fire in your teaching. Eat lunch with a trusted co-worker who is positive as a way to get “adult-time” in each day.
Resist the urge to only ever talk about teaching. Some people want to have those conversations, and that’s fine! Just make sure that you are still pursuing your other hobbies and goals, and find the time to talk about those things too. Have a girls night, binge watch your favorite show, go travel… find actual balance.
If you’re a veteran teacher reading this… what mistakes did you make as a first-year teacher that may save future generations some trouble? Comment and share!
New to teaching and wondering if middle school is the right age for you? Here is my post on the realities of teaching that age group.
Need some teacher inspiration? Here are five books that set my teacher heart on fire!
Feeling overwhelmed and need some tips now? Here is my post on Time-Saving Hacks to give you back your sanity.