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.
This school year began as most school years do – planning weeks in advance, creating an atmosphere of welcome for my new cohorts, anticipating seeing co-workers again after a long, relaxing summer. I was excited to be starting my fourth year at my district and couldn’t wait to see the new faces in my classes.
There was one, seemingly insignificant, difference. I was dog tired before classes had even started.
In past years, I was always a bundle of energy during Meet The Teacher night and was well-known in my district for being the “over-achiever” who would spend her weekends at the school prepping. This year, I was struggling to find the motivation to type up my usual materials in cute fonts (if you know me at all, cute fonts are everything).
I blamed the energy lag on a few stress factors outside of my control, promised to buckle down even harder on my nutrition and exercise routine (I already ran and lifted weights with a balanced diet), and to start meditating. I figured that it was all in my head and would go away after I got into the swing of things. I told myself that Year 4 must just be “catching up to me”.
It didn’t. My energy lag turned into chronic fatigue. Add to that an increasing brain fog that turned my processing speed to Jell-O, and I was miserable. I started forgetting things, feeling exhausted, and had to make even more lists (than I normally did) just to stay on top of my duties. Life was NOT fun. Teaching was unbearable.
Mid-October, I started noticing that I was down a lot (also VERY out of character). My diet hadn’t changed at all, nor my exercise routine, yet I was starting to gain weight. Only a few pounds, but it was creating a sense of helplessness in me that I had never really experienced before. What was wrong with me? Why couldn’t I snap out of this funk?
Then, Thanksgiving came around and I couldn’t deny that the weights I had normally been lifting easily were a struggle, I was irritable all the time (my poor family), and the glands in my neck were swollen as if I had contracted the world’s worst cold. Yet, I didn’t have any other cold symptoms. I couldn’t handle even the smallest bit of stress without losing it, my eyebrows and eyelashes were thinning out, and I was getting skull-splintering headaches that exploded if I laid my head on my pillow at night.
I begrudgingly scheduled a doctor’s appointment, which was pushed out well past Christmas due to busy schedules, I figured that I’d probably get over it well before then.
I did not take things so lightly when I woke up in the middle of the night during Christmas Break and could not breathe properly. It felt like someone was gently squeezing my throat closed, I couldn’t breathe out of my nose and my eyes were puffy as if I had pigged out on Red Lobster’s signature bread for days. The next day, I was elevated to the top of the appointments list and got in to see my doctor. My lab work found that my thyroid had, essentially, stopped working.
The thyroid functions when the TSH hormone in your body is sent out to inform the thyroid that the body needs more T4 hormone. If you have high levels of TSH in your labwork, that means your thyroid is underperforming and could lead to full-blown hypothyroidism. If your T4 levels are high, then your thyroid is overperforming and could mean you are experiencing symptoms of hyperthyroidism – both of which will mess with your body.
The thyroid regulates the body’s metabolic rate as well as heart and digestive function, muscle control, brain development, mood and bone maintenance. Without it functioning at optimal levels, you may experience:
If you are noticing these symptoms combined, you need to schedule lab work to check your thyroid levels. It is relatively easy to diagnose and thyroid levels can be balanced back out with a synthetic thyroid medication, as well as other natural remedies if the severity of the thyroid issue is low. There are many reasons that the thyroid could begin to dysfunction, such as Hashimoto’s, a virus from childhood, or even some research linking to prolonged birth control usage. 40% of Americans have some form of thyroid dysfunction! That’s nearly HALF of our country! It is more common than I ever knew.
In my case, I had severe hypothyroidism. TSH levels should be around 0.4 to 4.0. My labs read that my TSH levels were above 200. YIKES. I had waited way too long to get checked out and my body was doing everything in its power to get me to listen. Since my case was so severe, I was immediately placed on a synthetic thyroid medication that gives my body the T4 hormone it needs to function correctly.
My doctor said that I would notice the most changes within 6-8 weeks of being on the medication, as it needed time to build up in the body’s system and take effect. Within two weeks, I noticed:
Ultimately, do not make the same mistakes that I did. Your symptoms may not just be “teacher tired” or all in your head. We are trained as educators to push through rather than address these issues, to don our superhero cloaks and power through these insignificant discomforts. However, sometimes the struggle IS real. Your job as a teacher is of the utmost importance. You are nurturing the minds of our future geniuses, raising children in the confines of your classroom to become productive and thoughtful adults. It is of the utmost, absolute importance that we take care of you, first, so that you can take care of your kiddos.
As much as writing sub plans is devilish work (my personal opinion), I urge you all to get lab work at your yearly check-up. If anything, you will be able to rest easy knowing that your thyroid is working beautifully. Instead, you can plan a much needed vacation for that “teacher tired”!
I wouldn’t trade teaching in a rural, small-town district for all the money in the world.
I’ve taught in several districts during my teaching career and there is nothing that quite matches the compassion of students who grow up in a small town. Their hearts are big, even if their parents’ pocketbooks may not be.
The majority of my students live in absolute poverty and the story behind most of their lives brings me to tears each time I hear them. I couldn’t single-handedly fix the brokenness of their lives, but rather than dwell on that kind of hopeless thought, I decided to give these kids something that their small town couldn’t. World culture.
I can promise you, the first time I introduced a cultural novel to my English 12 class, I was met with an onslaught of insensitive and culturally crude remarks from a few of my more rowdy pupils. These students had NEVER been asked to read a novel set somewhere like the Middle East. They had grown up hearing negative remarks about anyone from the Middle East, stemming from the aftermath of the September 11th, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. Yes, I know that was a while ago, but mindsets are very set in a small town where ideas tend to lay stagnant with very few opportunities to change them. Yet I knew that culturally-aware kids became culturally-tolerant adults, so I continued pushing forward.
Everyday, I addressed any sort of comments that came up and flipped them in to teachable moments. I would correct the child’s remark and launch into a conversation about where such ideas stem from and how they are SO incorrect. At first, my students grumbled because the very ideology they had grown up with was being challenged.
I remained persistent in course-correcting them, and I noticed the remarks and slights ceased entirely. I exposed the students to a wide variety of non-fiction texts, video clips from YouTube, and gave them a basic but profound foundation on the culture found in these countries that we were about to read about in our class novels. Slowly, their comments turned into questions and I knew they were ready to begin.
I taught novels such as The Kite Runner by Khalid Hosseini, Life of Pi by Yann Martel and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. They soaked up the narratives, explored the character’s inner trials and tribulations and often would come into my room before class to exclaim over what had happened to a favorite character of theirs. On the surface, I was teaching novels set in a different location but what I was REALLY teaching was compassion, empathy and a deep-set understanding for those who are not exactly like them.
It was not always easy to gain support from the parents of my students either. I was once confronted by a parent who requested that I teach something more to the interest of their child, something they could use once they had graduated. When I asked what the parent would suggest, they mentioned reading articles on dirt bikes or mechanics since that was what their child was mostly interested in. The crazy thing is, I UNDERSTOOD where the parent was coming from. I understood that their child was more interested in motors and going fast, and that was definitely what they would do after high school. But these novels weren’t just assigned reading-they weren’t meant to just be “interesting”. They were skill building. They were explorations into cultures that these students may never get the opportunity to explore on their own or in person. If no one opened their eyes to the beauty of cultures in other countries, would these students spend the rest of their lives in fear of cultures other than their own?
I had to justify using these texts in my classroom several times to my administration, and in the end IT WAS WORTH IT. It was worth every single meeting explaining the purpose behind the novels, every single eye-roll from a student when I would announce a foreign author’s name, every single angry parent-email demanding to know why their child was reading non-fiction that taught them the founding principles of a different religion prevalent in a culture.
Why? Because my students were transformed. They weren’t making those same insensitive comments they did when they first were introduced to new cultures. I had given them one small opening to a new perspective on life in different parts of the world, and so many of my students flourished after that.
As the years have flown by, I have gained the trust and admiration of the community and I don’t receive those angry phone calls, upset emails or demands for meetings with the administration. The changed thinking of many small town students speaks for itself – all through choosing to teach them even ONE cultural novel that widens their understanding of what it means to be human.
Here’s to making the world a little bit more tolerant of each other, one cohort of small-town minds at a time.
Connotation: an idea or feeling that a word invokes in addition to its literal or primary meaning, according to Google. Connotation, to me, answers the question, “How deeply does this word make me feel a certain emotion? The word “bad” has a negative connotation to it, yet so does the word “devastating”. Yet, English teachers can’t deny that the negative feeling associated with the word “devastating” is magnified in comparison to the word “bad”. This is what teaching connotation is all about.
Understanding connotation is a multi-step process that most students will not grasp with a basic PowerPoint and worksheet. I know…I tried that avenue. I failed. Thankfully, these students were vocal about my dismal failure because it pushed me as an educator to think outside the box for a way to truly reach them with this topic that is ESSENTIAL to creating inventive and thoughtful writers.
Step One: Teach Students About Synonyms
You cannot skip this step. Students must know what a synonym is and often do not (or they need a refresher). Practice using a simple word that everyone in the room knows. I use the word “bad” in my own practice lesson. Students will need to brainstorm to come up with synonyms of the word “bad” and write them down.
Step Two: Teach Students About Levels of Connotation of a Group of Synonyms
Next, students must begin the process of understanding that the connotative meaning of a word has to do with the feeling that is associated with that word. Explain to students that the word “good” has a positive connotation, or feeling, associated with it, while the word “bad” has a negative connotation associated with it. As a group, or in pairs, students should come up with another example of two words that have opposing connotations, or feelings associated with their meaning.
Step Three: Rank Group of Synonyms According to Connotation
Students should rank each synonym that they previously found. I choose to have students rank the words on a plain worksheet the first round, mainly to get them used to the process without any color or further directions. They then must explain their ranking choice in writing. Students LOVE to try to say, “Well, this one just seems more negative!” but I do not let such a lackadaisical explanation slide. Prompt them to use the other synonyms in their explanation, and push them beyond basic answers.
Step Four: Repeat Finding Synonyms with a New Word – Then Rank Using Paint Strips
I always teach this lesson in two rounds. The first round is wonderful for students to practice their rankings, explanations and to work with the teacher and their classmates as a sounding board for their ideas. It’s very energetic, and they get the opportunity to hear their classmates logic as well as the teacher’s.
The second round, give the students a new word that they may be working with in their unit lessons. I provide a vocabulary word that they have been learning. Then, have them find synonyms for their vocabulary word in small groups, this time limiting the voices that are guiding their answers.
Then, students will rank the connotative meaning of these synonyms independently using the paint strips to guide them. Pick up paint strips from a hardware store, or use the ones in my TpT resource and have students rank the words (words with a more positive connotation should be written in the lighter hues, while words with a more negative connotation should be written in the darker hues). Then, have the students explain their reasoning for their ranking either on the backs of the paint strips or on a separate sheet of paper.
Note: It is difficult to write on real paint strips with pen or pencil. Permanent Markers work fine.
Step Five: Teach Students to Critically Consider Word Choice in a Sentence
From here, you may choose where to lead students. I use a worksheet where students place the synonyms they came up with for “bad” into the same sentence and answer questions about sentence meaning. Another great further practice would be to teach students about author’s purpose. Then, provide students with an author’s purpose and have them alter words in a pre-written paragraph to meet the specified purpose. This is higher-level thinking that will challenge even your most excelled students.
If you want to use the worksheets and handouts that I have found to be effective in my classroom, you may download my Connotation Lesson from TpT.
Don’t make my mistake. Don’t assume that students know how to slow down and think critically about how a word is appropriate for the context of a sentence. These students are learning and growing in a world where getting information out quickly is highly valued. Word choice takes a back seat to slang, text talk and who can speak the quickest. Slowing down to consider their purpose for writing or speaking is a skill that must be taught to this generation. Teach it with patience and care, and understand that this may not come easily to many of them. Yet, it is so critical for them to have this skill in the future, simply because so much stems from being able to speak and write with purpose in mind.
I hope this helps guide some of you to reach even more of your students this year!