My Greatest Mistakes As a First-Year Teacher

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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

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:

Do I Know This Stuff More Than Them?

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.

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“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).

Consistency was NOT in my Vocabulary

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.

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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 Didn’t Plan My Year Out Fully

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.

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Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

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 Ate, Slept and Breathed Teaching

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.

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Photo by Michael Discenza on Unsplash

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!

Needing Further Inspiration?

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.

 


Time Saving Hacks For The Overwhelmed Teacher

Teaching can be wonderful, teaching can be transformative, and teaching can be down-right overwhelming. The duties and responsibilities placed on the shoulders of a teacher are rivaled by very few other professions. Add in teacher guilt and it’s a perfect recipe for pulling 50-70 hour weeks in a desperate attempt to keep the classroom operating. Educators did not choose this profession to then face years of feeling like they’re drowning to meet expectations. Steps can be taken to get rid of the underlying stream of stress that comes with teaching- these tried and true hacks may just help save your sanity and give you more of a teacher-life balance.

The most common complaint that surfaces from teachers in forums focuses around the concept of time, more specifically, around the lack of time that teachers have available to complete the tasks that are required of them. Legally, districts are only required to provide one lunch period and one prep period per work day. It is a common complaint that this is not enough time for planning, printing off necessary work, grading student work, providing constructive feedback on writing, entering in grades to keep the Student Portal updated, creating teacher lessons and materials, updating classroom bulletin boards, contacting parents about celebrations/concerns, etc. I found myself frequently working through my lunch period, gulping down my lunch just so that I didn’t have to take home as much work to grade that night. I truly felt like a zombie and knew that it was time to figure out some ways to get more of a balance between my real-life and my teacher-life.

Does this sound like you? Are these your concerns too? If so, I have figured out a few time-saving hacks in the past few years that have truly and honestly given me my lunch period back (most of the time).

Common Mistake: Grading Student Work As It Is Turned In

When I was a new teacher, I used to grade homework assignments, test/quizzes and essays whenever the students turned them in to me. In my eyes, I was SAVING time for future me because I was grading the paper now. In reality, I was slowing my grading process down entirely by forcing my brain to grade a paper on characterization that was turned in, then switching gears to grading a few papers turned in about irony, etc. I was exhausted within a few months.

Time-Saving Hack #1: Batch Work Being Graded

“Batching” work means to collect all of a certain assignment BEFORE beginning the grading process. You are essentially streamlining the grading process, and will shave minutes if not eventual hours off of your time spent grading. Your brain can get into a rhythm when it is grading multiple copies of the same assignment, thus eradicating the need to think for a few seconds about each question’s answer before determining its appropriate level of correctness.

Of course, students who turn in work late can’t be avoided, so those assignments will need to be graded when turned in (unless you can wait for all assignments, if the students do not need immediate feedback).

Batching tasks in general is a huge time saver, and something you may already be doing intuitively. When there are papers to be sent to the office, wait until you have everything around that needs to be done in the main office (worksheets to be copied, that book you need to return to a co-worker, study guides already printed to the office, etc). Your time is so valuable, make sure each trip you make is purposeful. You may find yourself feeling less frazzled, less anxious and more present just by getting several tasks done at once.

Common Mistake: Thinking You’ll Remember To Do It Later

I used to have a good memory… before I became the teacher/counselor/cheerleader/second-mom/disciplinarian/coach to over one hundred students a day. On a daily basis, teachers make more split second decisions than most doctors, and are keeping track of multiple levels of data merely by observing behaviors of students. Your to-do list? DEFINITELY not going to be most prominent in your memory space.

Time-Saving Hack #2: Keep a Daily To-Do List For the Week

Print off a weekly to-do list that breaks down each day. Teachers who groan at list-makers, stop. Go print one off. This is not “just one more thing to do”, this will actually aid with time-saving hack #1. Each morning I get to school with enough time before my first period class begins to write out the tasks I have to accomplish for the day, tasks I can push off until the following afternoon, and tasks that need to be completed sometime before Friday at 3:30 PM.

I keep this paper on my desk all week long, crossing out each task completed and jotting down more as ideas come to me. When I get an idea for a neat project I’d love to do (you know, when I get time) I write it out on the back of the paper. Sometimes I DO get to that project over the weekend, and sometimes I file it away for a later date. Either way, I’m not losing the ideas that are always popping into my head because if they are not written down, I can never guarantee they will re-emerge into my brain.

If you don’t want to search for a weekly to-do list or create your own, borrow mine. It’s simple, it’s fun, and it is easy-to-use. Oh, and it’s free.

Common Mistake: Not Having a Set Place For Students to Turn In Work

There are so many different ways of collecting papers from students. Some teachers have been taught to ask students to pass their papers to the front of the room, some teachers collect work from the desk as students are working on something else, other teachers have no system and sometimes ask students to hand their work directly to them. Now, if those systems are working for you and you love them, then you just keep on keepin’ on! However, I have found that I lose papers those ways, I spend too much time shuffling papers around instead of starting the lesson, and I just toss them somewhere on my desk to dig through later. Recipe…for…disaster.

Time-Saving Hack #3: Create a Set Turn-In Location

I purchased cheap paper bins that are each labelled according to grade level and class period. I train my students during the first two weeks of school that any and all assignments need to be placed into the bin. I give them small tasks and they practice placing the work in the bin without me even telling them it is practice. I make a point to refuse to take any paper from a student during those first few weeks, and instead gently ask, “Where do we turn in papers for this class?” which is immediately met with a giggle and feet headed towards the Homework Bins.

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Example of Homework Bins

You will need to create a clear and calm expectation that turning in work is to be done in a timely manner and quietly. Any student during the initial learning period and at any time later in the year who turns in work, then chats with a neighbor, is loud and obnoxious etc you must immediately ask them to stop, go collect their paper, return to their seat, and try again. Yes, this will eat up precious classroom minutes… but will pay off in the long run. Remain patient throughout, and keep a neutral face. If you are calm as you teach them this process, they will learn that it isn’t something that can get a reaction out of you and should just be done well.

This system saves time in a few ways:

  1. Students are more certain of expectations for completed work and feel confident enough to walk in after school, in between classes, etc and place their work in the correct bin without having to interrupt me.
  2. The teacher does not have to shuffle/organize papers right then and there, but may immediately begin prepping the next part of the lesson while students return to their seats.
  3. You do not lose papers in the mass struggle of papers that may be accumulating on your desk.
  4. You have an enormous amount of control over where papers are and can strongly counter any student who tries to claim that you, the teacher, lost their paper when in reality… they never completed nor turned the paper in. Consider having a set slot near your desk that you place papers to be returned to students (one slot per class period), that way there is very little room for error.

Common Mistake: You Grade Everything

I think this may have been (and sometimes still is) my greatest downfall as an English teacher. I saw where my students were lacking and I felt that I needed to place a specific, numerical grade on every single assignment I gave. I also felt I had to leave feedback on every paper I returned to them, and so I spent most nights curled up on the couch making notes and helpful tips that students glanced over and then filed away without any further thought. OUCH.

Time-Saving Hack #4: Only Grade What Needs Constructive Feedback

First, take a good hard look at everything you are assigning. Is each one necessary? What is its purpose? If you are assigning it as work to keep the students busy for the class period, but the work itself is not super helpful in achieving the skill you want them to eventually be proficient in, then you have some changes to make. For your sanity, more so than anything else.

Keep assignments that have worked well for this cohort of student. Keep assignments that kids year after year seem to LOVE to complete, and assignments that tend to give the most kids “Aha! Moments”. Then, take an objective eye to the rest and nix assignments that you can admittedly say are not pulling their weight.

Then, gather the assignments that you deemed were valuable for your teaching and organize them into three piles: assignments that need to have written feedback, assignments that need a numerical grade and assignments that need a check-plus, check or check-minus grade. If you’re unsure of the purpose of the latter, it is to let students know where their work fell in terms of quality without you having to assign a specific grade or write feedback. I give these grades to papers that we will all go over in class together, and we discuss why some responses landed in each category. Students learn how to improve their work without taking a hit with a poor numerical grade.

  1. Assignments that need to have written feedback: paragraphs, essay drafts, planning sheets, short responses.
  2. Assignments that need a numerical grade: tests & quizzes, essay final drafts (use a rubric to avoid having to write further extended feedback), study guides.
  3. Assignments that need a check-plus, check or check-minus grade: journal writes, grammar practice, initial worksheets on new skills, background knowledge charts, class work.

This will save (especially English teachers) a LOT of time in grading papers. Oh, so much time.

Common Mistake: You Print Things Off Only As You Need Them

Your first years of teaching may feel like treading water in the Atlantic Ocean – you can barely keep your head above the waves. One mistake teachers make is to only print off worksheets the day before or even the morning of the day that they are going to use them. This puts them in constant prep mode, where they can’t really relax and focus in on the their teaching as they are thinking about what materials they need to print off for the next day.

Time-Saving Hack #5: Print Off Most (If Not All) Materials You Need For The Week At One Time

Admittedly, this ties back into batching your tasks in the first time-saving hack, yet this one is important enough to earn its own header. I plan for my week ahead on Sundays, you may choose a different day according to your schedule. On that day, make a list of materials that you absolutely will need for that week’s lessons. This includes Bell-Ringers, worksheets, homework assignments, Exit Slips, handouts… everything. Make a point of getting to school a bit earlier than everyone else and before you do anything else, get your copies made for the week. Paperclip them into piles according to grade level or class, and keep them somewhere organized by day. Now, you’ve just freed up (at least) one prep period standing in line at the copier, and probably made your week a little bit more blissful.

Here’s to you finding more time for the things your heart truly loves, and investing less time on silly tasks that drain your creative brain.

If you’re looking for a great organizational hack for managing absent work, read my article on a Stress-Free System for Absent Students.

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Absent Work Bins