When I started teaching in 2000, I was told I’d be considered a novice teacher for the first three years. Personally, I think it was more like five years before I started to feel like I had some idea of what I was doing. Every year about this time I see posts from novice teachers (first year, second year, third year…) asking for advice on every aspect of teaching, many simply asking, “What advice do you wish someone had given you?” Since this is a much bigger question than can be answered in a social media comment, I’d like to try and answer it today.
Breathe and take one day at a time
Teaching is a very overwhelming job and it feels as though everything needs to be finished yesterday. It is easy to get caught up in the rush and chaos. The truth of the matter is that it will all be fine in the end and very few things actually require immediate answers, responses, or actions. Figure out what needs to be done, prioritize the list, start at the top, and do the best you can. Everything that truly needs to get done will (and the things that don’t get done will likely have very little impact on your classroom).
My Teaching Aphorism
An aphorism is a short saying that gives advice or sums up a larger principle. My teaching aphorism is, “Do what you can for who you can when you can.” Remember that list of things to do I just mentioned? Here’s another hard truth: you will never finish it. There will always be something else to do and someone else to help. And a further hard truth: you can’t do it all and you can’t help everyone. So, “do what you can for who you can when you can,” and let the rest go. It is not your job to solve all the problems of the world, the school, your class, or even the student standing in front of you. Deal with what is yours to deal with (things directly related to your classroom), familiarize yourself with resources available at your school and in the community, refer students as needed to those who can help with specific problems, and then let it go. Much easier said than done, but absolutely necessary if you’re going to make the long haul.
“I don’t know” is not a forbidden phrase
I know I started my teaching career before Google was popular (it’d only been in existence for two years), but this piece of advice still holds true–even in our “Google it!” world. Students will ask questions you do not know the answers to, even questions for which you probably should know the answers. Do not panic when (notice I said when–not if) it happens. Just admit that you don’t know and, depending on the question, either promise to find out and get back to the student, challenge him/her to find the answer and get back to you, or simply move on. Google it later if your curiosity won’t let it go, but don’t waste valuable class time on distractions that don’t advance student learning. No one knows everything and it’s good for students to see an adult who is honest and willing to admit when he/she doesn’t.
It’s OK to say, “No.”
There is no law against using the word no. There’s also no law requiring you to always explain why you said, “no” (or any other answer). When possible and reasonable, I do explain why I am giving a particular answer to a question, but there are times when it is not possible or reasonable and I need students to simply accept my answer at face value. Students are much more willing to do this because they know I do not lie to them, I will admit when I don’t know something (see above), and I’ll also admit when I’m wrong (see below).
Learn to say, “I was wrong. I am sorry.”
When (again, not if) you make a mistake or do something wrong, admit it. It does not diminish your credibility or cause students to respect you less, rather it does the opposite. It also provides them a model to follow for when they make mistakes. Students need to see that adults can be wrong sometimes, too, and that we can admit it and apologize. You are human and you will make mistakes. The question is, can you admit it when you do?
Ask for help
Just as apologizing is not a sign weakness, asking for help is also a sign of strength. You are a novice teacher, everyone in the building knows it, and no one in the building expects you to know what you are doing (at least not all of the time). Find some more experienced teachers and pepper them with questions. You are not a burden, we are happy to help. I will say this though, it is nice when you do this in a considerate manner. Ask, either verbally or in an email, “Do you have some time to answer a few questions for me?” I would be shocked if your colleague said, “No.” And, quite frankly, if he/she does refuse to help, you didn’t want that person’s help anyway. Oh, and by the way, we experienced teachers do this too–I just texted a teacher friend last week to ask her a question about something in which she is more experienced than I am. One other side note on this–experienced teachers are just as busy as you are, sometimes even more so (they’ve had time to build families and are expected to join even more committees). It’s not that we’re too busy or unwilling to offer help, it’s generally just that we don’t always know that you need or want help. Take the initiative and ask us, 99.99% of us will be more than willing to do whatever we can for you.
“Boring” lessons are OK
Just as it takes a long time to build up your classroom supplies, it takes a long time to build up a repertoire of big, exciting lessons. There is nothing wrong with sticking close to the text and building up your supplemental activities and projects slowly. I recommend choosing one unit per subject per year to focus on. Work on building in an exciting lesson, a big project, or other highly engaging piece for that one unit. If you are teaching an upper grade and only have one or two preps, you can focus on a different unit every semester or marking period. That said, don’t be upset or scared when a lesson goes badly or flops completely, it happens to all of us. Just consider what you can do differently next time and give it another try.
Though I don’t recommend purchasing a lot of materials during your first couple years, you will start to build up a collection of teaching resources. Please learn from my mistake and get yourself an organizational system now. You can read my previous post about this subject for all the of the details, but long story short–it will save you time, energy, and money (you won’t end up rebuying or remaking things you can’t find). Here’s a quick hint before you read the details: organize materials by subject/skill, not month/unit/curriculum. The curriculum will change (meaning the unit and month will change) and then you’ll have to reorganize everything.
Keep gathering ideas
It is likely your professors encouraged you to gather ideas for the grades/subjects you would be teaching in the future, it may have even been an assignment. Don’t stop gathering ideas (and if you never started, start now). Gather ideas for every subject/grade you are certified in +/-2 (above and below grade level students). While administration general tries to avoid involuntary transfers, sometimes it is necessary and the ones who generally are forced to change are the newer teachers (seniority does come with some privileges). You also never know when life circumstances may cause you to move to a new school/district and you may find yourself teaching a new grade/subject. These ideas (I highly encourage you to do this digitally and organize them) will be an invaluable resource for you and your colleagues as you develop those exciting lessons/projects we just talked about.
Function over feng shui
When it comes to setting up and decorating your new classroom, prioritize function over beauty. I’ve linked to posts about classroom set up and classroom decorations with a lot more detail, but in short: if it doesn’t contribute to the education of students, and/or make your job easier, it’s either in the wrong place or doesn’t need to be there. Does that mean your classroom has to be a boring utilitarian space? No. What it means is you don’t need to spend hours of your limited and precious time, or any of your insufficient and scarce funds, fretting over making everything Pinterest perfect. Just as there’s nothing wrong with having “boring” lessons, there’s nothing wrong with a “dull” classroom.
Stay in control of you
You are the teacher, you are the adult, you are the one who has to stay in control. The minute you lose emotional control and start yelling (or worse, panicking), you lose. The result will be one, and likely more than one, of several things: the students will take over control of your classroom, your classroom will end up being ruled by fear (not respect), and your classroom will no longer be an emotionally safe environment for students. Students depend on their teachers to set the emotional tone of a classroom and ensure they are safe. If you are not in control, you cannot ensure the students will be safe, and the emotional tone of the classroom becomes negative. You must stay in control of your emotions and responses at all times, even if it means saying something such as, “I need to take a few minutes and think about this. Please take your seat and we’ll discuss it shortly.” And when you do lose it (because at some point you will–you’re human), apologize and try to make it right (see above).
There’s a reason there are two words in this term. You need both and they need to be in balance. If you have all or too much tough, the students will rebel and your classroom will become a battlefield. The other possibility is you will maintain control of your classroom but it will be by fear and not respect. If you have all or too much love, the students will run your classroom and it will be chaos. Finding the balance isn’t always easy, but it is necessary. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do for a student is make them unhappy. I won’t promise they will thank you for it later in person, but they will be grateful you did.
Be their teacher
You are their teacher. You are not their friend, parent, counselor, doctor…you are their teacher. And their teacher is what they need you to be. Remember what I said earlier, you can’t be all things all the time, you have to do what you were put in place to do and that is teach. There are other people who are in students’ lives to fill the other roles (and if someone is lacking, refer them to the appropriate person/service), you are the only teacher (or teacher of a particular subject) those students have. Do what they need you to do–teach.
It’s not your job to be liked
It’s OK not to be liked, in fact it is very probable (I’d even go so far as to say guaranteed) that you won’t be liked by everyone. Do we want to be liked? Yes. Is it nice to be liked? Yes. Will most students like you? Yes. But, at the end of the day, if it’s a choice between being liked and being a student’s teacher, choose being their teacher. It’s your job to teach, not to be liked.
Look for opportunities to say, “Yes”
Yes, it is OK to say no, and sometimes you will need to say no. In fact, you’ll likely say no far more often than you want. Look for the opportunities to say yes and then do it. It may mean something doesn’t go exactly how you want it to, or a project doesn’t look exactly how you planned, but if the student’s request is reasonable, try to say yes.
Your first few years of teaching will be the hardest few years of your career, possibly even your life. I still remember how hard I worked those first few years, how often I felt as though I’d never survive, and how badly I wanted to quit. It will get better, I promise you. So many teachers quit after one or two years–often just before things are likely to start getting easier. I would say I was about three years in before I started feeling better, and about five years in before I started to believe I could actually do the job. After that, things have continually gotten better each year and I can say I love teaching more now then ever before. Hang in there, find a good teacher bestie (you can read a little about mine in this post), and know it’s not always going to be this difficult.
Wow! That was a lot! If you’ve read this far I can guarantee one thing—you have the makings to become a great teacher, and likely are already a pretty good one. Only someone who truly cares about his/her students and has a deep desire to be the best they can be would stick with me this long. Thank you. Now go out there and do your best, you’ve got this! Happy teaching, everyone.