Teacher Talk 003: 8 Things I Wish I Knew as a First Year

There is so much that a college education doesn’t teach you about becoming a teacher. I had a college professor who told me I just wouldn’t know what it was like until I got here. He said all of my preconceived notions would die. Boy, was he right.

Today I wanted to express a few things I wish I knew as a first year teacher that I either found out from a co-worker or figured out at some point through trial and errors. I recognize I’m not veteran, but I also feel like I still have a fresh perspective. I hope these are helpful for my aspiring teacher friends; I want to bring a dose of reality, but also remain encouraging. I really do love my job, my students, and my co-workers, but a “heads up” sure would have been nice for a few things!

1. Weekends are off limits. In my first year of teaching, I worked myself into the ground. I drowned in papers and brought them home by the bagful in order to “catch up” on nights and weekends (P.S.- “catching up” is a myth!). During the times I did work at home, I went to bed exhausted and woke up even more exhausted. If I’m honest, I really hadn’t completed enough work during that time to make a big difference. Then there were the nights/weekends that I brought work home,  didn’t touch it all weekend, and arrived to school on Monday morning feeling guilty for not doing it. Over Christmas break this year I decided to try something new because burn-out and over exhaustion is real, people. I implemented a new rule to not bring work home on nights or weekends. So how do I get anything done, you ask? I work my butt off while I’m on campus. I use my planning and any time I can to do work, but I leave it there at the end of the day. It’s the best work-related decision I’ve ever made because I no longer have to feel guilty, I get to enjoy my time at home, and I am creating a boundary between home and school which sets a good foundation for down the line when we decide to grow our family. This is something I highly suggest you try so that you aren’t at school until the custodians kick you out or the friend who is always canceling plans. Keep your life outside of school in tact and enjoy your time off.

2. You wear many hats. I got a teaching degree, but I have more roles than I could have ever imagined. I am teacher, coach, mentor, mom, nurse, counselor, encourager, disciplinarian, friend, and grocery store all in one body. My kids come to me about anything and everything. Be ready to have weird conversations you never expected. Some of my students are moms and are teaching me about things I never knew about parenthood. Some of my students don’t eat at home, so they ask me for snacks. Some students have no one to talk to, so they express themselves in poetry and give it to me to read. Some students want a listening ear; others just want to be recognized as a person. I have former students who come by my room daily just to say “hello” to me– that’s more than what some of my closest friends do! Nothing can really prepare someone for the role they play as a teacher because every minute, one hat comes off and another replaces it. It’s an awesome feeling to adapt to what each individual needs, but it’s also a huge responsibility. (You can read more about that in an older blog post here).

3. You set the tone. In all areas of your teaching life. In your classroom. In the faculty lounge. In parent meetings. Every day, you have the power to decide what the atmosphere will be like for those around you. You cannot be a perfect ray of sunshine every day, but try your best to start each day as a new day. Let go of whatever went wrong the day before (or in some cases, the class period before– 2nd period doesn’t deserve the wrath that you’ve built up from 1st period!). Students deserve a positive environment. Keep in mind that you might be the only smiling face they see all day. This takes practice, but it makes a significant difference. I promise that if you give the students a chance and show them you care and want what’s best, they will (for the most part) do as you ask and push hard to please you. If you make snarky comments, expect them to fly back at you; if you give respect, you’ll typically get respect over time.

4. Don’t overcommit. I could write a book on this one. Do your best to avoid signing up to help with a lot of different activities, clubs, committees, etc. your first year (or more). The first year of teaching should be a time for you to learn your craft and figure out what it means to be a teacher. If you sign up to help with Club A, commit to working every volleyball game, and volunteer to plan prom, you will not be able to give your students the attention and help they deserve. Trust me, I know. I am a Type A personality who wants to be in control, but you have to be willing to be the little fish for a while so that you can learn the ways of the current. I’m still backpedaling from my overcommitment so that I can be more focused on my classroom and less focused on the stuff I’m involved in outside of my classroom. Protect your bubble and be ready to say “no” when people ask for extra commitments. As long as you kindly explain that you want to develop yourself in your classroom and get your bearings at your new school, they should respect that and be willing to seek help elsewhere.

5. Do get involved. This may seem counterintuitive to #4, but I do think it is so vital to be involved in your new school community. Listen to what your students talk about and surprise them at a sporting event or performance. (Notice I say singular “a”– not “all.”) Make a point to get to know the rest of the faculty (and support staff– they’re the best!) by eating lunch in the lounge or joining in on a conversation. (Even saying “hi” or “good morning” in the hallway is a start.) Volunteer for a small role in a fundraiser or event. Start small. There are plenty of awesome opportunities in the school but pick one or two things to try in your first year– not five or six.

6. Bring on the paperwork. One of the unfortunate by-products of being a teacher is paperwork. Documentation for IEPs, 504s, LEPs, and behavior. Lesson plans. Evaluations. Fundraisers. Referrals. Attendance. Roster verification. The list goes on. This is where I suggest you stay as organized as possible. Create folders in your email and/or on your desk of what you need and take it one thing at a time. Make a note of deadlines so that you don’t become “that person” and do the best you can.

7. Ask for help. This is vital to surviving your first (few) years of teaching. Most beginning teachers have a mentor. They are assigned to you to help you with anything you need and they are the person who has agreed to be your “Question Catcher.” Don’t be afraid of sounding dumb; shoot them an e-mail or stop them in the hall to clarify things. This is especially important in the aspects of our job that involve laws (ex. IEPs and 504s, nutrition, medications, etc.). You will experience things that you don’t know how to handle in the moment or you may not be sure that you handle them correctly. Utilize that mentor to ask for their advice. They are your mentor because they’ve learned a thing or two over the years! If your mentor isn’t easily accessible, ask someone in your department. Also don’t be afraid to respond to emails asking for more information.

8. You’re going to mess up. You are not invincible. You do not know everything. And that’s okay. Shake the dust off, pick yourself up, and keep going– after making a note for next time. Handle these situations with grace and humility will take you farther than you can possibly imagine. That’s where #7 definitely comes in handy. Just remember that you’re human, you’re doing a great job, and you’ve chosen a very rewarding profession. It’s worth the stress 🙂

Current teachers, what else would you add to this list? Future teachers, what would you like to know?? Comment below to continue the discussion!

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