Your first few years of teaching can be overwhelming. In my experience, student teaching gave you a taste of what you had to do, but having your own class can feel like you were thrown into the deep end to sink or swim.
When I first began teaching, you had a few people you could ask for advice – usually a co-teacher or another teacher you clicked with. Today, schools sometimes have mentor teachers, but you may need more support than they can provide. When that happens, new teachers often turn to social media, such as Instagram, Twitter, or Facebook groups.
While all of these sources can be helpful, new teachers often find themselves wading through a confusing mix of advice that often conflicts. If you are in that situation, you may wonder how to sort out which advice to follow.
Unfortunately, there is no easy way to say what works and what doesn’t. My best advice? Don’t take any all-or-nothing maxim as the end all of the advice.
Teaching is not black and white. Like any job that involves dealing with people, there is a lot of gray – because different things work for different people. Every teacher has their own style – what works for your bestie may not work for you. Students also work and learn best in different settings and styles.
Developing your teaching styles and learning how to reach students in different ways takes time. You will slowly figure out what clicks for you and your classroom.
I do want to address some of the common advice I see given on social media. While some of the advice is well-meaning and isn’t necessarily ill-advised, you have to learn that each one has a lot of nuance in a real-world application.
1. Never work outside contract hours.
Honestly, this is very well-meaning, but it is literally impossible to get everything you need to do finished in your contract hours, especially the first year (or your first year in a new grade or content.) Eventually, you can learn to accomplish a lot during contact time, but if you always arrive and leave at contract time and don’t take any work home, you are setting yourself up for failure.
My advice? Do what works best for you. If staying every Friday to have the next week prepared allows you to enjoy both your weekend and the next week, then do it.
I preferred to plan by unit, and I would map out a few weeks at a time one weekend. That would get me through a good six weeks. I also preferred to take work home than to do it at school. If grading was something I could pack up easily, I was a lot more comfortable sitting at home and doing it than I was after school with my own children waiting for me to go.
Don’t feel like you have to take work home every day – you will burn out. At the same time, never staying late or taking work home can lead to major stress when report cards are due and you have nothing graded.
Set boundaries, but also find a work rhythm that allows you to get things done and have a life.
2. Take your mental health days.
I have no problem with you taking a day off – if that is what will really make you feel better. Sometimes, you really need that extra day off.
However, don’t feel like you have to take a day off if that won’t really alleviate your stress. My brother prefers to save his days so he can sell some at the end of each year. (We can do that in our county.) Having that extra money is one way he supports his mental health.
Mental health can look different for each person. Some people just want quiet time alone, and the only way they can get that is to take a day off.
Other people may feel stressed when they get behind at work and taking time off can make the stress worse.
Figure out what you need, and do it. If it means taking a personal day, set it up and don’t feel guilty about it.
3. Relationships above all.
Relationships are important – kids won’t learn from people they don’t respect. And they respect people they know care. For some kids, you can earn this respect pretty quickly. For others, it might take a long time.
Either way, relationships do not mean that you are students’ “friends.” You aren’t their friend – you are their teacher, mentor, counselor, etc. The relationship you have with your student is one where they look to you for guidance, including where and when to set boundaries.
Students need adults to show them where the line is – that is why kids test their parents and other adults. They push to see where the boundary is.
In your classroom, you need to have clear expectations and procedures, and you need to hold students to them. You can listen to students and make adjustments. For example, maybe kids ask you to move a test because another teacher just announced a test for the same day. Sure, if you can make that work, do so.
If students just break your expectations, you need to be clear and firm on the consequences. If they push the boundaries and nothing happens, they will continue to push to see how far they can go. And trying to rein them in after they have moved the boundaries is much harder than holding them to the already-established procedure.
4. Classrooms need to be attractive.
Listen, as a new teacher, you probably aren’t swimming in money. You do not have to have a Pinterest classroom. The most important factor in the learning environment is the teacher.
Your classroom can be clean and inviting without you spending a month decorating. Over time, you can slowly pick up the decor you want to have in your classroom – after all, you spend a lot of time in that room.
Moreover, allow kids to also feel part of the room. You can do that by displaying their work or asking them to create something that you hang up. Just prep a board or area where you can quickly hang student work (string and clothespins work well) and add to that area as you have things throughout the year.
5. Grade everything.
I don’t know if teachers are still telling this to student teachers, but this was one piece of advice that nearly killed me. “Student work should always be graded.”
That is baloney. First of all, would you want your first attempt at a new skill graded? Secondly, who should be analyzing and reflecting upon those first attempts – you or the student? Students need to have time to work through what they are learning – what they are doing well, where they need to improve, etc. You can provide feedback to them, but that can be you walking around and quickly talking with them.
You killing yourself grading all the things delays students from getting feedback, because you don’t have the time. It also prevents students from developing their metacognitive skills.
For more information on this, see my blog series on mastery grading.
I hope this post helped you. What other advice would you give to another teacher?