In their own words: New teachers in the classroom (part 1)

Rebecca Williams shares 10 tips for first-year teachers as she prepares to start her second year of teaching high school students

Rebecca Williams graduated in 2015 with a bachelor of arts degree in Spanish and minors in mathematics and music. During the 2015-16 school year, she spent her first year of teaching at the new College Place High School where she taught Spanish and English support and team-taught geometry. Williams said, “This past year teaching was incredible, and my experience was one that would not have been possible without the support of my friends, family, and colleagues.”

Teaching is a unique career path. You take psychology classes, classes about classroom management, classes about instructional theories and cultural diversity, etc., but none of that comes close to having genuine experience. The only actual experience you get before you start teaching in your own classroom is student teaching, which is quasi teaching at best—a bare-bones imitation of running a classroom where you have a cooperating teacher/safety net to fall back on, just in case. The students of a first-year teacher are expected to perform at the same level as those of a master teacher. The first year of teaching can feel as if they just throw you in a room with 30 kids and say, “Good luck.”

After I graduated, I was excited, but also somewhat apprehensive about teaching. I had thoughts like, “Will my students even like me? What if I don’t know the answer to a question? What should I do on the first day of school? What rules should I have my students follow?” These are all questions that, I believe, many first-year teachers have (and many seasoned teachers as well). I have come to the conclusion that there is no right answer to these questions, and the answers may never even reveal themselves. However, there are several things I learned during my first year teaching that may be helpful for other new teachers.

1. Don’t be a hero.
What do I mean by this? I mean teacher burnout is a real thing. There will be days when you are beyond excited to get to school, and there will be days when all you want to do is stay in bed and not move for 24 hours. In order to make sure there are less of these days and more of the good days, maintain balance in your life. Leave work at work and make home an oasis of peace and rest. It will be tempting to try and overcompensate for your newbie status by staying until 6 p.m. every day after school, burning the midnight oil. Don’t do it. When your contract time is up, get out of there. If a student needs help after school, have them make an appointment. This lets them know that your time is valuable, and it also helps you maintain your sanity.

2. If you can’t grade it, don’t assign it.
It will be tempting—after all of the wonderful ideas you garnered from your classes in college and from Pinterest—to do all of it. However, don’t forget, if you assign it, you must grade it. You may disagree. However, at the beginning of the year, I asked my students what I could do for them specifically as a teacher. The number one response was, “Grade my assignments!” Students want feedback. They want to know how they can improve and how they can be successful. This is not to say that you shouldn’t give assignments, but be sure that whatever you do assign can be returned to your students with thoughtful feedback.

3. Every day is a clean slate.
There is guaranteed to be that one student—you know the one I’m talking about—the one that just gets under your skin, never listens, constantly contradicts you, tests you, and pushes the boundaries to the breaking point. This is the student that needs you the most. This student needs each day to be a new day. Try not to hold grudges. Remember that, like you, students have bad days, and many of them face circumstances that not even a grown adult should have to deal with. If, each day, you treat every student with a positive attitude, even if the day before was a total disaster, you will be amazed at how much growth you will see within your students and yourself.

4. Always have a trick up your sleeve.
So you have a lesson plan, right? It’s great. It’s fantastic. You worked on it for several hours over the weekend. You know where each student is going to be and when. You addressed each standard you needed to address, and you differentiated instruction for each student. You know this lesson is going to be awesome, and it is going to take at LEAST the entire class period.

But it doesn’t. It takes 20 minutes. You have 40 minutes of a classroom filled with unoccupied children. What are you going to do?!

You have to have a trick up your sleeve. Sometimes, more often than not, lessons do not go as planned. You could be stuck with extra time or stuck with no time. Thus, you always must have a list of emergency activities that are ready to go at any moment. Keep a folder in your desk; create a procedure for what to do with extra time; something! This will save you a lot of grief. Remember, a productive student is a well-behaved student.

5. Not all students are going to like you. That’s ok.
As a first-year teacher, it is tempting to sacrifice respect for likeability. Do not fall victim to this. There will be many students, the majority probably, who respect you AND like you. But there may be some with whom you do not click. This is completely normal. It is outrageous to expect that 100 percent of a group of people will like one person. However, each student should still be treated with love and respect, despite the personality clashes you may face.

6. Use your resources. In other words, ask for help.
You will be blessed to work with a group of colleagues with years of experience teaching. Pick their brains! Even if what you are currently doing is working for you, don’t hesitate to ask for ideas. It will be so tempting to maintain an “I can make it on my own” mindset. However, remember that there are a thousand ways to teach one concept. Asking for advice doesn’t mean you aren’t qualified or capable. It means that you are smart enough to recognize that education cannot fit in a box and that it is better to have too many ideas than not enough.

7. Spend the first week of school on teaching procedures.
This may seem like a lot of time to spend on teaching your students the rules of the classroom. Trust me, it is not. You would think it would be common knowledge that a student should always bring paper and a writing utensil to class or that licking the stapler is unacceptable. But it isn’t. These are the sorts of things that you need to teach your students from the get-go. What are your rules? How should students turn in assignments? What are your entry and exit procedures? If you teach this at the beginning, using simple content, you will save yourself a lot of time in the long run. However, don’t be surprised if after Christmas, your students magically forget all of your rules and procedures and have to be taught how to do them again.

8. Don’t take things personally.
Students have bad days just like you. They might lash out at you. They might misbehave, throw a fit, not turn assignments in just because. Don’t take it personally. More often than not, a student’s misbehavior has nothing to do with you and everything to do with their personal lives, their self-efficacy, their self-esteem. You can help these students by maintaining a positive attitude, as I said before, but don’t take it personally if a student comes in to your classroom with a poor attitude and a lot of anger. Also, the positive words of encouragement and kindness you sow may not even become visible while the student is in your class or even in your school. However, you did plant the seeds. They are there, and sometimes that is all we can do.

9. Candy. It works.
Now, I don’t really think that bribing students is a good idea, but rewarding students is. You would be surprised how much students, even older high schoolers, like candy, or stickers, or some little reward. Any time you are doing an activity or having a question–answer time, a good way of getting students to participate is using little candies or developing some sort of token economy as an incentive. I have a locked drawer filled with candy that I use when it’s the early morning and most of my students are still half asleep or right after lunch when all anyone wants to do is take a nap. Incentivize them with a little treat, and their participation will magically increase.

10. Don’t lose sight of your purpose.
You are so lucky. You get to be a teacher. That means you have many shoes to fill: parent, mentor, counselor, friend, supervisor, etc. It can be easy to get caught up in all the things you have to do, all the meetings, lessons, professional development, parent meetings, etc. But do not lose sight of why you are there. You are there because your presence has the ability to make a difference in the lives of young people. You get to impart your knowledge and wisdom and do your best to ensure that our society has a decent future. Goodness knows you aren’t in education for money or fame. So make sure that you remember why you are there and what you can do to make a difference. I promise, you ARE making a difference, even if it doesn’t seem like it.

Posted July 27, 2016