I remember the anticipation that built up in the days before my first year as a teacher. Would students like me? (They did.) Would I screw up? (Oh yes.) Would I be successful (I hope so.) If you’re a first-year teacher or a soon-to-be rookie, here are my top must-know tips for how to approach your new career:
- Aim for respect first
When you walk into your classroom on the first day, you may feel the impulse to try to be friends with your students. This happened to me – I was a sixth-grade teacher and had a bright, gregarious group of students and I wanted them to like me. So, I tried to be the cool teacher and act like their buddy. That was a bad move on my part. We had fun at first, but it became increasingly difficult to get them to be serious when I needed them to be, and I noticed that occasionally they tried to take advantage of my lax attitude. Eventually, I had to become more gruff and serious and began referring students to the principal’s office. It was necessary, but also the hard way of doing things.
What I learned from my experience was that it’s a lot easier being firm and authoritative (not mean!) up front and then relaxing once everyone respects boundaries and appreciates that the priority is learning, not just having fun. My other classes have since been even more fun because expectations are reasonable and we all know to respect each other.
- Pace yourself
I taught at a school that required an individualized report for each student every term. Pretty basic stuff and all us teachers were diligent and comprehensive. However, one year we had a teacher show up who made these reports the target of his “extra mile.” He took photos of all the students doing class activities, put stickers all over the reports, and really tried to gussy them beyond just being a strong communicator.
His heart was in the right place, but parents didn’t quite respond like he’d expected and other teachers made him feel less than great. The principal even spoke to him about it; while the effort was appreciated, he didn’t need to spend so much time on them. This teacher dug in and insisted he’d keep it up because was going to make it his proverbial “calling card.” However, the next time he put in a little less effort, and the term after even less. He eventually gave up and was noticeably discouraged by the process.
I’m not saying don’t go the extra mile, but you have a lot to learn and a lot to do in your first year. Take cues from more experienced educators and conserve your energy for grading and PTMs and classroom observations. Speaking of more experienced teachers…
3. Make friends with veteran teachers
The fact that you chose to teach as a career speaks volumes of you. Now consider the type of people who have been doing it for years or even decades. Those are some stout hearted folks, and they are your ultimate teaching guide. Your job in your first year is equal parts running a solid class, and learning how to get better from the teachers who know how.
One word of precaution – avoid being overly ingratiating. You don’t want to kiss up to veteran teachers because they can spot a fake any day. Instead, prove you are there to work as hard as them, and show them you are wanting and willing to see what they have to teach you. Be earnest and diligent and before long they’ll respect you as much as you respect them.
4. Be open-minded and willing to learn
Along those same lines, take wisdom where you can find it. You will learn from your students, their parents, the administration, even the custodial staff will have tips for you. Where you see someone using a strategy different than what might immediately make sense to you, ask why. And always try to pay attention to the small stuff.
Another thing to consider is trying things a different way. As a student teacher or a college student, you probably learned what worked best in theory. You also might have great ideas you want to try and implement and show everyone just how great you are. Wait. Try to emulate your fellow teachers and listen to what the administration is asking. Learn how to do it their way – there is probably a reason why they do it different than you learned.
5. Have some fun
If you’ve followed the rest of my advice, you’re probably due for a little fun at school. After all the discipline and best-foot-forward crap, you might feel like being an educator is all work and no play. Wrong. If you have everything on rails, it’s time to do something for your students and your class.
Be creative. Don’t just do movie day – that’s for substitutes. Can you do a field trip? Plan one, and work some ice cream in there somewhere. Music sharing day? Be careful, but that can be one of the best bonding experiences for a class. Do a sports activity, or even take kids out early for recess and do class hide-and-seek or freeze tag.
Lessons don’t have to be boring either. The most fun I’ve ever had in class was when we’ve laughed at something we’re reading together, or watched each other play study games and make mistakes. Turn a reading day into a skit day. Play music that relates to the lesson. From a disciplined class comes a fun class, and from a fun and comfortable class comes a culture where students can open up and be inspired. And that’s the whole point anyway, isn’t it?
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