Nothing prepares for you for the first day of school. Everything you think you learned seems to be gone, sucked into a wild vortex of anxiety, energy and idealism.
When the ball drops signaling a fresh school year, a newly minted class of novice teachers will be behind the desk and whether spent with wide-eyed kindergartners or seniors chaffing to meet the “real world,” the first months of teaching can be like the mood swings of middle school. One day, you’re riding that perfect wave of elation, high on authentic discovery that took on a life of its own. The next day, you forgot to take attendance, tripped over the trash can and left your lunch on the kitchen counter.
A little advice…please?
1. Find a mentor.
This might be the single most important tip for first year teachers. Nobody flies solo during the first year. You need a go-to person who is willing to hold your hand, applaud your successes and have a supply of tissues available. A good mentor can be your cultural GPS, routing you around predictable pitfalls and obstacles, leading you through meetings and paperwork. You lower the likelihood you will drop out of the profession if you have a trusted mentor. And if you are really lucky–as I was– you might even make a friend for life.
2. Pace yourself: put management first.
You have great ideas for sight words or the Age of Exploration, but you aren’t going to do it all on Day 1 or in the first month or even during your first year. It is estimated that it requires five full years of experience before teachers get into the instructional zone. Most veterans agree: Open with management. Establishing predictable routines and explicitly modeling behavioral expectations will be worth the time invested. Creating a few, carefully thought-out ground rules early on means you will be more able to tackle fractions or the nervous system or The Crucible later.
3. Do not grandstand.
When asked about what not to do, experienced teachers warn against trying too hard to grab the spotlight. There is a fine line between showcasing your achievements–you want to be asked back so you can be a second year teacher–and showing off. A certain amount of self-promotion is necessary for self-preservation. It is when first-year teachers forget they are members of a team of instructional professionals that they can wander into a danger zone. Support is reciprocal; respect is mutual. Self-aggrandizement gets ugly quickly, especially if it comes at someone else’s expense.
You expect to communicate with your students. You must also expect to communicate with their families. Keeping parents tactfully informed of their children’s progress in your class is a significant factor in first year teacher success. If parents feel comfortable with you, they are less likely to go over your head to your department chairman or building administrators. You must also communicate with colleagues. Even though we are stars of our own daily classroom productions, schools function best when all involved share ideas and concerns.
5. Find ways to leave your classroom behind.
Finally–and for the idealistic newbie, this will be tough–you have to carve out non-teaching time in your life. Outside interests, your family, your friends all play a vital role in your overall health. Teaching can be consuming and you need other activities to maintain a balance. For first year teachers, this is challenging as you try to juggle the seemingly endless demands of planning, collaborating, grading, committees, meetings. Having something specific scheduled for your weekend forces you to put down the red pen and close the plan book. It also helps you with perspective.
The first day. It is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. With a little help from your friends, you can live to teach another day.