What first-year teachers need to know.
By Lisa Hess
My first year as a K-8 school counselor, I had three homogeneously grouped junior high school sections (yes, it was junior high back then). High achievers. Mostly average kids. Bad kids.
That last one wasn’t my label for them. It was their label for themselves. And they made it their business to live up (or down) to it with this newbie educator who was shorter than most of them and who wanted to conduct classroom lessons about decision-making and life skills. To make matters worse, I was an outsider — I hadn’t grown up in their small community where everyone knew everyone else and their parents and grandparents and cousins. What should have been a good thing — a fresh start — was instead a liability. What did I know?
Not, as it turns out, as much as I thought I did.
By the middle of the year, I would wake up on the morning I had that class and do a full-body scan. Headache? Stuffy nose? Sore throat? Upset stomach? Charley horse? Sprained ankle? Anything that was a viable excuse to keep me home from work?
It took me a long time to realize that the problem wasn’t my students. It was me. Completely at home with my elementary-school kids, I was in the zone, but these kids made me do something I didn’t want to do.
They made me come face to face with my own imperfection.
As a first-year educator, you don’t know what you don’t know and so it often sneaks up on you. Plans that look great on paper go down in flames in the classroom and it’s easy to wonder if you’ve made an enormous mistake thinking you could do this teaching thing.
You haven’t. But you still have a lot to learn and, if you accept that — embrace it if you can — you’re in good shape because, no matter how long you teach, there will always be something new to learn.
But it gets easier. Little by little what you do know becomes bigger than what you don’t know and, before you know it, you’re offering advice to a first year teacher and realizing how far you’ve come.
In retrospect, I was doing a lot right that first year. I knew my content. I respected my students. I had a sense of humor. I cared about my kids, even the ones who were taller than I was and who, quite frankly, scared me a little.
What do I wish I’d known?
Classroom management was the biggie. What worked with my elementary-school kids didn’t work with my junior high-kids. And, what worked with one class didn’t work with another, or from one year to the next. It was like a moving target. To further complicate matters, since I was also the counselor, I needed to make sure the same kids I disciplined in class felt comfortable coming to me for help outside of class, and I needed to be a credible presence in and out of the classroom. What adolescent will seek out someone they don’t respect?
Talking to colleagues helped, but the thing that probably made the biggest difference was getting to the point where I felt comfortable in my own skin in my new role. One size does not fit all — a plan that soars in another teacher’s classroom might sink in your classroom and vice versa.
Learning to be true to yourself in a brand new setting while also learning the ropes is a monumental task. The two most important things to remember? It takes time to find your groove and you are not alone. No matter how easy they make it look now, every other teacher has been in your shoes. Reach out. Ask for advice.
Nervous? I’ll start. I asked a few educators what they wished they’d known their first year of teaching and/or what advice they’d give to a first-year teacher. Here’s what they had to say.
“Find a great mentor and ask for advice. Teach students every routine you want them to learn. Practice the expected routines with your students. Be firm, fair, positive, and consistent. Your first year is similar to running a marathon. Pace yourself. Make time for yourself in the evenings and on weekends. A happy, well-rested teacher who is energized is an asset to his/her students.” (Judy Sheckard, retired. 32 years of teaching transitional first grade, first grade, and second grade).
“Be firm but kind. They’ll learn to love you with time. You have to train them before you can teach them all they need to know. Pick positive teachers to hang out with, too. Love them enough to fight the battle for growth.” (Dawn Brenner, retired. 36 years teaching kindergarten, first, and second grade)
“It will take a good five years before you have any idea what you are really doing.” (Craig Copas, 16 years, K-12 art)
“[I wish I’d come in knowing] actual classroom management — what-if situations, worst-case scenarios, and parental situations. I thought I knew exactly what I should do and I was thrown for a loop. [In addition], make your classroom a family environment — firm but loving with nothing but respect from each other. And I agree that it takes at least 5 years to really find your groove.” (Alison Wilson Milstead, 14 years, elementary)
“Remember to analyze if ‘the juice is worth the squeeze.’ Don’t overdo it; huge preps don’t always equal great student learning.” (Adrienne Myers, 14 years, upper elementary)
“Be practical, not philosophical … get to know the kids. Go to their sporting events, their concerts, and so on. Show them you care!” (Kathi Wentz, retired. 35 1/2 years elementary and middle school health and physical education, as well as high school coaching)
“There are kids that you will just click with. You may have favorites, but you must treat all the students the same with respect, discipline, and praise. Mean what you say, and say what you mean. Follow through or you’re in trouble.” (Jamie Evans, 25 years, elementary and middle school educator)
“Worry more about connecting and having some fun with the kids than the tests the kids need to take! Tests are important but not paramount in your lives!” (Lisa Eckenrode, 30 years – elementary)
“My first year of teaching, one of my mentors who had just finished her 40th year of teaching said this: ‘Remember to breathe! There will be fabulous days and days you would prefer to forget. No one is perfect! Treat and love each child as you would want your own child to be treated and loved …’” (Greta Kottmyer, 30 years experience pre-K-12, teaching Family and Consumer Science, Alternative Ed, ELL, and work as a school counselor).
Sometimes, their behavior is not about you. Deborah Sanders Slocum, who teaches painting classes to adults, offers this advice: “[Remember that] people verbalize frustration differently when they’re trying to master something. Some people are quiet and other people can be downright rude or obnoxious. Try not to let the rude and obnoxious people get under your skin. If it’s one person complaining, it’s likely not your teaching that’s the problem. You may just need to give that individual a little extra attention or try a different approach or [maybe] they’re simply just having a bad day.”
Feeling like you still have a lot to learn? That means you’re doing it right. Plan, prepare, pray, and don’t forget to have fun.
Welcome to education.
Lisa Lawmaster Hess is an adjunct professor of psychology at York College of Pennsylvania and a former elementary-school counselor.
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