What I Wish I’d Known as a New Teacher

Image credit: George Martell/Bayard Inc, 2017. All rights reserved.

5 encouraging truths for first-year teachers 

By Rachel Padilla

When I was in my teacher preparation classes I learned a lot of useful things. My shadowing and student teaching experiences were valuable and eye-opening. Even so, there were things I had to learn through trial by fire during my first year of teaching. I hope sharing my experience can help this fall’s new teachers save a little heartache and headache.

Smiling Before Christmas is Actually a Good Idea

I knew a few teachers who subscribed to the idea that cracking a smile (or heaven forbid, a laugh) in the first semester was a sign of weakness and that students would tear apart any teacher who dared to be so weak in their presence. As a new teacher, I thought the idea of beginning the year with an iron first had some merit but I knew I could never carry it out. I was so excited to be teaching! And in the first couple weeks as I got to know my students, they stole their way into my heart. Of course I was going to smile when I saw them in the morning or when they finally understood a concept. I couldn’t help it!

I realized later that my little rebellion of daring to smile before Christmas actually helped build classroom rapport and community. My students knew I was a person who was proud of their successes and genuinely glad to see them. Perhaps a few saw my joy as weakness, but most saw it as a sign of love.

It’s OK to Not Grade Everything

I could probably count on one hand the number of assignments that went ungraded my first year of teaching. I graded bell work, in-class work, homework, everything. The few things I didn’t grade were because I realized the assignment was terribly flawed after the fact or because I ran out of time. For a new teacher, learning how to grade in the most efficient way is challenging. Learning which assignments to grade is a whole other undertaking. Thankfully, some helpful PD and the guidance of veteran teachers in the building helped me to navigate these waters.

The breakthrough moment was when I realized that some assignments didn’t have to be graded and that as the teacher you choose which ones. It freed me to focus on giving my students meaningful practice without worrying how I’d grade it. Of course, I never told them when something wouldn’t be graded until after they had turned it in.

Some Students will Fail

One of hardest parent phone calls I’ve made was to let a parent know their child had failed my class. We had been in contact before many times so it wasn’t a surprise to either of us, but I had genuinely hoped that the student’s recent efforts would change things. Sadly, it wasn’t quite enough to undo a semester’s worth of lack of effort.

Another time, I had a student fail on purpose. He wanted to go to the local public school where a number of his friends were, and the only way to get there was to be kicked out of our private high school for either behavior or consistently poor grades. He turned in maybe three assignments all semester. It was rough.

What I learned from these experiences is that no matter how hard we may try, no matter how many opportunities we give, or how many calls home we make, some students will fail. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad teacher or even that they’re a horrible student. It’s not a great feeling but it’s also not a feeling to dwell on.

Kids Aren’t Cruel

My first year of teaching I made a number of mistakes. Some resulted from my thinking I understood my students because I saw them every day. For example, I taught a middle-school girl who seemed to think school was annoying. She had no interest in the subject and only did projects for class when she was in a group with her friends. She seemed to think it was all beneath her and that I was set on ruining her life by making her actually learn. That was … until I learned about her home life. One day she let slip to me a few of the choice comments she heard at home about her own intelligence.

Suddenly her lack of interest in school made sense. If she tried and didn’t do well, it meant they were right. So, as a defense mechanism or because she actually believed the lies said about her, she opted to do the minimum required to get by.

It was eye-opening. I genuinely believed this student was apathetic and lazy. I was often annoyed by her lack of motivation and effort as well as her snide comments in my direction. This, and other situations like it, soon made me realize that kids aren’t cruel — not really. They often simply don’t know what to do with the hurt or sadness inside them, so it comes out in sharp words and glares, rolling eyes and disdain.

It’s Worth It

Despite all that first year threw at me, I went back for more. It was a little easier in some ways but definitely still challenging. I didn’t continue teaching because I thought it would be easier (though I hoped) I continued because it was worth it. It was difficult and at times stressful but it was worth it. I grew a lot as a person my first year of teaching and learned a lot about what makes me excited to get up in the morning and what pushes me to my breaking point too. But it was worth it. Teaching is a calling, and God rewards those who embrace it.

To the teachers beginning their first year this fall, good luck and God bless you! Teaching is beautiful but challenging. Some things you have to figure out as you go. I hope these tips help you enter confidently into this calling.

Rachel Padilla is a campus minister in Colorado.

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