There’s no way to sugar coat this. Teaching is one of the most difficult professions imaginable. The school year is a marathon that’s also a sprint. The relentless pressure can wear out even the most seasoned educator, and there is a 50–70% attrition rate among new teachers.
Most people enter the profession because they find working with young people rewarding. Soon, new teachers discover their responsibilities include more than just working with students. You have to attend countless meetings with admin, teammates, SPED, TAG, counselors, social workers, district level personnel, office staff, and parents.
And this is before you even meet your students.
When I entered the profession, I felt prepared. Elementary education would be my third professional career, so I had experience dealing with people, organization, and challenging situations.
I graduated from a leading education program in my state and spent a year as a teacher candidate in first and third grade. My cooperating teachers promised me that I was ready to enter the profession, and they often gave me the reins to the classroom and to parent meetings.
My university mentors assured me that I was prepared to teach, and they graded me as proficient or distinguished in all of the professional teaching standards.
However, a week before school started, I sat frozen on my classroom floor surrounded by boxes, books, papers, and supplies. I didn’t know what to do or even where to begin. Thankfully, a compassionate colleague noticed my distress and sacrificed her time to get me jumpstarted.
When the school year began, I quickly found myself overwhelmed. The pressure of daily lesson planning, aligning instruction to the standards, assessing students, contributing to my team, classroom management, communicating with parents, taking care of my health, attending to my personal relationships, and a million other challenges sparked severe anxiety.
Eventually, I found my sea legs. But those first few weeks seemed like I was in a hurricane. All of my first-rate academic training did not fully equip me for the real-life world of teaching.
If you are a new teacher, I’d like to offer you suggestions to help you succeed and thrive. I’ve organized them into four categories: Classroom, Professional, Relational, Personal.
Of course, not every recommendation will be applicable to every teacher, and you may need to modify the advice to fit your situation. This is not a comprehensive list, but I expect it will be enough to help you flourish in your first year as a teacher.
I’d like to begin with 11 tools for you craft that you will need in your classroom.
1. Love Your Students
Love is not indulgence or infatuation. Instead, it is a deep recognition that your students are human persons with dignity, and they are worthy of your respect and dedication. And it does not matter how difficult you may find some of them. On some days, you may not like one (or all) of your students, but you must love them. If you don’t, they will know and may not achieve the success they deserve and are capable of. Children need you to see their potential and believe in them. That is love.
2. Do Not Seek Emotional Support From Your Students
Never expect your students to love or even care about you. You are the adult in the room, so it is your job to support the children. You need to set the expectation that everyone in your classroom, including yourself, will be treated with respect. However, if you look to your students to affirm your emotional needs, you need to enter a different profession. They are your students, not your friends, confidants, or emotional crutch.
3. Get To Know Your Students
The better you know your students, the better you can teach them. I spent one day each week eating lunch with my students. This gave me a window into their world. They opened up to me about their families, outside activities, and favorite television shows. More than one student shared with me about possible abuse they were suffering, and this trust enabled me to get them the help they needed. Besides building relationships, knowing your students gives you insight to differentiate instruction, assess progress, and speak about them knowledgeably. There is nothing more important in strengthening trust with your students’ parents than sharing an anecdote that demonstrates that you truly understand and care for their child. You cannot overvalue the importance of knowing your students — and allowing them to get to know you.
4. Be Honest With Your Students
Your credibility is essential for your ability to teach. Whether related to assessing their progress or what time you’re going to recess, your students deserve the truth. You are their guide through the year, and they will not follow you if you mislead them. Honesty includes owning your errors. Students know that everyone makes mistakes. When you do, say so. Honesty also means following through. If you promise a class reward, a parent meeting, or an office referral, you must see it to its conclusion. Nothing is more important than your word.
5. Never Threaten Your Students
Teachers hold a tremendous amount of power over their students. Threats elicit fear, and students cannot learn in an anxiety-drenched environment. Set clear expectations and be sure everyone understands the consequences ahead of time, but to not use fear or shame as an instructional technique. (FYI: Consequences means results, not punishment. If you do x, the consequence is y. This can be either desirable or unpleasant.)
6. Keep Records of Everything
Today’s big event is tomorrow’s distant memory. You must keep records because you will forget. Observational notes, checklists, student work samples, or even a recording can demonstrate a student’s learning and behavior. These records can help you prepare for meetings with admin, staff, and parents. They can also show students what they have achieved. Each year I gave my second graders the same writing prompt at the beginning and near the end of year, and then I returned both paragraphs during the last week of school. They always laughed when they saw how much their writing had improved. Also communication logs, especially with parents, can prevent misunderstandings.
7. Build Hope and Celebrate Success
Students hear plenty about how wrong they are. Notice how often you and other adults tell them, “No.” Look for ways to say, “Yes.” You have to give your students something positive to look forward to. Affirm them as people and rejoice in their actual accomplishments. Instead of giving rewards to students for what they should be doing, cast a big vision for each student and celebrate their steps along the way. Fist bumps, notes, a success wall, and songs communicate to students that you recognize their triumphs. When you celebrate their successes, your students will build legitimate faith in themselves. And everyone will feel more confident and assured.
8. Create Routines
You must build independence in your students. Otherwise, you will end up exhausted, and your students will feel confused. What should they do when they enter the classroom? How do your students turn in work? How do they ask questions? What are the goals the class sets for itself, and how do you celebrate their achievements? Rehearse these over and over at the start of the year. It will save time and aggravation later on.
9. Develop Rituals
Rituals produce community. It is a way to say, “This is what we do in our class.” Every Friday afternoon as I escorted my second graders to the doors, we marched through the hallway singing the Friday Song. “It’s Friday! It’s Friday! And we love Friday!” It became so popular that first grade students told me that they wanted to be in my class so they could sing. A class cheer, handshake, or dance might feel silly at first, but rituals give students a sense of belonging.
10. Give Yourself Permission to Go Slow
You cannot teach all of the standards in one lesson. Your students will not be ready for the end-of-year tests in September. You have all year, so don’t worry if you didn’t get to everything in today’s lesson. No one does. Slow and steady wins the race.
11. Give Yourself Permission to Make Mistakes
Many teachers have the disease of perfectionism. It is alright to make mistakes. Your students understand if you say or do the wrong thing. They might not even notice. If your blunders are obvious, say so. Apologize to your students when necessary and learn from your errors. That’s what you would expect from your students. Making mistakes (whether on accident or on purpose) is a learning opportunity for you and your students. It gives students an occasion to correct you, and it provides you an opening to model the best way to deal with not being right all the time.
As an educator, you are in the people business. Your classroom is filled human beings with who have hopes, fears, and needs. Even though teaching is difficult, you can create an environment for yourself and your students to have successful year. Be intentional, thoughtful, and realistic so that your students love learning and you continue to love teaching.
Part 3: Professional Development
Part 4: Self-Care for Teachers