Probably the best piece of advice I can give you if you’re heading into your first year of teaching is “Don’t be like me.”
I made way more than five mistakes my first year, but these were the “giantest.”
1. I didn’t ask for help
I felt like asking for help from other teachers—especially veterans—would annoy them. I definitely didn’t want to ask my administrators for help either, as I didn’t want to be seen as weak or incapable. As a result, I spent my first semester wandering around like a lost kitten. I probably taught about as effectively as a kitten too.
If you need help, ASK! Your coworkers should be understanding and helpful toward first-years, but if you feel like you’re annoying them and the information is important to your teaching success, you’ll just have to get over it and ask anyway. (Then let me know which coworkers are being unhelpful to you, and I’ll send my mafia to beat them up.)
If you’re struggling with classroom management, your administrators will be much more understanding if you come to them first and are honest about your struggles, than if you say everything is fine—but then, during your next observation, your administrator sees students running wild and conducting human sacrifices in your classroom.
2. I was afraid to be firm with my students
During my first year of teaching, my sense of classroom management/culture was basically nonexistent. I’d never been in the position where I’d had to a) earn anyone’s respect, b) deal with people not listening to me, or c) be firm with anyone I didn’t know well. The perfect storm of misery.
One day, after school when I was on the verge of tears and venting to some fellow teachers about the disrespect from my students, a brilliant fellow teacher came up to me, put her hands on my shoulders, and said so sweetly, “I think you are afraid to show them you’re unhappy with their behavior because you think it’s the same as being mean. Think about the kids in your class who are trying to learn but can’t because it’s so disruptive and unsafe, because you won’t take charge. If that doesn’t make you angry enough to be firm and take control, you need to have a come-to-Jesus. With yourself.” It was the kindest way I’ve ever had my heinie totally handed to me.
Learning to navigate the waters of how and when to be firm was difficult at first. Since I spent the first half of the year being Santa Claus, my students responded to my new boundaries by accusing me of being a mean lady. But once it was clear to them that I was in charge, but that I was also fair, my classroom became a much better place to be—for all of us.
3. I didn’t know it was OK to leave my to-do list unfinished at the end of the day
One of the hardest things about teaching, as pointed out by this article, is that there’s always so much more you could be doing. During my first year, I was regularly staying at school until 7 or 8 at night because I felt like I couldn’t leave until EVERYTHING on my to-do list was finished. Obviously, this was impossible, as a teacher’s to-do list is never finished, so it made things doubly terrible since I was overworking myself and at the same time feeling like I wasn’t doing enough.
Chances are you will experience, on average, longer days your first year than any other, but just go with it! Don’t freak out that you’re leaving stuff on your to-do list; just set a time that you’re going to go home and address your most time-sensitive priorities on the list first. Then buy yourself an absolutely giant fountain Diet Coke on the way home, like I do.
4. I spent way too much money
Holy moly. I shudder to think of how much money I spent my first year. I offered way too many extrinsic rewards, restocked my own supplies before asking around or doing research, and didn’t know about other resources/discounts available to me. It’s true that as a teacher, you will definitely have to spend a good bit of your own money, but it doesn’t have to be an amount that will make you tear your face off when you see your bank statement.
Some quick tips on not going broke:
- For supplies that seem to always be dwindling, assign one item to each class period at the beginning of the year. For instance, first period brings hand sanitizer, second period brings Kleenex, third period brings a ream of paper, fourth period brings a pack of fireworks. Hahaha. Just kidding (or am I?).
- Create a project at Donors Choose. It’s a great resource for getting classroom supplies and is a great way of getting your friends and family invested in what you do.
- Limit yourself on how many extrinsic rewards you will allow per month. It adds up fast!
- Ask around before buying something yourself. Chances are somebody has what you need, knows a good place for you to get what you need at a discount, or knows about a secret supply closet somewhere.
- Lots of places have teacher discounts. Don’t be afraid to ask!
5. I worried too much
Some of the worrying I did my first year of teaching was valid. I worried that I had zero control over my second-period class (true), that the vocabulary game I made up was actually very boring (true), and that my caffeine intake was approaching lethal territory (true). But I also worried about things that were ridiculous, like that I was the world’s greatest failure of a teacher, that every time I was called into the office, I was about to get fired, or that my students weren’t going to remember anything I taught them and would fail their standardized tests with perfect zeros.
But here’s the bottom line, first-year teacher friends: If you are investing in your students, designing reasonably effective lessons (even if they aren’t as effective as they were in your head), and being diligent about identifying and fixing the things that truly aren’t working, they will learn. Even if you feel like a total failure, I can promise, as someone who’s been there, that you’re not. (Definitely keep doing your best and try to improve where you can, but don’t get so hung up on the worrisome stuff that you are paralyzed by fear or burn out.)
Other mistakes I made that didn’t quite make the list: not taping down cords/wires to the floor and thereby tripping over them in front of class, accidentally writing my own name instead of a student’s on an office referral and having to endure weeks of shaming reminders from my students, wearing a dress backwards unintentionally, and lending Expo markers to other teachers with the expectation that they will actually remember to return them to me.