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A Survival Guide for New Teachers

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It’s here: your first year of teaching. Have you developed a touch of insomnia thinking about it? Are you pining for a guiding light to lead the way? Are you wondering what teaching is really like?

Here’s a quick glimpse:

Day one. Students take their seats. Most kids know each other from the previous year; that makes you the new kid on the block.

Students capitalize on this and decide to mess with you. While you take attendance, Mark decides to switch names and call himself Alonso—but there is no Alonso on your roster. The other students start to snicker, seeing your uncertainty as you frantically search your list, wondering why this glitch has happened. Maybe you missed something?

By now, the whole class has decided that today—your first day as a teacher—they are not going to take you seriously. You’ve failed to establish control, and you’ll never get it back.

Ok, you can stop panicking—I made this up. It’s not likely to happen. But in teaching, you’ll quickly learn that nearly anything is possible. And you’ve got to figure out a way to survive. Here’s my guide to surviving the first year of teaching.

1. Be realistic about your goals. If you’ve come to teaching to change the world, prepare for a prompt fall from grace. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a great goal. But that kind of thinking will frustrate you and cause potentially irreversible stress leading you straight to no-man’s-land — otherwise known as Burnout-ville.

Instead, set small, measurable goals for your classroom and practice. Avoid planning that elusive “perfect lesson.” Hone your skills on specifics: using sentence frames, providing background and context, closing your lesson, and making student learning mandatory. Give yourself clear guidelines for gauging whether a lesson was successful.

These small skills are actually the arrows that fill your teaching quiver. Think, “I want to get better at ___” and be concrete about filling in that blank. Ask colleagues and coaches about specific skills they value, and research those keywords (YouTube is a goldmine). Better yet, watch a veteran or talented teacher in the act, marking down what skills you’d like to adopt. Doing this chips away at the monumental task of teaching and will reduce the stress that accompanies it.

Instead of wondering, “Am I an effective teacher?” rely on the skills you build and the results they produce. The key to getting better is resiliency—how well you bounce back from missing the target. Deliberately build your resiliency with Google’s mindfulness program Search Inside Yourself.

2. Find a way to manage stress. You may already have stress-reducing techniques you use. But it’s important to keep non-teaching hobbies at the forefront during the school year in order to avoid burnout.

Teachers work in a unique field that requires unique self-care. You are surrounded by people vying for your attention at a rate you’ve never experienced before. Seek activities that require some solitude, such as: mindfulness meditation, a weekend walk at the park, coffee at your local coffee shop, or drawing in a sketch book and getting creative.

Whatever you do, you must maintain a non-teacher life. It will give you the mental clarity to return to your students refreshed and ready to give your all—a requisite for every teacher.

3. Avoid venting too much. The American education system isn’t perfect. You’re here because of your passion, which means you might have charged emotions and opinions. And because our system isn’t perfect, there is room for complaining. But be warned—using these endless conundrums as fuel for your conversations will take your focus away from the things that you have the power to change.

Instead, tread your teacher path by asking questions, seeking solutions, and telling positive, intriguing, and funny stories.

4. “We’re all failures.” I use this quote to kick off every school year. Most students laugh when they hear it; some are bewildered. But I mean it. Failure must be looked at through a different lens in order to get any use out of it.

This notion of reclaiming failure is meant to brand it with a new face, one that reflects what failing actually looks like: trying. To teach is an art. This means you have to take it apart, mess around a lot, and come up with what is a modest attempt at a final product.

Keep in mind that the only worthwhile verb in teaching is do. Go into your first year expecting not to get things right. This allows you to look at teaching, lesson planning, and even the art of learning from a broad perspective—otherwise known as a growth mindset.

C.S. Lewis wisely said, “Failures are finger posts on the road to achievement.”

In teaching, it’s essential to view failure not as part of the process, but the process. It’s very easy to convince yourself that you’re an expert right away, or that you have to know every answer to every question.

Throw those ideas away. They will not serve you.

Embrace your naiveté. You are a learner, like your students. You’re in this together. But you are the master learner. When students approach you with questions, embody Socrates and pose one right back. This will show students that it’s OK to ask questions and be unclear. In fact, throwing yourself into the unknown is at the heart of learning. This process will make you take risks and will rub off on your students to do the same.

5. Learn to let go. Taking a new perspective when something doesn’t go as planned is another concrete skill that will help you fail with grace. One way to help you let go of your failures is to write them down.

Keep a journal. Describe what didn’t go as planned. Whether it’s how you made an assessment, communicated a point, or dealt with a tricky situation, let no failure go unmarked. Then find a way to do it differently next time.

I recommend this same process for the things that worked well. Just keep in mind: Like changing winds, good ideas are momentary. Be flexible and innovative with your pedagogical practices. Avoid getting too comfy with how you do things. As William Faulkner said, “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” In teaching, it’s indispensable to maintain a lukewarm fondness for your ideas.

This year, amongst all the uncertainty, please be assured that you are helping. You won’t always see how, and you will wonder if you truly are, but know that your efforts mean seeds are being planted. Take comfort in this idea—it will help you survive and flourish through your toughest times.

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