Opinion
Teaching Profession Opinion

Advice to New Teachers From a 20-Year Veteran

7 lessons I’ve learned from two decades in the classroom
By Stephen Guerriero — October 19, 2021 4 min read
Illustration of hands holding up lightbulbs representing ideas.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

This school year marks my 20th year as a teacher. Reflecting back, I’ve learned some important lessons in my teaching career that I’d offer to any new teacher . These lessons are of particular importance during the ongoing upheaval of the pandemic, but they will continue to serve you through the rest of your career.

  • Take care of yourself first. In teaching, most of our instincts tell us to be selfless, altruistic, giving. And while that is a noble set of impulses, burnout is a real danger to good teachers, especially during this late stage of a pandemic that has injected so much uncertainty. You cannot give your best work to your job and to your students if you are barely hanging on. If you are sleep-deprived or overworked, it is much harder to have patience and understanding. The best teachers are those who make time to fill themselves with joy and curiosity outside the classroom so that they can bring it back to their students.
  • Find a mentor. There is no better way to navigate the world of teaching than with a guide. The best way to find a great mentor is to observe. See what other teachers are doing in their classrooms. Which ones have meaningful connections with students? Which ones are still energized by the job and can always find the humor in any situation but aren’t cynical? Whose class would you have loved to have been in when you were a student? That’s the teacher you want to ask to be your mentor. The earlier you can forge a relationship with a positive role model, the better you will be able to handle the everyday challenges of first-year teaching.
  • Consider your reputation. Your professionalism, instructional methodology, collaborative spirit, and willingness to build meaningful relationships are all assets to your teaching career. A colleague always refers to his four sections of math by saying they’re “four live shows a day.” Students are always watching you closely—they respond to your energy. Students sense when you’re being disingenuous, and they can feel if you care about them. If you are open and honest, you will earn the reputation of someone other teachers can go to for help and advice. If you work hard to build relationships with your students, your colleagues and the community will know it, too.
  • Mental health is physical health. Teaching can be an exhausting endeavor—and not in the way that a good night’s sleep will cure. Working with kids is fun, enriching, and meaningful. But it also means having students that make impulsive decisions, students who have unsettled home lives, or a student whose parent might have cancer. After a year and a half of uncertainty created by the pandemic, teachers are dealing with mental-health challenges like never before. The most important part of mental wellness is making space to process how you are doing, feeling, and reacting. Just as teachers work on the social and emotional aspects of students’ development, we also need to make sure we are modeling good mental-health hygiene as well.
  • Know your admins. Teaching can sometimes feel like being isolated in a crowd. For most of my school day, I’m the only person over the age of 12 in my classroom. That’s why I make a point to eat lunch with my 6th grade team colleagues. It’s also why I make a point to develop strong relationships with the administrators in my building, in my department, and at the central office. Administrators are not some distant force behind a curtain. Keeping clear lines of communication means that you can have an open dialogue with your supervisors and that you can ask them to be clear with you about their expectations.
  • Know your students and their community. COVID-19 has shown us that schools are often at the heart of a local community. They provide an education, yes, but also meals for many students, a place for civic engagement, extracurricular activities, town meetings, and polling places. Many families have suffered the trauma of illness and even death, coupled with job losses, an eviction crisis, and the slow-rolling hardship of the pandemic. Knowing the challenges and celebrations of the community you teach is an important aspect of knowing your students.
  • Let your students know you. This one is sometimes the toughest piece of advice to follow. I had older teachers at the beginning of my career say things like, “Don’t let them see you smile until November.” Obviously, that advice is stupid. And it doesn’t work. Instead, students want to know you—what you’re about. They take interest when you talk about your hobbies, or travels, or even your own experience as a student. I have a photo of me, my dad, and the 2011 Stanley Cup on a bulletin board surrounded by Boston Bruins memorabilia, and this small display has sparked so many great conversations with kids. I love talking to them about my travels in Greece and Italy and my archaeological digs. I talk about my husband and how he finds museums boring, while I want to spend hours in a single gallery. I’ve told my students about my 7th grade Latin teacher who taught every class as if he were a great actor on stage and how he sparked my great love for ancient history. You will find that if you give your students a peek into who you are, they will reciprocate.

I hope that my fellow teachers, and especially those who are new to the profession, are able to find the right balance between great teaching and self-care. But I also want to be clear: We veteran teachers are struggling, too. This pandemic has really shaken us, but we’ve also seen the job get harder and more complex. Since March 2020, nothing has been clearer to me than that we are truly all in this together, in our classrooms, in our schools, and in our communities. I wish you great joy and success this school year, but I want you to allow for growth and setbacks, too. Over time, all of them make you stronger.

A version of this article appeared in the October 27, 2021 edition of Education Week as Advice to New Teachers From a 20-Year Veteran

Events

Special Education Webinar Reading, Dyslexia, and Equity: Best Practices for Addressing a Threefold Challenge
Learn about proven strategies for instruction and intervention that support students with dyslexia.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Families & the Community Webinar
How Whole-Child Student Data Can Strengthen Family Connections
Learn how district leaders can use these actionable strategies to increase family engagement in their student’s education and boost their academic achievement.
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
College & Workforce Readiness Webinar
The School to Workforce Gap: How Are Schools Setting Students Up For Life & Lifestyle Success?
Hear from education and business leaders on how schools are preparing students for their leap into the workforce.
Content provided by Find Your Grind

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Teaching Profession Opinion Linda Darling-Hammond Wins International Prize for Education Research
The recipient of the 2022 Yidan Prize talks about the divide between research and policy, teacher professional development, and equity.
7 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Teaching Profession Q&A How This Teacher Builds Relationships, Has Fun, and Makes Money on TikTok
Joe Harmon is one of the growing number of teachers who is making funny videos about classroom life—and monetizing them.
7 min read
Joe Harmon, a social studies teacher in Pennsylvania, makes satirical TikTok videos poking fun at what happens in his classroom.
Joe Harmon, a social studies teacher in Pennsylvania, makes satirical TikTok videos poking fun at what happens in his classroom.
Via @dr.harmon on TikTok
Teaching Profession What the Research Says Later School Start Times Could Help Teachers, Too
Most discussion of school start times centers on benefits to late-sleeping adolescents, but a new study looks at the effects on teachers.
3 min read
Silhouette of a woman hanging from the hour arm of a clock set at 9.
DigitalVision Vectors
Teaching Profession 'Does Anyone Else Cry After Work?': Teacher Reddit Is the Unfiltered Voice of Educators
Amid rising pressures, teachers take to the platform to find solace, build solidarity, and most of all—vent.
6 min read
An opened laptop displaying a teacher reddit website, overlayed by the following 5 headlines: My student threatened to shoot up the school, so I resigned. Everyone is mad at me. I can't afford to be a teacher anymore. Are students getting more openly 'mean' to teachers? 47 kindergartners in my classroom this year. That's it. That's the post. Quiet quitting is happening at my school.
Illustration by Gina Tomko/Education Week and iStock/Getty