Open Letter to a First-Year Teacher (From a Second-Year Teacher)
Dear New Teacher,
You will have a tremendous amount of pressure when you enter your classroom this fall. Along with the responsibilities outlined by your school’s administration, there are district guidelines, mandatory training classes, required documents, and additional “voluntold” duties, on top of lesson planning, curriculum development, and a never-ending amount of “necessary” policies with which to contend. But don’t let all these responsibilities make you nervous. Having just finished my first year in teaching, I want to offer some tips that I think may help you survive your days as a freshman educator.
Don’t take it personally. As I was setting up before my first day with my students last year, I had it fixed in my mind how much I wanted them to “like” being in my class. In the same way, I entered my first year of teaching ambitious to have all my students “like” me as a teacher. I understood that I was not there to be anyone’s BFF, and I established appropriate personal and professional boundaries, but I still wanted to connect with my students in a positive way.
After a few days, I knew this was not going to happen with all of them. No matter what I did to reach out, I had students who would fall asleep or disengage, students who would occupy themselves with work from another class, and still others who would do nothing at all. I realized that I had to reevaluate how I perceived these actions, as well as comments and criticism from my students (and from some faculty members) about my style of teaching.
Despite having previous careers in the military and law enforcement, fields in which it is vital to develop a thick skin, I realized that I was taking things too personally. I had to acknowledge that there are some things I can’t control, and by conceding control, I allowed myself the freedom to politely ignore or respond constructively to unexpected situations or negative criticisms as they came up. This was my key to staying emotionally in check.
Have an outlet. At the same time, you should have a way to process those events that are too personal or painful to ignore or respond to directly. Find a colleague, preferably a veteran or mentor teacher, to whom you can express your frustrations and concerns. Every teacher has been a first-year teacher. Every teacher has gone through some of the same struggles you are going through. As you go through the year, you will find that validation for your feelings and support from another teacher can be invaluable. And remember, it is one thing to compartmentalize your emotions and wait for an appropriate outlet. But simply ignoring your honest feelings may result in problems down the line.
You may also find it helpful to reflect on your experiences in writing or journaling. This can be done in a variety of ways, but a key is to reflect on the totality of the experience (as opposed to just complaining about the issue in question). What about the event concerned you? What worked well in your attempt to resolve? And most important, how can you make it better? A journal is not just an outlet, but a reflection and reference for your teaching. A model that I’ve often turned to is veteran English teacher Jim Burke’s englishcompanion.com, which offers a range of explorations and tips about life in the classroom.
Organize. Take an inventory of your organizational personality. Are you the type to make lists, neatly stack papers, label folders, and methodically date and time-stamp your correspondence? Or are you the type who prefers organized chaos—you know where everything is and you have a method to your madness? We all have our different systems, but it helps to know know what yours will be for everything from taking attendance to collecting and receiving student assignments; from restroom procedures to accepting late work; from making announcements to documenting conferences. There is no end to the number of areas for which an organizational process may be beneficial, so don’t overburden yourself on controlling everything. Instead, start planning with the first week of school in mind in order to lessen the possibility of forgetting something important during those critical first days.
You can build on the foundation you create at the start of the school year and modify your organizational processes as you learn new methods or find that certain methods aren’t working. For example, effective classroom management is critical to promote a successful learning environment, so make sure to develop your expectations, policies, and procedures and communicate with your students about them. Visibly post your expectations as a daily reminder for your students, revisit them as often as necessary, and be consistent in your enforcement. In helping to identify key issues for organizing my classroom, I found The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher by Harry K. Wong and Rosemary T. Wong to be extremely helpful.
Simplify. You have probably recognized that the amount of resources available to teachers seems to grow each year at an exponential rate. You attend a training, read an article, watch a show on television or online, or receive a recommendation from another educator and the next thing you know you have shelves of books and videos that are “perfect” for a lesson or activity. Beware: The cliché “too much of a good thing” applies here. You have a limited amount of time to work through your curriculum, so be very careful not to spend valuable time on something that may look promising on the surface but will yield little in the classroom. In my classroom, I had four shelves of “professional texts” that held the potential to supplement my regular resources. In the end, I used only five books … all of them were literary reference books. The scenario is akin to setting a toddler loose in a toy store and saying, “Pick out what looks good.” The cart will come back full, but only one toy will be the favorite. So research, study, watch the videos and shows, ask for advice—but be selective when it comes to the resources that you actively use for any given unit of study. You can always discuss changes during your professional-learning community meetings if something better comes along.
Trust yourself. Don’t discount what you bring to the classroom. You have studied long hours in both your degree and teaching-certification programs, trained diligently through field work and student teaching, and independently labored to satisfy your need for personal and professional development. You are ready to take this on. Trust that you will be successful. Be confident in your abilities. Don’t let the fact that you are new teacher be a barrier to achievement. Look at every small accomplishment (no matter how small it may seem) and remind yourself that you are doing great things. And when you finish your first year, and that one hard-working but struggling student stops and says, “Thank you,” you will know that you have done your job.
I hope you are excited to start your career as a teacher and that these small bits of advice will help you find success during your first year.