First Person

What I Learned From My Failures—and Victories—in My First Year Teaching

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I never expected my first year of teaching to be easy. The statistics on job turnover, the warnings from family friends, and the horror stories from college classmates I had contacted after their first years nearly scared me away from the profession entirely. Despite the warnings coming at me from all angles, I jumped in last December; I haven’t looked back, but my expectation that the year would be difficult certainly came true.

A little background: My first year in teaching was really a half year. After student-teaching in fall 2015, I was hired full time in December to replace an English teacher who was expected to leave in January. When she ended up staying, they gave me a long-term substitute position covering for a 10th grade English teacher’s maternity leave, which lasted from the beginning of February to the beginning of April (coinciding with standardized-testing season in my state). Then, for the remainder of the year, I replaced a 9th grade English teacher who had passed away. So, I had three different sets of students in a single school year.

By the end of the year, I had, more or less, invaded two different classes of students I didn’t know and who didn’t know me, which meant I had to work extra hard to earn their trust and respect. And I didn’t always get it. Managing student behavior was a battle each day; sometimes I won, and sometimes they did.

As a beginning teacher starting midyear at a 4,000-student high school that receives Title I funds for disadvantaged students, I was overwhelmed by the expectations placed on me and the long hours, not to mention the classroom-management challenges. That semester was turbulent at best: Each day brought a different challenge that I improvised my way through. As with many teachers’ first years, I basically just survived, looking forward to a day when I could be more confident in my craft and actually thrive.

But through the difficulty of teaching more than 300 students during the same school year, I feel as though I learned three years’ worth of novice-teacher lessons in just six months. I messed up—a lot—and I know I’m not the only first-year teacher who has felt that way.

I’m immeasurably fortunate to work at a school where the faculty welcomed me, offered me advice, encouraged me, and helped me do the best I could. It is because of their advice, their support, and their wisdom that I even had a few victories last year.

Through a combination of these victories and failures, I have arrived at three reflections that, I think, apply to teachers of all years of experience—but are most relevant to new teachers, naturally. This school year, I have done my best to put these three guidelines at the top of my priority list, and I believe that this year will bring many more victories than last.

Be Your Own Administrator

This piece of advice came to me from the teacher I was initially hired to replace. As I entered a classroom that wasn’t my own, with students I didn’t know, I felt vulnerable and mistakenly assumed that administrators would come rushing to my aid should I have any discipline issues. As those discipline issues arose, a couple different administrators did try to help by coming into my class and addressing my students on their behavior, but I think their interventions had the opposite effect than was intended: My students then saw me as a teacher who needed to call in backup because she couldn’t handle them on her own. Later, when I emailed administrators to plead for more help with individual students, I got a very short email in return that said, “Call parents.”

The fact of the matter is that when your students are disrespectful, skipping, or unmotivated, your administrators, no matter how supportive they are—and I have outstanding administrators!—can’t spend too much time feeling bad for you, so you can't rely on them to come running to your rescue. I think there are two reasons for this: 1) Discipline referrals create more work for administrators; and 2) the referral is probably, to some extent, the teacher’s own fault.

I know what you’re thinking—in a world where teachers are expected to be all things to all people, why should we also take responsibility for our students’ misbehavior? While we may not be able to control it, we can manage it. In my own case, those referrals were, at bottom, my fault. I wasn’t projecting the attitude that I was in charge, and I was inconsistent in reinforcing my expectations for student behavior. I needed to enforce misbehavior consequences immediately, urgently, and confidently. I inadvertently made kids guess about my expectations instead of making sure they knew the exact repercussions that would occur as soon as they decided to take out their phones or to swear in my classroom.

And so, with a couple students, I went straight to the “referral” stage because I couldn’t manage their behavior on my own anymore. At my campus, referrals effectively mean in-school suspension. So writing a referral ensures that a student will miss a day of my instruction and will assume that I don’t want him or her in my classroom. That’s the message I sent to a couple of students, one that they can’t afford to hear.

Build Relationships With Your Students

On the contrary, I should have sent the message to my students that I was thrilled to have them in my class. And I did send that message to some, but not all. I’ve realized, though, that many students who misbehave do so because they have had few positive experiences with authority, which means you have to go above and beyond in modeling what such relationships look like.

I had positive relationships with most of my students last year, with the exception of a few outliers. I built connections with my students, first, by making a point to learn their names as soon as possible. I set a goal to know them all by the end of the first week, which didn’t quite happen, but my students could see my effort, and they appreciated it.

I also asked them about their lives, about their families—I talked to them during my hallway and lunch-duty assignments whenever I could. And more importantly than talking to them, I listened to them as attentively as I could. I went to sports events and dance shows and gave my congratulations afterward. High school students feel so misunderstood and judged by the adults around them. I learned that when I gave them the opportunity to speak freely, I unleashed this acceptance and trust that they desperately craved but often hadn’t received. I have discovered that making it crystal clear to my students that I respect them has afforded me the same respect tenfold.

Focus on Instruction

Part of building strong relationships with your students is showing them that you put thought into each day’s lesson. It shows them that their future is worth your time and energy.

One day last year, one of my most defeating moments as a teacher ended up turning into a victory: I had a walk-through observation, and my observer remarked on my poor classroom management in front of my students. Though I tried to hide my embarrassment, my students knew I was upset. After the observer left, one of my toughest students came to my defense, almost angry that I’d been reprimanded, and said, “Don’t listen to that. You actually teach us.” I did listen to my observer, of course, but I also took what my student said to heart. I knew they could tell that I took my job (and them) seriously, and I truly believe they appreciated it, even if they weren’t always great at showing it.

It’s evident to students when you care about your job, and it’s evident to them when you don’t. They can read us: They know when a teacher puts effort into creating quality lessons they will enjoy and assessing them fairly, and they know when a teacher is there to collect a paycheck. This year, already, students have expressed to me that they can tell I’m excited to teach every day.

A New Start

So now I am a month into my first full year as a teacher and armed with my many learning experiences from last year. I’ve been reminded that a teacher’s work is endless, and sometimes I am so tired when I get home from work that I feel I won’t have enough energy to do it all again tomorrow. Despite the fatigue common to all teachers, though, my classroom management has improved greatly, I am going out of my way to make sure my kids who seem especially closed-off know that I’m thrilled to be their teacher, and I’m planning the best lessons I possibly can.

That’s how I can serve, honor, and care for my students best.

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