In my first year as a teacher, I was given full responsibility for ensuring that my students received an excellent science education that would set them up for future success. My in-classroom responsibilities were not that different from the in-classroom responsibilities of my colleagues who have taught for over ten years. Furthermore, unlike my friends who became consultants, research assistants, computer programmers, etc. right out of college, I was put into a management role immediately. My direct reports were my ninety fifth grade students.
To the first-year teacher reading this, you’re probably going through a similar experience right now. You’ve been given the full responsibilities of your profession and have to learn, not only how to succeed as an individual, but how to lead your children to success. This learning curve is daunting. As a result, you could be in for an incredibly difficult experience, professionally and psychologically.
Given these challenges, there are five things I believe all first-year teachers should do to make their first year teaching more sustainable and joyful. Some are things that I did well as a first-year teacher and others are things that I wish I did. These aren’t systemic things–these are things a single teacher has the power to request, and schools can make available, even within the context of larger systemic issues. These larger systemic issues will be the topic for a future post.
1. Ask for curriculum in a box.
I spent hours of my day, every day, writing assessments, unit plans, and lesson plans as well as creating in-class materials ranging from worksheets to PowerPoint presentations. I tried to save time by searching for some of these things online, but at the time I couldn’t find a single comprehensive set of all of these things, which meant in-class materials weren’t aligned to unit plans, which weren’t aligned to assessments. Furthermore, I was a first-year teacher and sleep-deprived — most of what I created was awful.
What I really needed was curriculum in a box, a set of high quality assessments, unit plans, lesson plans, and in-class materials that were created and curated by a teacher who taught the same grade level and subject using the same state standards, with students from a similar starting level, that was well-organized and easily modifiable. This curriculum could be stored on BetterLesson, on a flashdrive, purchased from a high quality vendor, anything, as long as it meets the criteria above. This would have saved me at least two hours a day, which I could have used to differentiate the material for my students, practice actually delivering lessons, and calling students and parents to build relationships. School leaders should make it a top priority to hand this curriculum in a box to their first-year teachers as soon as they are hired and first-year teachers who do not have this should ask for it.
I’m not saying that first-year teachers should not be lesson planning, or that they should not be creative. What I’m saying is that your lesson planning could be a lot more effective if you were given a comprehensive set of high-quality materials to start with, and that you would improve as a teacher a lot faster and be a lot happier because of it.
2. Seek mentorship by master teachers.
I am most grateful for the unwavering support master teachers gave me in my first years of teaching. Whenever I needed to feel inspired, I would drop in on a master teacher’s classroom to watch him or her in action. Whenever I had an issue, I would ask my fellow teachers for their ideas. After we came up with a plan, they would drop in on my classroom to give me feedback on how well I executed on that plan.
In addition, not only were the master teachers at my school exemplars of teaching practice; they were also exemplary human beings. They modeled humility by always being willing to learn, they cared deeply about their students, families, and colleagues, and they were there to be a shoulder for me to cry on as well as the cheerleading squad for when I needed encouragement.
Make building relationships with other teachers a priority. Master teachers can be found in your school, at a school in another neighborhood, online. You will quickly find a handful that can provide the support, and you will find that they will be both an inspiration as well as a guide.
3. Hold yourself to a clear and reasonable set of priorities.
The best thing a master teacher told me was prioritize my personal health. That means, getting enough sleep, eating well, exercising, and talking things out with people who care is more important than anything else. Putting time and energy into teaching at the sacrifice of my own health would only lead to sacrificing my students.
The second best thing a master teacher told me was, “Teaching is a marathon, not a sprint.” It takes time, experience, and learning from failure to get from just barely passable as a teacher to great. That’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up over every mistake. Look for wins. Celebrate them. Recognize that becoming a master teacher takes constant, incremental progress over time.
Furthermore, try improving only one or two things in your class at a time. At one point I was changing my unit planning at the same time as I was trying new education technology and implementing a new grading process. That was too much. Only after you’ve thoroughly implemented one change should you move on to the next. This creates a more consistent classroom environment for students and helps identify the things that are really making a difference for them. If you don’t know what you should be focusing on, ask your coach. While there are many places for you to improve, there are some places where an improvement would yield greater benefits over others.
Finally, remember why you became a teacher in the first place. I worked at a school that valued, first and foremost, our students as people. We thought about what was best for them, not one year down the line, not even five years down the line, but ten, twenty, thirty years down the line. As long as I kept that in mind, I was able to make good decisions about what to focus on (e.g. 21st century skills and character development) and what not to focus on (e.g. test prep).
4. Build systems for managing life outside of class time.
It’s a common misconception that teachers only work during school hours. Teachers also lesson plan, prepare their physical classrooms, give feedback on student work, call students and parents, go to professional development, and collaborate with other teachers. Yet, there is precious little support given to first-year teachers through formal teaching programs around how to manage all these outside of class time activities.
To compensate, I suggest reading See Me After Class by Roxanna Elden, which has practical advice for all the things I’ve mentioned and more. I also recommend The Together Teacher by Maia Heyck-Merlin, a book on how to manage the bazillion things on a teacher’s to-do list. Finally, before you do anything, ask yourself, ‘Can a student or volunteer do this?’ If the answer is ‘Yes,’ then stop, make a plan for training a student or volunteer to do the thing you were just about to do, and then execute on that plan. For systems on everything else, ask your veteran teacher friends or search online for teacher bloggers who are usually more than happy to help a new teacher out.
By systematizing repetitive tasks and being as efficient and productive as possible, you’ll feel less like you’re drowning in work that never gets done and more like you’re on top of your life.
5. Seek opportunities to build relationships with students.
Master teachers know how to turn a moment of independent work into an opportunity to learn more about a child, or to give a secret smile to the student who just accomplished something that was once very difficult. They have internalized teaching skills that are second nature to them, which gives them the ability to think clearly and connect with their students while in the classroom. As a first-year teacher, however, you may be so caught up in how to deliver your lessons and how to maintain classroom discipline that you may be struggling to build these relationships while teaching.
Therefore, begin building these relationships with your students early on, even if it means more time outside of class tutoring, making home visits, or going to sports games. In the end, it’s the relationships that matter most.
So to the first-year teachers out there, try doing these five things as soon as possible. Your investment in finding that curriculum in a box, seeking mentors, prioritizing, systematizing your outside-of-class activities, and building relationships with your students will yield incredible benefits of time, energy, and sustainability.
Start immediately by taking just 10 minutes to do the
- Ask your school leader, coach, and fellow teachers for their suggestions on curriculum in a box that could work for your students. For example, if anyone asked me about middle school science, I would suggest IQWST.
- Email teachers you admire whom you’d like as mentors and simply ask them if you could take them out to coffee our pick their brains a bit after school.
- Write three things that you are working on improving for the next month, and three things only. Write everything else under “Permission to Focus on Later”
- Purchase See Me After Class and The Together Teacher.
- Call two students’ families and say only positive things about those students. Write on your to-do list two other students’ families to call.
Finally, good luck. We’re rooting for you.