The first five years of teaching come, perhaps unexpectedly, with a lot of highs and a lot of lows. It’s no secret that many new teachers end up leaving the profession due to stress. It’s hard to go from the support of an Associate Teacher in your practicum placements to flying solo in your own classroom. Are you doing this right? Are your students learning? What if something crazy happens?
Here are a few of the most important things I’ve learned in my first five years.
1. You will have good days and bad days.
Some days, you’ll feel like you are the world’s best teacher. You might finish an activity, send the students off for the day, and want to run to tell the nearest adult that you really nailed that math lesson. You might take photos of your students’ work so that you can include them in your portfolio for interviews.
Other days, you’ll struggle just to make it through the day without crying. Your students won’t listen, your lesson plan will go wrong, you’ll forget your supplies (or realize that every one of your 30 packets of notes to give to your students is missing a key page), a fire drill will happen in the middle of an activity that was going really well… the possibilities for ‘top ways to ruin a teacher’s day’ seem endless. Sometimes it will even feel like your students are out to get you; as if they know that you didn’t sleep last night, or you fought with your significant other this morning, or your kids are sick.
It isn’t just you. Every teacher has both kinds of moments. Enjoy the really good days and find yourself someone you can excitedly tell about your awesome day. On the not so good days, remind yourself that it’s just one day out of the year. You have 193 other days. They can’t all be bad.
2. Always have a back-up plan.
No matter how prepared you are, every lesson won’t go smoothly. Sometimes, you may even find that you have to abandon an activity entirely because it just isn’t working. This has happened to me at least once every year, and that’s a very conservative estimate.
I keep a binder of activities ready to go in my classroom. There are enough photocopies/supplies on hand at all times for any of those activities. (Side note: this is also helpful for when you have supply teachers in because they can pull an activity from there if necessary.) On days when my students just cannot handle whatever free-form activity I planned for that day, I set that activity aside for another day and pull one of these back-up activities out.
What you put into that binder will really depend on your class and what subjects you teach. My binder of back-ups has never been the same from year to year. Mostly I keep it simple: vocabulary games, partner games for math, that sort of thing.
3. Not all of your students are going to like you.
Some new teachers try really hard to be liked by their students. It’s an admirable notion to try to connect with every single one of your students, but it’s also unrealistic. Life doesn’t work that way. I’m not saying that every year you’ll have a kid in your class who is rude – that’s not true! But every year there will be at least one student who never really clicks with you. It’s okay. Don’t take it personally. I promise they’re still learning even when they don’t like you all that much. The key thing I try to get through to my students is that they don’t have to like me, but they do have to show me respect.
4. Your students ARE learning.
You may finish a year feeling like nothing ever went as planned. You may get to June and realize you haven’t taught half of the specific expectations in the curriculum. You may start the year with grand notions of never using worksheets, never giving tests, and being the Best Teacher Ever, only to get to the end of June and realize you didn’t meet any of those goals.
No matter what happens, your students are learning. They may not always be learning the thing you intend for them to learn*, but they’re still learning. Just try and stop them!
*One year I made the mistake of trying to teach probability before checking my students’ knowledge of fractions first. Whoops! My lesson quickly ended up in a very different place than I had intended.
5. No news is (often) good news.
As a new teacher, one of the hardest things to get used to is that parents and colleagues who think you’re doing a good job will often not tell you that. It can become even harder if you have someone question something you do (and that will happen at some point) because you may feel like all you ever hear about are the things someone thinks you’re doing wrong.
I promise that many of your students’ parents think you’re doing great. Many of your colleagues do, too. As a society, we tend not to openly commend others for a job well done because for some reason we feel like we don’t need to, but we also tend to be highly self-critical and assume that we’re screwing up somehow. We allow for others to make mistakes and dismiss them as a part of life, but when we make mistakes ourselves we dwell on them and convince ourselves that all anyone will ever remember about us is that one time we did something wrong.
I can’t tell you how many times I have been impressed by a colleague’s work and meant to tell them that, but life got in the way. You see something you want to comment on, and then next thing you know it’s five o’clock, you need to get home, your colleague is gone anyway, and you completely forgot to commend them for that cool thing you saw them do. You tell yourself that you’ll definitely talk to them tomorrow, but odds are you’ll forget.
Someone out there is thinking that about you too.