This particular post comes to you as I try to wrap my head around going back to work on Monday after fifteen months off. I left mid-October of 2014 after being placed on medical leave for the last few months of my pregnancy, handing off a lovely group of students to a great teacher for the rest of the year. That was difficult, but I knew they were in good hands. This time, I’m taking over a class someone else has been teaching for the first half of the year – something I find much more difficult.
This isn’t the first time I’ve taken over for another teacher. Having done this a few times now at different grade levels, I’ve learned a few things to help make the process a little smoother.
Introduce yourself! This might seem like a no-brainer to some of you out there, but communication with families is really important. No matter what time of year you’re starting, you should either send a letter home or invite families into the school to meet you. I actually like to do both. Your letter doesn’t have to be huge and really shouldn’t be your life story, but a little bit of background is nice to include – where you’re from, how long you’ve been teaching, that sort of thing.
Get to know your students. I start the first day by playing a few get-to-know-you games, then transition into a variety of activities meant to provide insight into where my students are with language. I’m a French Immersion teacher, and at my level I don’t teach math, but if I did I would include some activities to learn their problem solving/reasoning skills in that subject as well.
Find out your students’ goals for learning. This is the perfect time of year to talk about goal setting and have your students do a learning skills self-assessment (in fact, I do that every year already). Goal setting can tell you a lot about a student and where their strengths are. I find students are typically very honest when discussing their learning skills, too. Those two activities can give you a lot of insight into your students’ strengths and areas for improvement.
Don’t try to change the routine all at once. You don’t have to be stuck with the routine the previous teacher put into place before you arrived, but you really shouldn’t overhaul everything at once. Transitioning from one teacher to another is already stressful for students, so try to keep most of the routine familiar to them while you gradually implement your own ideas. It’s hard to rein in your excitement, I know, and sometimes you just have so many ideas you want to try them all right away before you forget them. Resist that urge – you don’t want to overwhelm your students.
Resist gossiping about the previous teacher, either with colleagues or students and their families. I’ve been there, I know all about it: people will try to engage you in discussing the previous teacher’s style, personality, and methods. Just don’t do it. I probably don’t have to tell anyone this.
Don’t take on too much outside the classroom. I love running extracurricular activities, but when I’m starting an assignment partway through the year, I try to limit how much I’m doing other than teaching my class. I need the extra time to plan and, I’ll be honest, unwind. You have lots and lots and lots of years ahead of you to do the drama club or sports team you love doing. Sometimes, it’s incredibly liberating to just have to worry about teaching your class every day.
Remember that students need time to adjust. Don’t take anything they say or do the first few weeks personally – I’ve had students decide on the first day that they hate me, only to have them declare me their favourite teacher by the end of the year. I’ve had students do a complete 180 in behaviour when I started. Students will react differently from one teacher to the next, and they need time to adapt to having a new teacher.
Finally, don’t be discouraged. I find starting partway through the year much harder than starting at the beginning. I feel lost for a few weeks every time, and I think that’s a normal part of the process. Just like at the beginning of the year, it will take time for you to find your footing and get into a groove with your new class. All you can do is show up and do your best every day.