When I was a first year teacher now nearly five years ago, I knew as much about teaching as I do about the types of clouds or the kinds of rocks: I had a vague recollection of learning facts about these things in school long, long ago, but put me in a rock museum or ask me to describe the clouds above my eyeballs, and I’d be stumped.
As a first year teacher, my knowledge of teaching was academic. In teachers’ college, I had been fed from a trough of fun, impractical theories; I had viewed classroom simulations comprised of perfectly behaved adults who playfully mimicked rebellious teenagers; I drank Starbucks lattes and sucked on bonbons as my professors talked about creativity, fun, and social justice. In short, I had no idea what hell awaited me.
Here is my practical advice for first year teachers.
A LETTER TO MYSELF ON MY FIRST DAY OF TEACHING (OR 14 TIPS TO SURVIVE THE FIRST YEAR TEACHING)
Dear First Year Teacher on Your First Day of Teaching:
Congratulations! You’ve made it to the big leagues. After years of studying, tutoring, and observing other teachers’ classrooms, here you are, in a classroom of your own, ready to inspire the next generation. Before your students enter your classroom, I have some advice.
The most important piece of advice?
1.Don’t fall for it.
I know, your professors talked about how children are wise and all-knowing—the beautiful future of our world— but know this: your students will not usher you lovingly into your classroom, your long-awaited Shangri-La.
Your students will test you as if you were a fool who stumbled onto skid row.
In the first week of school—and beyond—students will test your grit, your willpower, and your words. They will not sit in their seats quietly, respectfully listening to every word you say. They will test you with shout-outs, jokes, and fart noises. They will not do as you ask. They will leave the classroom to go to the bathroom, bring back a roll of toilet paper, and roll themselves up in it like a Christmas tree wrapped in white ribbon, while others dance to the rap music blaring from their cellphones. You will watch this chaotic disco, powerless, close to tears, surrounded by Reese’s Pieces and Skittle packs you bought with your own cash—bribes for good behaviour.
All of this could have been avoided.
Someone could have told you this: all classes are well-behaved and quiet in the first days of school. All of them. It’s a ruse! Don’t imagine for a second that you don’t need rules. YOU NEED RULES. You need to spend the whole first week going over your rules. Don’t go over rules like the Dead Poets Society professor would, either. Don’t act like the rules are an annoying formality, and that you really just love these cuddly, quiet young men and women in front of you, but you have to simply read the rules.
Proclaim the rules.
Then explain the rules. Explain the logic behind the rules: every single student in your classroom has the right to a high quality education, and you, their teacher, are 100% committed to delivering that high quality of education. You will therefore not tolerate any behaviour that destroys the quality of education in your classroom. You. Will. Not. Tolerate. It. Your rules are logical—explain the logic. Your rules are reasonable—explain your reasoning. And stick to your guns, enforcing the consequences you have set out. Do so impartially, immediately, and unemotionally. Keep your back straight; your face, expressionless; your voice clear, powerful, firm. For the first week, your job is to explain the rules, procedures, and consequences, and enforce them as the swift hand of justice.
Once you internalize your role as the swift hand of justice, you will realize that having enforcing logical rules and consequences is the most loving thing you can do for your students, and they will respect you for it. You will understand this worn maxim:
If you can’t control ’em, you can’t teach ’em.
Here are some other lessons you need to learn:
- 2. Dress like a professional. No jeans, no tees, or running shoes, even if senior teachers are wearing them. The seniors have earned the right to jeans. You are a fresh-faced youngin’. In many cases, you are only few years older than your wards. This is a dangerous situation. Act and look young, and the students will treat you like a buddy and will dismiss your rules like pesky flies. Look cool and hip, and your students will treat your class like happy hour. Dress sloppily and casually, and your administration—even if they profess to not care about casual dress—will judge you. You are on probation for an important job. Opt for business casual attire, and cover your body.
- 3. Expect to pay your dues. You will likely be assigned the classes no one wants. No use complaining. Count your first year as hard core classroom management training, like hard core hazing in the military. Be proud of your battle wounds. Learn to like the taste of tears.
4. Find veteran teachers and ask for advice. Don’t dismiss their techniques as “cold” and “harsh.” They have been hardened by many battles. They have thick skin; they have survived. To show your appreciation, do something nice for your veteran teachers. Get them coffee or offer to run an errand. Remember, they are just as busy as you are, but because they have big hearts, they stop to share advice with you.
- 5. Make some teacher friends. Aim for quality over quantity. Be polite to everyone, but recognize the people of integrity and hutzpah in your midst, and aim to befriend them. Start with your neighbours next to your classroom, and work your way down the hall. Start by offering a favour or co-planning a course you teach in common. If all else fails, turn to Reddit. Your teacher friends—the only ones who will get what you’re going through— will be your lifeline in the darkest days of your first year.
- 6. Shrug off the haters. Teachers can be territorial and mean. Perhaps it’s the bad coffee in the staff room, or one too many incoherent essays read, but some teachers inhabit the darkest corner of your first year teacher hell. They will not say “hi” to you in the halls, but they will snoop on your teaching and tell everyone what you’ve done to slip up. They will exclude you from their cliques—tightly wound nests of spite. You will shrug them off. What they do says more about them than you. Trust me on this.
- 7. Don’t take student comments personally. You will have some student haters. They will talk about you behind your back, and they won’t be saying anything nice. You will be shocked by this. After all the work you put in to teaching them, preparing fun flashcards, and buying candy prizes, how could they hate you? Don’t take it personally. One reason they may hate you is that you are not very good at your job just yet—but who is any good at anything without lots of practice? But there are many other reasons they may hate you outside your control, including projection, crappy home lives, general teenage desire to challenge authority, PMS, and so on. It’s hard to imagine, but you will one day laugh—laugh — at how much you cared about what students thought of you.
- 8. Do your homework and check the exams- Check the established exams of the classes you are teaching. Do not assume you will be allowed to write your own final exams. You won’t. So, study the established exams your students will have to write so that you know exactly what to teach. Knowing you prepared your students for their final exam will give you confidence.
- 9. Come in early and don’t stay too late- You will befriend the custodian by staying late each day till 7-8pm, planning your lessons and red-inking papers. You will come in to school on Sundays. This is a mistake. Instead, befriend the morning custodian by coming in 1-2 hours early each school day. Do all your planning then, and enjoy the zen. Leave no later than 2 hours after school, even if your lessons aren’t perfect. You deserve to see the light of day.
- 10. Take care of your health. Because you are so consumed with teaching, you will fail to pack healthy food and survive on ramen noodles and pizza. You will gain 20 pounds in a year without even realize it. Observe tip #9 and get home, go for a jog, run on a treadmill. Make the time to pack a healthy lunch and snack each night for the next day. You matter. You are of no use to your students sick, unhealthy, or burnt out.
- 11. Don’t aim for perfection in your first year. You will be tempted to make showcase lessons each day. Don’t. Your aim should be to understand your course content and teach in a simple, efficient way, with the occasional game thrown in. Study your textbooks because deep understanding leads to good teaching. Direct instruction works—don’t be afraid of it because it’s so simple.
- 12. Be kind to yourself. You will find yourself beating yourself up about a word your mispronounced or a train wreck of a lesson. Don’t. Recognize that no matter how confident the teachers around you seem, they all have taught horrible lessons and have all lost control of a class at some point. Instead of beating yourself up, learn from the situation, eat some bonbons, and take a warm bath. You can make your own Shangri-La!
- 13. Remember you have a life. You will be tempted to spend all your waking hours planning lessons, marking papers, and kvetching about students. Don’t. Teaching is not your life. You have a life. Part of it is spent teaching. Only a part of it. Reclaim the rest, or you will end the year so resentful, that the dictionary will put a picture of your miserable mug by the word “resentful.” Don’t end up in the dictionary under “resentful.”
- 14. You’re not alone in this terrible first year. You will Google “I want to quit teaching” nearly every day during your prep hours. You will cry yourself to sleep. You will wonder why you got into this God-forsaken profession. You will even hate your students with the intensity of a thousand suns. Welcome to teaching! Ask any honest teacher, and he or she will tell you about those days in first year teacher hell. You are not alone.
It does get better. I know that’s what everyone else says, but really: it does get better.
The crazy workload will still be there, but you will learn to manage the classroom, let the hateful comments roll of your back, and manage your work and life.
And, very slowly but surely, you will receive notes. Notes of thanks and praise. Cards flourished with signatures and flowers and hearts. And a sketch of the Pope, framed and gifted to you. Then an essay written about you entitled, “My Favourite Teacher.” A bouquet of flowers on graduation day. Visits from former students.
And these little things will mean more to you than your pay cheque.
Your memories of first year teacher hell will make you chuckle.
The world won’t seem perpetually dark anymore.
But teaching will still have its dark moments.
Welcome to teaching.
NOW IT’S YOUR TURN: