14 tips for surviving the first year of teaching– a letter to my first year teacher self

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.

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Lessons I’ve Learned: 10 Tips for Better Teaching

I wrote this post when I was studying to become a teacher and working part-time at a private school.

Today marks my one year anniversary of teaching at Trinwood Private School, and nearly seven years of tutoring in the GTA.  After seven years of teaching, I’ve learned a bit about how to get my students to succeed. I’ve followed the wisdom of Confucius: “When you see a good person, think of becoming like him. When you see someone not so good, reflect on your own weak points” – I’ve watched teachers of varying levels of effectiveness and through this I’ve learned about myself. What kind of teacher will I be? The answer is always this: I’ll be a better teacher than I was last year.

I still have much to learn, but here’s what I know to remember  in 2013:



Whiteboards and markers are artifacts of bygone era. Lessons are most effective when they go beyond the board to include Youtube clips, articles, recordings of speeches, and pictures. Demonstrations using your body, the students in the classroom, and everyday objects succeed. Example:  To explain the idea of “hierarchy,” I show a short clip about the caste system in India.


Machiavelli insists that “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” It doesn’t work that way in education. You don’t have to be loved, but it does help if you’re students enjoy coming to class because you’re occasionally funny. Now, I’m no clown or comedian—I’m a teacher—but why would I chuckle to myself in front of the class like some lunatic when I could just make a joke?


This is a loaded question, in the same category as the question “Does my butt look big in this?” No student can give you an honest answer to the understanding question. There are egos at stake; there are inaccurate perceptions of understanding; and sometimes there is plain boredom with the material. Never ask this question. Give students questions to answer instead.


Southern decay is a molding sandwich. The controlling idea of a paragraph is the heart of a paragraph. The connectors we use are the glue that keeps the paragraph together. The introductory paragraph is the sales pitch—you get the idea. After I started using similes and metaphors with my students, I saw an improvement in understanding.

5.       BUY A “BLACK BOOK”

Remember: Tony has internal eye bleeding since karate class yesterday; Amy has an IB entrance exam next week; Maria has a severe allergy to peanuts; Jason’s parents don’t want him watching any violence on TV ; Carl is short-sighted; and you need extra handouts for next week. Unless you’re superhuman, you’ll need a black book to write all that down. And, when you remember things about your students, it pays huge dividends.


You are a window for your students to the outside world. Students rarely read the newspaper, but they’re interested in current affairs. They want to talk about the hard things. As a rule, I bring in one current event to discuss in my writing classes per two weeks.


Students are more likely to like class if they know they’ll learn something useful. They often don’t believe your subject (e.g. English) is useful. In this case, you have to teach not just English (which you know is useful) but other facts immediately applicable in their lives.  For example, while teaching writing techniques you can use examples that teach them what you know about addictions. Or, you can teach English via new technology like LiveScribe. You can use sentence examples that are also famous quotes.


Students who feel connected to their teachers and other students in the class are more likely to enjoy learning. They’re no longer free-floating atoms that happen to bounce into your classroom for two hours a week, but a tightly-knit community. Celebrate birthdays, share major events, tell students a bit about yourself (just don’t overdo it), praise students when they deserve it, and make class projects to display on the wall.


When do we use “whom” and “who”? Why do we use “that” here and not there? What is the difference between a semi-colon and a dash? These are some of the questions students have asked that stumped me. I’ve been tempted to say “it’s not important” or “you’ll learn it next year.” But I’ve found the best answer to be: “To be honest, I’m not sure. Let me check and I’ll explain it next class.” Then I do it.


A teacher without goals is a bike without wheels. I’ve learned the hard way: If I don’t know where I’m going, I won’t get there with my students. Now I make monthly goals for my classes (e.g. learn parallelism and sentence reduction), and I make weekly lesson plans too. I write this plan for the class on the board each lesson. When they’re written down, I remember the goals I need to accomplish to be successful that day. It works.

There’s much more, but I’ll leave it at that. I’m curious to hear your ideas.

Do you have any tips from your own teaching practice? OR

Do you remember any teachers that did a great job? What made them successful?