Advice to New Teachers from an Almost New Teacher
These are some of the most important lessons I learned over my first year as a teacher. I know, I know. A second year teacher giving first year teachers advice is ironic, to say the least. But I think I can give you some insight into the swirling black hole of feelings, lessons, students, and parents you’re about to delve into. I’ve divided my thoughts into two separate categories. One section is entitled “For All Teachers” and is referring to tips that teachers of any grade level or subject can use. But the second chunk is a bit more specific to secondary English educators. You can definitely finesse these tips to fit your own classroom, but they’re not going to be as useful to elementary teachers or health educators as they will be to English teachers.
For All Teachers
A key component of good teaching is the positive relationships you build with your students. They are undoubtedly the most important part of your classroom. You can start by greeting each student by name as they enter your classroom every day. When your students know you care deeply for their well-being and are invested in their lifelong success, then your classroom environment and attitude will naturally improve dramatically. By spending the time between classes greeting students individually by their chosen name, asking about their daily successes and struggles, and taking an interest in their livelihoods, you will earn the love of your students and be more able to love them in return. As a first year teacher, I was often tempted to answer emails, grade a few assignments, or complete numerous other seemingly innocuous tasks during passing period. None of those tasks were ever as effective at making my classroom a better place than asking a student, “How is your day going?”
In order to progress as a teacher, self-reflection is critical. Write down all of your teaching mistakes, with a couple of suggestions for improvement, on a document that you can easily access. As a first year teacher, I kept a file entitled “Things To Do Better,” and it has been my best aid in self-improvement this year. During the summer, I was able to revise rubrics, rethink projects, and rewrite graphic organizers based off the notes I had made in the previous year. Another essential aspect of self-reflection, which I neglected to complete as a first year teacher, is to take the time to celebrate your victories. Have a separate folder to keep all of the nice comments students, parents, and coworkers write and say. Be proactive and write yourself congratulatory notes when a lesson goes well! This folder will be an invaluable resource when you are feeling discouraged.
Be brave enough to be silly. Your first of year teaching will, at times, be difficult, overwhelming, and exhausting. But, if you can have the courage to laugh alongside your students, it will also be fun. Do not be afraid of expressing your unbound enthusiasm for the symbolic uses of color in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 or your elation when a quiet student writes an amazing short story about a dystopian Martian society. Good teachers are ridiculous, dramatic, and foolish. No student will ever outwardly exceed your level of excitement for learning, so it is crucial that you set the classroom standard high. When you are willing to be vulnerable about your passion for education, your students will follow suit by being more engaged in your daily classroom.
For English Teachers
Student-led instruction is an integral element of my classroom. When students practice thinking about content from the perspective of a teacher, they learn that content better. Additionally, students excel at teaching their peers because they can draw from countless hours of observing teachers and implement their favorite lessons. While preparing to read Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief, my class did cursory research on World War II and subsequently taught their findings to each other. Using a provided text set of reliable resources, they assembled a presentation, a physical activity, and created five quiz questions. These quiz questions were used as the final assessment for the project. The class’ average score on the student-taught quiz was 97%; approximately 14% higher than the average of the class’ other quizzes.
Modeling should be key to our writing instruction. I model my writing process honestly, taking care to include the numerous revisions, references to outside sources, and struggles of unprecedented issues that I would naturally encounter. When teachers gloss over the inherent difficulties of writing, students feel isolated when they encounter their own problems. Highlighting the challenges of writing acknowledges and respects the hard work that is required for any person to be a competent writer. For my students’ This I Believe podcasts, I modeled writing my podcast script for twenty minutes at the beginning of three ninety minute class periods. After seeing my second and third drafts, students made comments that indicated to me their appreciation for understanding that writing is an ongoing process.
Student voice and choice is also important. As often as possible, students choose the topics of their written work, the books they will read, and the medium of project-based assessments they will create. Students are more intrinsically motivated to engage with lessons that cover material in which they have a genuine interest. During my annual research unit, students are given the freedom to compose any question that piques their curiosity. Following their question construction, they research online for credible resources to provide answers, write about their research, and select their summative assessment format from a menu of options. Through these chances for student voice and choice, students were able to design public service announcements and write letters to the editors of our school newspaper.
Being a teacher is a great thing. When I began my career as a teacher, I thought it was a stepping stone. It looks amazing on a resume, seems pretty fun, I’ll do it for five to seven years, and I’ll move on. Administration? Higher education? Education research? Who knows! Teaching has caught me. I am in love. I love my classroom, I love my students, I love my colleagues. I’m not sure what the future holds anymore, because the best parts of my day are spent in the classroom and I don’t think I’ll be ready to give that up anytime soon.
I say this, because you, a new teacher, might be struggling right now. And by ‘might,’ I mean you most definitely are. You’re down with some mysterious sickness every other week because kids are gross. Lesson plan ideas are getting harder and harder to come up with. When your students ask you, “Why are we doing this?” there are days when you just want to yell “Because!” and have that be enough. Just trying to figure out what it’s like to be a pretty young adult amongst even younger adults is its very own challenge.
If you're struggling, it gets better. Hold on. Find some marigolds around you and trust that it will get better, and it will be worth it. And if it’s not worth it? It’s okay. You have options. You are qualified for a plethora of jobs. In my personal experience, I couldn’t imagine myself in any other place but teaching today. But last year? I thought I was doing everything wrong. Don’t let that self doubt push you away from one of the most rewarding jobs in the world.