11 Essential First-Year Teaching Tips

Pay attention, class. These are 11 of the wisest, most straightforward, and indispensable teaching tips you'll encounter as a new teacher.

They are easy to spot in the halls. Juggling huge stack of papers, doing their best to speed-walk but not run, a harried look on their face. New jobs are never easy, but first-year teachers have a particularly rough time. No amount of training and student teaching can fully prepare someone for standing alone in front of a room of 25 preteens who would rather be elsewhere. It can be so challenging, in fact, that according to Alliance for Excellent Education, an estimated 40%–50% of teachers leave the profession within five years.

The good news? It does get better with time. Despite its difficulty, teaching is an extremely rewarding career and arguably among the most important professions in any society. The key is getting through the first few years, especially year one. Here are 11 tips for surviving in the wild jungle that is your first-year classroom. Some are from teachers who just recently made it through year one and others from teachers with 30+ years of experience.

1. Plan wisely

For your first year, you’ll likely have to do the most planning of your entire teaching career. Quantity is important—you’ll want to plan as far ahead as possible and to create relatively detailed lessons—but remember to plan wisely too. According to second-year teacher James Bress, who teaches English Language Arts to seventh graders in Massachusetts, one way to do that is to focus on the desired end result. “Plan backward from your goals,” he suggests. “What do you want the kids to leave the class knowing or able to do? Figure that out first and then develop the questions that will lead them there.”

But don’t stress about planning every single detail, Bress adds. Leave some wiggle room in your plan that will allow you to adapt the lesson to students’ interests and questions while still achieving the overall goal. “It's a rookie mistake to meticulously plan out everything,” he says. “It makes you inflexible. When you know where you want to end up, fun or interesting tangents and detours are productive, not disruptive.”

2. Timing is everything

Do your best to realistically assess the time you need for each lesson, and be prepared for finishing early by having extra activities on hand. “Experienced teachers can adapt to this easily,” says Mark Flaherty, a veteran middle school math teacher from Connecticut. “A new teacher needs something in her back pocket.”

Flaherty, who has mentored many student teachers, also suggests using a smartphone to keep on schedule. “Many new teachers (and more than a few old ones) run around as the bell rings finishing up and handing out homework,” he says. “Set your smartphone to vibrate with an alarm five minutes before the bell. Then you can wrap things up and maybe even set some things up for the next class while the kids are packing up.”

3. Let students do the talking

Bress believes true learning occurs when students are engaged in conversation about the topic or problem at hand. He advocates for new teachers to cultivate a learning environment firmly rooted in discussion. “The kids should do 70% of the talking in your classroom, so flip your teaching points into questions, and then get comfortable with silence, because it's unavoidable and necessary—they'll pull you out of it eventually. Set discussion expectations early in the year, and let them develop their own conversational habits.” While how much you can focus on discussion may vary depending on your subject matter, the point is to take advantage of any opportunities to engage your students in dialogue.

4. Set boundaries and expectations upfront

Retired French teacher Peggy Kaseta, who taught middle schoolers in Connecticut, carefully honed her disciplinary strategies over 30 years. Her advice to new teachers is to create a classroom contract that clearly outlines expectations and the consequences for not adhering to them. Then have the students review and sign it for homework on the first day. With younger students, consider asking parents to sign the contract too. “The key here is to establish your rules on the first day of school and be consistent with them,” says Kaseta. “I would have a dialogue with the class and ask them poignant questions like ‘Do we need rules? Why? What if there were no rules; what would class be like?’ Engage them in the process of understanding why rules are necessary, and they will feel they are part of the solution for classroom management.” Keep in mind that it is far easier to loosen up the reins than to tighten them. Once you’ve established your expectations, err on the side of strictness. As you become more familiar with your classes, you can assess whether it’s possible to relax the rules without compromising classroom management.

5. Be respectful, but firm

“New teachers must find the balance of being authoritative and respectful simultaneously,” says Kaseta. “You are not their friend. Many students will be enamored with you because you are young and cool, but keep your professional distance.” In line with that, she points out it is never acceptable to connect with students on social media like Facebook. Kaseta also encourages new teachers to be consistent even when it’s difficult. “If you stated that they will have a homework detention for incomplete work, you must follow through even when they look up at you with tears in their eyes.” Flaherty refers to this as “having an edge.” “Kids need to know that you are understanding and will try to accept reasonable excuses. But everyone needs to know that you will tolerate nonsense only so far and that your ‘edge’ will be revealed if someone pushes too far.”

6. Don’t dwell on misbehavior

“Kids will be kids.” Translation: kids will misbehave. When they do, deal with the issue and then immediately return to your lesson. Giving misbehavior more attention than it deserves will be at the expense of all of your students’ education. Linda Sun teaches geometry to seventh graders in Tennessee. Having recently finished her second year, she encourages teachers not to take misbehavior personally. No matter how kids act, says Sun, it’s not about you; it’s about them. And your job is to teach them. “Kids say whatever comes to heart or mind,” says Sun. “Their attitude towards you will channel the argument they had with their mom that morning, the fight they're in with their girlfriend, the game they won last night . . . whatever else is happening in their lives. Your job is to teach and serve them anyway because that is what they need.”

7. Be honest about your limits

Be straightforward when you don’t the answer to a question. You’re human; you can’t know everything. Your students understand that and will appreciate your honesty. It also may encourage them to be honest when they don’t know the answer or fully comprehend something in your lesson. Rather than focus on your shortcomings, use the opportunity to engage and empower your students. For example, if middle school teacher Flaherty finds himself stumped by a student’s question, he asks them to find the answer online and report back. “I say something like ‘Go over to that computer, Google it, and tell me the answer in five minutes.’”

8. Limit your responsibilities outside the classroom

Avoid the temptation to overextend yourself in your first year. As the new guy or girl, you may be excited to jump in or feel extra pressure to say yes to everything. But your #1 responsibility is to teach and to teach well. It’s wise to wait a couple years before taking on additional responsibilities. Flaherty supports this approach because it’s common for new teachers to feel in over their heads for the first couple years. It’s also easy to underestimate how much time grading and planning takes. “By the third or fourth year, you'll have your routines down and you will know your curriculum pretty well,” he says. “Then maybe you'll have time to advise the yearbook or coach softball.”

9. Don’t let work take over your free time

You stay at work late. You can’t stop talking about your classes during dinner. You grade and work on your lesson plan until midnight. You fall asleep and wake up thinking about teaching. It’s great to be dedicated—until you burn yourself out. To survive your first year and the years ahead, you must find a sustainable balance between your professional and personal life. Sun suggests taking time each day to do at least one thing for yourself. “Take a walk, watch TV, drink some wine, read a book, go to a concert, call a friend. We give all day long to our students, and they will take as much as you are willing to give. Remember to replenish your soul so you can keep being your best self.” Flaherty suggests resisting the urge to talk about the day’s difficulties during your free time, even when you’re with colleagues at lunch or on break in the teacher’s lounge. “Use the time to mentally recharge rather than rehash the problems of the morning,” he says.

10. Expect to make mistakes

You have many years ahead in which to perfect your teaching skills. It’s not going to happen in the first year. You will make mistakes. What’s more important is how you address them and move forward. “Inside the classroom, take your failed lessons and strategies—because you will have many—and learn from them,” says Sun. “Redesign [them] again for next time, because chances are you did the right thing, you just didn't do it the right way. The first year is hard. Hit the daily reset button after a bad day or after a bad class. Hit it as many times a day as you need to.” Be flexible and accept the fact that you might not get a lesson right on the first try. If your students are struggling to achieve the goals you set for them, consider changing your strategy. Don’t be afraid to seek help either, whether from experienced teachers, school administration, or online teaching forums. No one expects you to succeed without support.

11.  Believe in yourself

Students can sense insecurity, and in some cases, they will take advantage of it. Confidence is crucial to keeping your class under control and engaged in the lesson. “It's always unsteady and uneasy when you start a new job, but this is not a job where you can show uncertainty,” says Sun. “The students will know and it will be detrimental to your classroom management.” Even if you’re not sure what on earth you’re doing, fake it until you make it. “My goal as a first-year teacher was to fool my students into thinking that this was not my first year,” says Flaherty. “I gave cagey answers about my previous experience. When I revealed in May that it was really the end of my first year, the kids were surprised. And I was delighted.”

Hopefully these tips will help you fool your students too.

For more insight into surviving your first year teaching, check out The First Days of School by Harry Wong, Letters to a Young Teacher by Jonathan Kozol, Why Didn’t I Learn This in College? by Paula Rutherford and Educating Esme: Diary of a Teacher's First Year by Esme Raji Codell. 

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