The Top Ten Things I Wish I'd Known as a First-Year Teacher

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

I blame the following for my nearly month-long blogging hiatus:

-State standardized testing
-Applying to grad school (%**@IFHDJFD#%*#@RE$$W)
-Promptly quitting Crossfit three weeks later and taking up running in the morning at 5:15
-Deciding to coach soccer
-Creating a book study with some friends
-Writing up and teaching a research unit
-Writing finals

Also, one of my students brought a ten-pound tray of fruit his mom had chopped up to a class party and I ate roughly half of it and had diarrhea for 24 hours straight.  That has nothing to do with my blogging ability, but I just thought you should know.  

Summer? You come now? 

Anyway, I’m really excited to be writing this post. I've found myself reflecting on my first year a lot in the past few months-- I think partially because I work with so many newbies and feel like somewhat of a Yoda/mother hen hybrid toward them, but also because I'm far enough removed from my first year now to think about it without experiencing PTSD.  I feel a strong sense of purpose in trying to help new teachers, and wanted to share things that have been game-changers for me; things that I've either learned myself (the hard way) or that others have passed on to me that have made my life as a teacher drastically easier, better, and more fun.  I hope you'll share this with a new teacher or a soon-to-be new teacher, or, if you’re a veteran, that you'll share some things that helped you when you were a new teacher in a comment.  

If you’re not a teacher and don’t know any new teachers and don’t care about advice, I hope you at least found the diarrhea story funny.

Ready? Here we go.

The Top Ten Things I Wish I'd Known as a First-Year Teacher

1) Don't eat lunch in the teachers' lounge.
Why? See my post on the Perpetually Negative. That's where they eat (at least at my school). 

2) Post instructions as often as possible on the board

It sounds unnecessary and/or like something you should only be doing for kindergartners, but it completely revolutionized my classroom management.  As much as possible, post exactly what students are supposed to be doing and be as specific as you can.  Every day when students come in, I have posted what materials they should have, what they should be doing, and how much time they have to do it after the bell rings.

This eliminates two major stressors, at least for me: one is students using the excuse "Oh, I didn't know," the other is having to repeat myself. By late September, if a student is still asking “What do we need today?”, most of the time another student will take over your response for you (“It’s on the board!!”)

I also post instructions for what to do when they're done with a test or quiz, what they can be doing during structured free time, and any other time where I have a feeling they could become forgetful.

3) Use teacher detentions for minor infractions 

For students who forget materials consistently, won’t follow directions, can't stop talking, do nothing, are marginally sassy, or for other behavior that doesn't quite warrant a write-up, use a teacher detention. These are informal detentions that don't go on school record, but can be used as documentation if the behavior continues. Really, it's just closer to Time-Out for older kids. You can arrange these detentions with a student before or after school, but taking them out of lunch is particularly effective.

But the other great thing about teacher detentions is the appreciation you'll get from your administrator. APs get a ton of office referrals for minor infractions that technically should be dealt with by a teacher, and nine times out of ten the teacher won't have called a parent OR taken any documentable steps to correct the behavior themselves. Teacher detentions will cut back on the amount of actual referrals you write, so that when your AP does get a referral from you, they'll say, "Yikes-- Ms. Lang hardly ever uses referrals, AND Johnny skipped her detention. TO THE CHOKEY WITH JOHNNY!"

Just kidding. Here at Love, Teach we don't advocate The Chokey. But you get the idea.

4) Procedure the heck out of everything 

The first 2-3 weeks are the most important of the school year in terms of getting what you want from your students. You can either set up your classroom as a place where things get done safely and efficiently, or a place where the students call the shots and you are constantly in need of shock therapy. Read The First Days of School by Harry Wong, the procedures guru. Here's how Wong's method works.

First, you need to figure out exactly how you want everything done. What do I mean by everything? The way students enter and exit, when they can sharpen pencils, if and how they will borrow pencils from you, what heading they will use on their papers, what to do when a visitor walks in, how to ask to go to the bathroom, how you will get their attention quickly, how students will pass in papers, how to work in groups, how to demonstrate active listening, etc. Then, have students practice these procedures until they are not just ok, but perfect.  This can take anywhere from 1-3 weeks. (I have about 25 procedures and it took me 2 weeks this year with 50-minute classes.) Only once your students have mastered your procedures can you begin real instruction.

Crazy, right? I know it may sound a little brainwash-y and restrictive, but having these procedures in place actually allows you and your students more freedom in the long run.  It builds trust and your students will feel secure.  Just read the book, pretty please.

5) Don't ever be less than 100% nice and accommodating to clerks/receptionists

As far as the title of this list goes, I'm kind of cheating since I am fortunate enough to have received this piece of advice before I started my first year, but I still wanted to include it because it's uber important, ja. Just off the top of my head I can think of four new teachers at my school that are currently suffering from bad relationships with staff members, and can think of probably ten other teachers that have been through the same thing over the past couple of years at different schools. You should know three important things about clerks and receptionists:

  1. They work the closest with and talk most often to the people who hire, fire, appraise, and make other important decisions
  2. They are often the ones in charge of assigning things that can either be really helpful or a huge pain for teachers (lunch duty, testing assignments, substitute arrangements, etc.)
  3. They do a LOT of behind-the-scenes stuff (and for a lot less money than we get).
Do you see how critical it is to be nice to them?

So send kids to the front office the moment they call for them, or complete tasks as soon as they ask even if it's a little inconvenient. Try to ask on a regular basis what you could do to make that person's job easier, because not everyone appreciates them.  And mark Staff Appreciation Day on your wall calendar, little black book,  phone alarm, forehead, etc.

While you're at it, it's a good idea to try to be nice to everyone as much as possible, but let's be real, it doesn't always happen. If you are cranky, try to find a teacher to be cranky towards, since they are emotionally desensitized to rudeness. Then apologize later and send him/her three of your nicest pens. 

6) Think really hard about friending anyone from school on Facebook

First, let me be clear that I have nothing incriminating or that I feel I would need to hide on any form of social media (except maybe my high school Xanga, but that's because it's frighteningly annoying). I'll be the first to tell you that my life outside of school is about as risqué as a Puritan's. But I still wish I'd never friended any of my current colleagues. Why?
  • You will find out things about other teachers you wish you hadn't.  This never occurred to me because I was way more concerned with what my colleagues would become privy to in my life than the other way around. You might find out that the math teacher down the hall apparently often comes to school after pretty intense "nights on the town," or that the history teacher you thought was precious and grandfatherly is actually a total bigot. Some information might just be annoying or disappointing, and some may leave you feeling obligated to report them.
  • Once you friend one colleague, you may find yourself friending all your colleagues.  All of them.  ALL of them. Think about it. 
  • You won't miss out on anything.  You and your coworkers will swap stories and pictures of anything important at lunch or after school, and happy hours and get-togethers are usually arranged via school email anyway.
 I mean, what? I don't know anything about that.

7) Be firm, but kind.

A very wise teacherwoman told me this little phrase about halfway through my first year and I've never forgotten it. I think it instantly stuck because I realized it was true of the approach of all the teachers who have had the greatest impact on me.  

Firm, but kind.  If you're firm without being kind, you're unapproachable and cannot inspire.  If you're kind without being firm, you're unstable and a doormat.  It has to be both.

8) Set life boundaries

My first year got dramatically better once I started setting boundaries. I decided in January of my second semester that I would not stay at school to work past the two-hour mark after the last bell, and that I would not, under any circumstances, work on Sundays. This meant that my to-do list was a little longer and that occasionally I'd have to take work home, but on the plus side, I got to be a real person.  I've changed my boundaries since then-- sometimes I have to make exceptions when I'm behind or notice that something's not working-- but the process of creating and respecting boundaries is now just as important as the things on either side of them.

Make fun weekly plans with people on the same days each week and follow through with them.  Don't cancel plans to grade papers or do anything that isn't extremely time sensitive-- your work WILL get done. If you're having a particularly bad day, make a list of all the awesome things you're going to do when you leave and commit to leaving as soon as possible after the bell. Here's an example of what my list might look like.

This is just a hypothetical list I made (I actually haven't had any truly horrible days this year!), but you can easily see where using foot moisturizer ranks in my list of life's pleasures. Sad.

9) Don't compare yourself to other teachers about things that don't matter.

I think I'm a pretty good teacher. My kids learn a lot every year and I try really hard to get them to think critically and creatively, love reading, and believe in themselves and important things. But sometimes I look at other teachers and feel like a big, gigantic loser. These teachers change their bulletin boards monthly and have rotating charts for classroom jobs (you know, Errand Runner, Materials Manager, etc.) complete with salaries and "official" job applications that have to have references. They have a classroom currency system with monthly silent auctions. They write their students handwritten letters for all major holidays including Arbor Day.

When I first realized I wasn't those teachers, I felt inadequate. 

But when I realized that I wasn't those teachers, but that that was okay, I felt empowered. I will NEVER have class jobs! I tried them one year and it felt so hokey, lame and awkward! I change my hallway bulletin board maybe once a year, or whenever the girls with good handwriting in my 5th period have finished their tests early. I am not too worried about my students moving on to 8th grade without the real-world knowledge of how to participate in a silent auction. Those things just don't work for me as a teacher, but it doesn't mean I'm not doing enough, or that I'm not enough. I do plenty of things really well that other teachers can't, like singing a made-up song about putting your name on your paper to the tune of "My Heart Will Go On." #highlyqualified.

Now, I say "about the things that don't matter" because there are times when you should compare yourself to other teachers and care about it. You probably shouldn't ignore another teacher's students outperforming yours by a 30-point average, or every one of your students signing a petition for your retirement. But don't sweat the small stuff.

10) Go in humble, ready to learn, and ready to laugh at yourself. 

Don't assume that teaching is going to be just like volunteering, babysitting, or any other role you've ever had with children. If you do, grab a sturdy umbrella because you're in for a storm, my friend.  Prepare as much as possible, yes, but be aware that your first year is essentially one nine month-long learning curve. Humility, a sense of humor, and a pack of people who love you are your best weapons for getting through and doing it gracefully. 

And that's all I have to say about that.

What game-changing advice would you give to a soon-to-be new teacher?