I had a super sweet first-year teacher send me an email asking for advice on her upcoming year. I was flattered, to say the least, that someone thought of me as having some sage wisdom to impart about my adventures in teaching. After all, I’m sure anyone teaching for 5+ years can still remember their first day like it was yesterday. So, I sat down and thought about it. What did I learn in student teaching that stuck with me? What did I learn in that first year or two that flipped my script on how a classroom should work? And what was I just dead wrong about? These are some of my nuggets of wisdom, in no particular order, for having a successful first year in the greatest profession there is!
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I remember my first day in the classroom thinking, “Uhhh, so this is all up to me now? Am I seriously in charge of these kids? What do I do if I have to go to the bathroom?!”
First and foremost, take time to get to know your students. The first day of school really sets the tone. I’m terrible about remembering names, so do whatever you can to try to speak directly to each student. My “first day” activity is something I saw from another teacher online, and it’s worked well throughout the years. It’s boring to just go through a Powerpoint of rules and procedures, but the information is still necessary to communicate. I type questions for the students to ask about rules, procedures, stuff on the syllabus, etc. and print them on index cards. I number them, randomly pass them out, and then I call on them in numerical order. I ask the student his/her name and another random question (what’s your favorite type of music? if you could have dinner with a famous person, who would it be? etc.). Sometimes I’ll even word the questions as a joke to make the whole thing feel a little less serious. I’ll also throw in some random personal questions about myself at the end—do you have any kids? what kind of car do you drive? how old are you?—because middle school kids always want to know.
The biggest thing about the first day, though, is to let them know who’s in charge. It sounds mean; after all, you don’t want to the students hate you after the first 50 minutes. But I had a professor once tell me You can always get nicer, but you can’t get meaner. His words really stuck with me about the importance of those first few days and weeks. Let the students know you are fair and reasonable by clearly communicating expectations, but you also want to make sure you follow through on your policies and consequences or else they mean nothing.
You can always get nicer, but you can’t get meaner.
As for the lessons, Pinterest is your best friend! Don’t be afraid to try new things. You’ll find Pinterest to be invaluable, especially if you’re in a school with a lot of veteran teachers. Sometimes they get so stuck in their ways that they miss some really interesting methods to engage kids. For example, I teach Julius Caesar with my Honors class, and I found a really cool crime scene activity about Ancient Rome to start the unit—something I never would’ve thought of on my own. However, those veteran teachers may also have lots of great advice for you on approaching the specific student population of your school (my school is 50%+ free/reduced lunch, 30%+ minority students, etc., which was way different than the schools I grew up in). Some lessons, topics, novels, or articles may work well for one group of kids but not another, and those other veteran teachers will be able to help you figure that out.
It’s also wise to take whatever resources others are willing to offer you, whether you use them or not. My first year or two was definitely just a hodge-podge of lessons from other teachers. Once you find out what you like for your own teaching style, you can tweak things for the next year. There’s tons of lessons that other teachers gave me that I didn’t use but ended up taking pieces from later down the road. Try to come up with some system where you jot down notes to reflect on for next year in a running Google Doc, journal, or other place you will go back to.
Depending on your school’s available technology, the sky’s kind of the limit on making your lessons more interactive. For me personally, doing more on our iPads just makes my life easier—grading, staying organized, communication. We are 1:1, so it puts the accountability back on the kids because they can see assignments and have no excuse of “I didn’t write it down.” We use Google Classroom, but there’s other free options out there like Class Dojo or even just Remind to help you and the kids stay organized. Being interactive doesn’t have to be with technology, though. I like doing lessons with small groups working together, having them share their ideas with the class in less threatening environments. We do a lot of discussions/debates, which works well with the amped up emphasis on argumentative writing these days. I’d be willing to bet that if you asked former students of mine what they remember most about the way I run my classes, discussions and debating would be up there on the list.
Lastly, if you have any say at all in the novels your classes read, do your best to choose something engaging. My regular classes read some really awesome stuff (Freak the Mighty, Tears of a Tiger, Unwind, The Diary of Anne Frank, I Have Lived a Thousand Years, and more), and even my most reluctant readers end up telling me every year that they loved the books or that they were the first books they ever read all the way through. We’ve got some pre-prescribed topics we try to stick with based on our pacing guide, but our administration is always open to us trying new things.
All of this, though, is pretty much thrown out the window if you don’t go back to the classroom management. Think of what worked well in classes you were in as a student, as an observer, and as a student teacher. Pull together the best of those teachers. But don’t forget that it’s okay to mess up. It’s okay to try a new policy or procedure and have it flop after a few days or weeks. Figure it out, make a change, and move on. I’ve had some pretty rough classes over the years. You will be tested. So, be consistent and communicate exactly what your expectations are, even if they change.
I included a silly picture of myself lip-sycnhing with some of my teacher pals to The Spice Girls from last year as my picture for this post for a few reasons. First, who doesn’t love The Spice Girls? Second, kids love nothing more than to see you make a fool of yourself. Remember to have FUN! It’s okay to laugh and have fun with them. It’s okay to show them you’re human. Get involved. Volunteer. Take on leadership roles. The first year is SO rewarding and also challenging. Soak it all in. Have fun. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Kids of all ages are weird and love to see you embarrass yourself for them, so don’t be afraid to show them your weird side!