Teacher and coach

Letter to a First Year Teacher

Dear First Year Teacher,

I’ve been teaching high school math for three years and I love my job. For the most part, however, I did not love teaching my first year and I’m not sure it’s realistic for any new teacher to expect to love their first year. The workload is just too great and there are too many things that you don’t know how to do very well. (Don’t worry; it gets better.) But even though that first year is a challenge, it doesn’t have to be overwhelming, so here are a few thoughts with that in mind:

Don’t worry about being awesome. When I first started teaching I was sure that I was going to be the most awesome teacher ever, that all my students were going to love me, and all the other teachers were going to be amazed at my awesomeness, and when it turned out that I wasn’t awesome, that I was just as inexperienced and clueless as every other first year teacher, it was hard to accept. You’re probably not going to be awesome your first year. In fact, you’re probably going to be pretty bad. This isn’t something to be ashamed of, it’s just due to the fact that teaching is a complicated set of skills and you haven’t developed yours yet. Your goal for your first year is not to be awesome; your goal for your first year is to survive. The awesome will come later.

You’re going to be working really hard, but it won’t be like that forever. In fact, it won’t even be like that after your first semester. Most of the heavy workload is because you’re having to figure out a whole bunch of stuff really fast; you’re drinking from the firehose. After your first semester, you will have learned a ton of stuff and your workload will decrease dramatically.

When you’re feeling discouraged, go talk to another teacher. One of the worst things you can do as a first year teacher is to isolate yourself, especially when you’re feeling discouraged because your last class didn’t go as well as you thought it would, or some kid was acting up and you didn’t know what to do. Find a teacher (or two or three) who you think is pretty good and go tell them about it. They’ll do one or more of the following: 1) they’ll suggest some ways to handle that sort of thing next time; 2) they’ll tell you that whatever happened was perfectly normal; and 3) they’ll tell you about one time when something far worse happened to them. All of these things will make you feel better because they’ll help you to put things into perspective. You’ll start to learn that things don’t always go as planned, even for experienced teachers; shake it off, plan to do better next time, and don’t beat yourself up over it.

Don’t worry about designing super-awesome learning activities for every class. My first semester, almost every day in one of my classes looked like this: 1) students did a warm-up activity, then we reviewed it; 2) we reviewed the answers to the previous night’s homework; 3) I lectured on today’s topic while they took notes; and 4) I passed out worksheets with practice problems for them to work on until the end of class (whatever they didn’t finish was their homework for that night). That was the extent of my teaching expertise. It was pretty ordinary, but after a while I got pretty good at it, which gave me some confidence. A little bit of confidence is priceless.

Get as many lessons/activities/worksheets/etc. from other teachers as you can. My first semester, another teacher who had been teaching my same classes for a long time gave me all her course materials: class notes, worksheets, quizzes, tests, everything. It was a godsend. You’re not going to have time to put together an entirely new set of course materials from scratch, so use what someone else has already put together. Next semester you can start modifying those materials to suit your personal preferences, but for now, use what they have and do what they did.

Try to go observe another teacher’s class at least once. You’ll learn two things: 1) some things that that teacher does that you can do in your classes; and 2) you’re doing okay. You’ll learn that students act up in other teacher’s classes, too. You may even learn that you do some things in your class that you think are better than that teacher does in their class. Which will mean more confidence for you.

So yes, your first year is going to be difficult, but don’t worry; your second year will be much better, and your third will be really good. Once you’ve survived your first year, you will have acquired so many new teaching skills that you’ll be chomping at the bit for your second year to start. And you’ll be on your way to loving your job as much as I do.

Image by Forty Two via Flickr.

P.S. FWIW, I teach at a large, urban/suburban high school, and I teach mostly “regular” (i.e., non-honors) students. Some of my students go on to four-year colleges, more go on to community colleges, and some are doing well just to graduate from high school. We’re on block scheduling, so each semester students take 4 courses; teachers have 3 classes with 1 planning period.

P.P.S. Special thanks to Bowman Dixon for compiling a whole bunch of Letters to a First Year Teacher. Check them out for more good first year teacher stuff.

8 Responses to “Letter to a First Year Teacher”

  1. bledsoe says:

    Thanks Roxanna, and I signed up for your Disillusionment email list. What a neat idea!

  2. I love this post. The issues you address in here are at the heart of why I created the “Disillusionment Power Pack,” a free, one-month series of emails for new teachers during this time of year. Here is the link if you’d like to check it out, and I’d love to hear any thoughts you may have. http://seemeafterclass.net/2015/09/announcing-the-new-teacher-disillusionment-power-pack/#more-1880

  3. bledsoe says:

    Hi ShaCarol, I don’t think I realized you were a new teacher! Where/what are you teaching and how did your first year go?

  4. ShaCarol says:

    What a nice blog! Could have certainly used this LAST summer. lol. But I’m sure it will come handy in my 2nd year of teaching as well… 🙂

  5. bledsoe says:

    I certainly don’t object to teachers being awesome, I just think first year teachers don’t need to add that to their list of things they need to do. Once I accepted that it was okay for me not to be awesome, I ended up being just an ordinary good teacher; which is a much more reasonable goal for a new teacher.

  6. this is great! thanks for the submission, i’m adding your entry momentarily to the list. i think your “don’t worry about being awesome” point is great, and it’s great for everyone to think about, not just first year teachers. we shouldn’t ever really aim to be awesome for our own sake, that should be a byproduct of students learning well.

  7. bledsoe says:

    Hi Dori,

    All good points, and ones I try to implement in my classes now, though I confess I was not able to address them very well when I first started teaching. It was all I could do just to get thru a standard lesson, much less think about things like hands-on activities, or multiple ways of presenting the material.

    Lucky for me (and my students), I was able to add these things to my teaching repertoire by my second semester, and now they are a regular part of all my classes.

  8. Dori Staehle says:

    I would also tell first-year teachers (especially if they’re teaching math) to remember that there are at least 3 different ways to approach a math problem. Your creative, right-brained types will need hands-on activities, not worksheets, to grasp the concepts. They also don’t do well on timed tests because they need extra time to convert those pictures in their heads into words and numbers. Many of these kids get recommended for special education services, when they’re actually extremely bright (and not “ADHD” or “LD”).

    If your students aren’t grasping a concept, try presenting the material several different ways and make it as relevant as possible. My 2 cents….

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