I entered my classroom to start my first year of teaching, students buzzing all around me. I sat down at my desk, anxiously awaiting students to enter.
What do I say? How do I act? What if I stutter or sound nervous?
The first student walked in, and I immediately made small talk. I continued this charade with others as they trickled in until the 7:30 a.m. bell rang to start school. “Good morning, everyone! I’m Mr. Claybourn. You have the honor of being my first class.”
Yes, I was about to teach a class for the very first time – literally.
I started my Transition to Teaching program at ACE in April of 2016. By June of that same year, I landed my first teaching job. I didn’t even get to do student teaching before I was thrust to the front of a classroom to teach.
In a perfect world, I would have done student teaching the following semester and landed a full-time job for the 2017-2018 school year, but fate had other plans. There I was in the fall of 2016, wide-eyed and nervous yet feigning confidence.
I was told to carry myself with confidence and an aura that I’d been there before. My boss even joked that I should have a canned answer if someone asked me how old I was. “Thirty,” was the suggested answer, even though I was 26 and barely looked a day older than 18. Some of my students looked older than me.
As I look back on that first year of teaching, I recognize things I’m proud of and things I wish I had done better. Here is some advice for first-year teachers, based on my first year:
1. Build Relationships
My goal going into teaching was to build relationships. I didn’t want to be a small part of these students’ lives; I wanted to build a lasting relationship. New teachers, go into your first job with that goal in mind.
What I found was even though students might give you a hard time in the classroom and sometimes be a pain to deal with, you have a higher chance of reaching them when they can tell you genuinely care about them. A student’s ability to succeed in school increases considerably when they feel like they have even one teacher in their corner.
2. Get Involved
Doing this can help you accomplish the point above. It can be something as small as making an appearance at sporting events or theater performances. Students are proud of the activities they’re involved in. When they can share those experiences and memories with a teacher, I’ve found it positively influences the relationship between teacher and student.
For those with the time, being directly involved with a club, team or academic group is the best way to build this bond. Even if you’re not the primary person in charge of the team or group, students will see that you’re invested in more than just the classroom.
3. Set Firm Classroom Rules and Procedures
This is one of the least “fun” parts of teaching, but it’s also the most important. The first couple of weeks are crucial for this, especially for new teachers. Students are feeling you out, and you have a blank slate to work with in terms of reputation. For some students, once they have a particular perception of you, it’s hard to change it.
Some friends of mine were teachers for several years before I became one, and this was their biggest advice to me. I found out quickly just how important this was. By October, I realized certain habits had set in with my students that I wasn’t pleased with, and by that point it was hard to break them. Know exactly how you want your classroom to run and be firmer than you think you need to be in the first couple of weeks. Don’t let up when students test you, because they will.
It might even be worthwhile to run through scenarios with your boss and other teachers to know how to combat issues when they come up. This is something I still do with my boss, and it really does help.
4. Stay Organized
This is particularly important if you accomplish the second point above. Right from the start, I coached the boys’ and girls’ tennis teams, which play in the fall and spring, respectively, in Indiana. I was also in charge of the yearbook and student newspaper, both of which are year-long obligations. I rarely had free time and often didn’t get home until 6 p.m. or later every night. Within two weeks, I was four or five assignments behind on grading, and I had about 65 students. The work just piled up.
Once tennis season ended at the end of October, I found myself focusing my attention after-school on our first upcoming yearbook deadline. I never really got caught up on grading until the next semester started, but then it only took a few weeks to fall behind again. Students got frustrated, as did some parents. I felt anxious because I had so much to do and felt like I didn’t have time.
Teachers, your planning period is your friend. Use it. I tried so long to avoid the fact that I’d have to take work home with me, but the truth is that some nights we have to forgo Netflix to get grading done. This next school year, I plan to keep a planner and block out times when I can do grading. Whatever it is, find a method that works for you to stay organized. Otherwise, you’ll find yourself trying to grade hundreds of assignments the week grades are due (like I was). That’s not fair to yourself or your students.
The first year of teaching isn’t easy. Many people remarked to me that it’s mostly about surviving, and how the following years will be much easier. So keep that in mind. Don’t expect things to be perfect, but take time to enjoy the ride. Build those relationships and get involved. Be sure to have a little fun along the way.