Updated: Jul 13, 2022
Here's the thing about teaching, it's not so much a job as it is a craft that you have to hone and perfect over many years. For most lines of work, you show up, complete a set of tasks, clock out and go home. Allow me to be very clear up front: teaching is nothing like that.
I don’t tell you this to scare you or make you reconsider ever becoming a teacher. I just think it’s important to have realistic expectations going into your first year. I was the star pupil of my university Elementary Ed program. I got glowing reviews from my cooperating teacher while student teaching, passed each class with flying colors, and performed every task with the utmost perfection. I was called “a natural” over and over and I felt completely prepared to begin teaching for real. Spoiler alert: my first year was harder than I ever imagined and I felt like a complete failure most of the time.
I want you to know that your first year teaching is going to be an extreme challenge because I don't want you to be blindsided like I was. Teaching is one of the steepest learning curves I've encountered (other than becoming a parent, but I'll save that for another post entirely). If you're going to survive, you need to go in with the right mindset. Without further ado, here are 7 secrets for surviving your first year.
Number One: You're going to feel like you're terrible at it and probably question your life choices at some point and that's okay
Nothing is easy the first time you do it. Nothing worth doing at least. Ever played basketball? You weren’t slam dunking and winning games the first time you ever picked up a basketball. Neither was Michael Jordan. To be good at basketball, you have to play it a lot. You have to lose a lot of games and miss a lot of shots. You have to develop a specific set of skills, strengthen particular muscles over time, and slowly build your ability to strategize and react to different situations. Teaching is the same. You may feel like you’ve already done this in whatever teacher prep program you just completed but, to be honest, all that is like playing basketball by yourself on a 4 foot tall kiddie goal.
That being said, it’s okay to feel like you are terrible at teaching! You won’t always be. Just keep showing up, keep doing the best you can, and I promise you will get better. You will look back one day and admire how far you’ve come. Go into your first year of teaching like you would show up for your first ever basketball practice. Don’t expect to be the GOAT. Give it your best effort, learn all you can, and trust that you’ll be slam dunking some day. Growth mindset, baby.
Number Two: Don't hesitate to ask for help and consciously seek ways to outsource tasks
Full disclosure, I’m still terrible at this one! I’m kind of a perfectionist (I think a lot of teachers are) and I prefer to do every single thing all by myself so that it’s done to my standards. Honestly, you just can’t afford to do this year one. It’s too much. You’re barely keeping your head above water, don’t add any more weight than you have to.
Think about all the tasks you complete at work, write them down even. Your list might look something like: researching and planning lessons, gathering materials, preparing materials (cutting, sorting, gluing, laminating, etc.), making copies, grading papers, checking homework, taking attendance, actually teaching, gathering data, analyzing data, providing interventions, sorting papers, filing papers, meeting with colleagues, meeting with parents, reading and sending emails, making phone calls, it goes on and on and on. Some of these things you have to do on your own, but not all of them.
What lessons can you borrow from your grade level team members? How is the teacher next door teaching fractions? Don’t reinvent the wheel if you don’t have to.
What tasks can you set aside for someone else to complete? Copying, cutting, sorting, gluing, laminating, and filing can often be outsourced to someone else in the building. Don’t hesitate to ask. Just send out an email to all staff and I guarantee someone in the building will be happy to help. If you teach upper grades, consider asking trustworthy students who finish their work early to complete tasks like these. They love it.
Parents are often willing to help. I once had a mom volunteer once a week to make all my copies for the following week. It was a Godsend! Here’s a free Parent Volunteer Interest Survey you can have out at your open house or send home to parents to gauge who may be chomping at the bit to help!
Number Three: Observe and be observed, even if it's scary
Observations were not my favorite. Whenever another teacher walked into my classroom my first year, I often felt like I was directing a show where none of the actors knew their lines. My hands got clammy, I stumbled over my words, and just waited for disaster to inevitably strike. I felt like I was going to be found out, revealed as a fraud. I felt like being observed and being offered opportunities to observe other teachers were punishment and proof that I totally sucked at teaching.
This could not be farther from the truth! Observing and being observed are excellent ways to improve and hone your craft as a teacher. Being offered these opportunities is proof that you have potential and your colleagues believe in you.
Try getting good at basketball all on your own, without a coach. How’s that going to go? Probably not very well. At the very least, it will take longer and be much harder than it has to be. Think of an observer like a coach. It might be an administrator, a mentor teacher, or just another member of your grade level team. They aren’t coming into your classroom to judge you or embarrass you. They are there to help you. Full stop. By observing you in action, they are able to provide valuable insight and advice to help you improve. Set your ego aside, and keep an open mind.
On the flip side, observing other teachers can be just as beneficial. It’s like learning a new move or play from watching another (more experienced) basketball player and then being able to add it to your own skill set. Seek out opportunities to observe your colleagues, even if it means arranging coverage for your own class. It’s. Worth. It. And, let’s be honest, your mental health will thank you for the break from your class.
Number Four: Be painfully honest, especially with yourself, about how it's going
This one is hard, especially if you’re a perfectionist like me. No one wants to feel like a failure or like things aren’t going as well as they should be. It’s easy to make excuses or try to convince yourself that everything is fine when it isn’t. Denial is self preservation at its worst. It just postpones and exacerbates the inevitable collapse. I urge you to skip it altogether and just be honest with yourself. You can’t fix a problem if you aren't willing to admit that it exists.
Keep a journal - at the end of each day sit down for five minutes and write down what went well, what didn’t go well, and specific actions you can take the following day to avoid repeating what didn’t go well.
Secretly video yourself teaching - prop your phone camera up at the back of your classroom with a good view of the action and tap record. Don’t bother with a tripod and don’t tell your students you are recording. They will alter their behavior if they know they’re on camera. Don’t share it with anyone (you need parental permission to do that) and delete it right after viewing to protect privacy. Step outside of your own insecurities and try to watch the video as an outsider. Take notes on what you see, especially areas where you can improve. You’ll be amazed how much there is to unpack!
Be honest when colleagues ask you how it’s going. You don’t have to burst into tears or anything dramatic but instead of swallowing the lump in your throat and mustering a “good,” let them know what you’re struggling with - “I’m having a lot of trouble with behavior,” “I’m feeling overwhelmed by paperwork,” etc. They will likely have practical advice to offer you in return. Remember, even if they are the Michael Jordan of teachers now, they were once in your shoes getting cut from their high school basketball team. (What, you thought I was done with my basketball analogy?)
Side note: Don’t be too honest with your students and be cautiously honest with parents. Fake it till you make it is the name of the game there.
Number Five: Be consistent at all times
Hard advice to follow, unfortunately. Consistency is the number one secret to mastering behavior management. That means setting expectations and procedures on day one and sticking to them all year long. Consistent rewards, consistent consequences, consistent reactions to student behavior, consistent everything. This is difficult your first year because you don’t really know what your expectations and procedures should be yet. You won’t know what works until you’ve tried it. Spend some time thinking this through and asking colleagues how they structure and run their own classrooms before the first day of school. Come prepared with a general game plan you won’t be wavering from. In the meantime, definitely check out 6 Lifesaving Tips for Managing Behavior in the Classroom. That one’s a game changer.
Number Six: You definitely can and probably should take a day off
There is a pervasive myth among beginning teachers that you absolutely cannot take a day off for any reason whatsoever. This is not true. Read that again - this is not true.
I clearly remember being told as a college student that I could not miss an education class, and I especially could not miss a single minute of practicum/student teaching or I would literally fail. When asked what we should do if we got really sick, our professors just shrugged, which roughly translated to “you still have to show up, but I won’t say it aloud for liability reasons.” I don’t know why education programs stress attendance this hard but it haunts first year teachers well into their careers.
You have paid time off for a reason. There are substitute teachers for a reason. If you are sick, have a doctor's appointment, are going out of town, or just need to take a mental health break and watch Netflix all day in bed and eat ice cream… DO IT! Especially that last one. It took me way too long to figure this out and I missed out on important life events. I took TWO days off for my own wedding and was wracked with guilt pacing the hospital the entire day my niece was born. I thought everything would crumble at school if I wasn’t there. They were fine. I wasn’t.
Number Seven: Do it scared. The struggle is important!
Mindy Kaling said it best when she said “sometimes you just have to put on lipgloss and pretend to be psyched.” You aren’t going to be Ms. Honey from Matilda your first year teaching. Your students aren’t going to be perfect angels. They aren’t going to learn as much as you want them to. You are going to feel like a failure sometimes and wonder how everyone else makes it look so easy. You will cry in your car at least once. This is all okay.
Just keep showing up, keep learning from your mistakes, keep trying your best. That struggle is what propels you forward. Someday you will look back and realize YOU have become the Michael Jordan in your school (okay now I’m done with the analogy) and that everything along the way that felt like failure was actually progress. You got this.
Me with my first ever class attempting to smile through feelings of complete incompetency. There were 33 in this class (4 were missing on picture day.) It was a ROUGH bunch. If anyone tries to tell you class size doesn't matter, tell them to come talk to me. But making it through that year (and on to much better years) is one of my greatest accomplishments!