As a new school year is upon us in North America, I wanted to revisit this post on “10 Tips for New Teachers” from August 2018. Hopefully, the ideas I share are applicable to someone new into the profession, or at any stage.
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I fell upon this article by Jennifer Gonzalez (known all over the world for her excellent site, “The Cult of Pedagogy”) advising new teachers. It was a great read and reminded me a lot of my ups and downs as a beginning teacher.
Here is the thing about teaching: If you are passionate about what you do, it never really becomes “easy.” It is hard in a different way. It is always emotionally taxing and has its share of challenging days. That being said, education is such an amazingly rewarding endeavor; those tough days are ones that you will come to look at differently when you have those wonderful days.
But starting, there are some things I figured out, and there are things I wished I knew back then, that might be helpful for others entering the profession, or maybe even switching schools.
Here are some of those suggestions.
1. Build relationships right away.
Usually, when you hear the importance of relationships in education, there is a focus on how we build rapport with our students. But do not limit yourself to that and do not hide away from staff on breaks. I learned that support I needed from teachers was essential to doing well that first year (and beyond), but I also know that connections with the secretaries, custodians, and support staff, were so beneficial. The secretary always seemed to be the lifeblood of the schools I taught or worked at, and weirdly, seemed to know everything. I know that is not true, but it sure felt true. Our educational assistants that work in the classrooms are so influential and knowledgeable about many things our staff do and make sure that they always feel valued.
One other tip…Don’t judge people or staff that you don’t connect with right away.
I remember there was one teacher that was on a staff I worked who seemed like a massive “grump,” and we had zero interactions during the first four months of the school year. I remember him distinctly saying to me, “Have a great winter break!” as I walked out of the school to head back to my hometown, and these were the first words that he said to me the entire year. After the break, I came back, and he became one of the biggest influences on my career as a colleague. Some people need a little time to warm up, but it doesn’t mean they are negative people. Always give people the benefit of the doubt until they give you a reason to think differently.
2. It is better to ask questions about things you don’t know the answer to than to pretend you know.
It is easy not to want to feel like a “burden” to other staff members by asking a bunch of questions while you are trying to learn your new surroundings, but a couple of things to consider; everyone you ask for help needed it from someone else at some point. It is often WAY easier to ask advice first than to go back and fix something that you messed up because you didn’t want to ask in the first place. The majority of teachers I have worked with WANT to help you figure things out because that is why they got into teaching in the first place.
3. Call parents with something positive about their child as soon as possible.
Confession…I was terrified of parents and caregivers when I first started as a teacher.
I know how precious their children are to them, and so I didn’t want to mess up. But parents want to know that you value their child, and if your first interaction is talking about something negative, it can damage a relationship with that parent in the long term. Being proactive in communication is crucial.
PS…Never EVER communicate something negative to a parent over email.
4. Ask yourself, “What am I doing for the students that they can be doing for themselves?
The above advice is something that I had gleaned from my friends AJ Juliani and John Spencer. It is easy to do everything for our classrooms whereas some of the things that we hate, our students would love to do. I was asked continuously to fix technology in my school, and it was frustrating. One day, one of my students asked if he could do it for me, and all of a sudden, a “student tech-support team” was created. Not only did it take things off of my plate, but the students who volunteered to lead the initiative took more ownership over the school. What I saw as “work” was a learning opportunity that I took away from my students. If you have this question in your head throughout the year, not only could it be less “work” for you, but it creates some empowering opportunities for your students.
5. Have a life outside of school.
If all you care about is teaching and you are spending hours upon hours in the school, you are more likely to burn out. There are so many great ways to connect and learn from colleagues outside of school through social networks, but it doesn’t mean you have to fill every waking moment filling your head and heart with education-related activities. Connect with friends and family, don’t forget about the activities that you love, and don’t be focused on teaching all of the time. It is okay to enjoy summer and weekends, which is part of “sharpening the saw.” Long-term, this can make you a better teacher as students want to connect with people that are teachers, not teachers that happen to be people.
6. If you are having a tough day, that is okay.
As a principal, I encouraged my teachers that if they needed a mental health day to take it. Because you can’t “see it” doesn’t mean it isn’t an issue. And sometimes, taking those mental health days are beneficial long-term because it becomes the difference between working at 50% for five days of the week, to working at 100% for four.
Immediately, I know that some people might think what I am saying could encourage someone to take advantage of this, but it never happened.
Also, don’t hesitate to talk to someone. I had many conversations with principals and colleagues when I was having personal and professional struggles that helped me tremendously.
We all have bad days. Don’t take it as a permanent defeat but recognize it as something we all go through, whether you see it or not.
7. Do your best to surround yourself with positive people, and be that positive person for others.
There is a distinction between people who challenge and negative people. We NEED people who challenge our thinking, but taking veiled shots at others is not helpful, and in fact, can often lose the message in the delivery. Challenging people can be an element of caring about someone, but there is a way we can do it while still showing the value we have in one another. But not everyone you will encounter will be positive. You don’t necessarily need to avoid them, but I always try to be positive in times of negativity. It doesn’t necessarily work, but it is helpful for my well-being. The people you surround yourself with, in and out of school, can either be a fountain or a drain, so be thoughtful of which one you are to others. This leads to the next point.
8. Don’t get sucked into gossip.
If someone is gossiping to you about someone else, they could easily be gossiping about you to someone else.
9. Ask for feedback early, not late.
It is hard to know how you are doing as a teacher when you are just getting started (and sometimes even later in your career). It can seem that different administrators have different expectations, so the best way to find out how you are doing is to ask others to come in and observe you and give you feedback to help you grow.
Do not limit this to your administrators, though. Ask colleagues to come to your class and give you feedback. Some of the best advice I ever had for my practice was from other teachers who were in the room while I was leading a classroom. This can be daunting, but it is always better to get feedback too early than it is too late.
10. Remember why you teach.
There are a lot of tough days ahead of you. The classroom is unpredictable, and no day will look the same. Some days you will think that you have mastered teaching, and then the next day, you might think you are terrible. Also, I never felt post-secondary prepared me for the “other stuff” that teachers have to do that is not shown in movies, such as endless documentation and many late nights of marking and meetings. It is not as glamorous as what you see on TV, but it doesn’t mean it has to be less inspiring.
What is so amazing about education as a profession is that you impact people who go out and influence others. Teachers will never get the recognition they deserve because their impact can be infinite.
Think of it this way…if one thing in this blog inspired you to try something new or do something positive, that is because my teachers gave me the tools to share my voice. You will do the same for an endless amount of people.
Don’t forget that.
One last tip.
It is okay to cry. Teaching is such a rewarding profession, but it is a tough job. Just try to laugh way more than you cry. 🙂