Ten unspoken rules to help your first year of teaching suck less
New teachers, be prepared. Your first year is probably going to suck. It may not be a total suckfest, but it will at least fall short of your idealistic imaginings of what you thought it would be. The truth is almost every teacher’s first year is a colossal struggle filled with some small and large failures, and some minor successes.
At the end of my first year, a veteran teacher and I conversed between the stalls on the last day of school while we were taking care of our business.
Veteran teacher asks, “How’d your year go?”
I reply, “Not so great. One student ended up failing, and I never even saw it coming. I had that incident with my sub when all the students turned the round-robin story writing activity into a lewd pornographic movie script. I managed NOT to teach a word of English to my newly-arrived Vietnamese student. The diagnosed psychopath never lifted a pencil or opened a book the entire year, and I was too afraid to make him. I wanted to accomplish so much more, but I . . .”
Veteran teacher interrupts, “Don’t worry about it. I know you are a good teacher because you care about what you didn’t get done and know you could have done it better.”
Guess what, new teacher? You will feel “you could have done it better” at the end of every school year.
So, here are some unspoken but real rules to help you through your first year of teaching that might not have been mentioned in your teacher prep classes.
BTW, thank you for choosing to become a teacher. I love you for it!
Shh . . . I have done most of these don’ts. Remember, please do as I say, not as I do.
Unspoken Rule #1: Don’t act like you have all the answers.
Yes, you are the most recently educated teacher trained in the latest pedagogical trends, but you are a newbie. We all know what you are about to experience, even the students. You may fool some colleagues, but you will never fool your students. Be confident but not condescending, be assertive but not authoritarian, and be knowledgeable but not a know-it-all.
Unspoken Rule #2: Don’t join teacher cliques or side with one teacher against another.
Be very careful around colleagues in the workroom, the conference room, and any other room. The sad truth is teachers can be just as cliquey as their students can. You want to avoid doing this because you don’t know who is respected and who is not, yet. At some point, you may very well need help from a teacher you have ignored or treated rudely. Avoid . . . teacher . . . drama! You will have enough drama with your students.
Unspoken Rule #3: Don’t talk about anyone negatively . . . admins, teachers, staff, parents, or students. Anyone!
Some teachers love to gossip, but don’t participate. Let’s face it, it says more about us when we talk negatively about someone than it says about that person. Remember, even co-workers who deserve to be gossiped about are probably fighting their own personal dragons. Be the colleague people know they can trust. Be especially nice to the support and custodial staff. They often possess the covert power in the building and can help you in unexpected ways.
Unspoken Rule #4: Don’t take what students say or do personally.
Beware. Children, no matter what age, have a tendency to make unfiltered comments about their teachers: how they look, how they act, how they smell. You must remember that you are the adult in the room and not take to heart any negative statements they may make. Even when they like you, they still feel they have the right to say anything about you, to your face. They will point out the gray hairs, the thing in your nose, your acne scars, the hair on your arm, your bald head, your funky odor. Don’t internalize their comments because they know not what they do, but you might want to shave or pluck and bathe more often.
Unspoken Rule #5: Don’t bring your personal baggage into the classroom.
If you hated cheerleaders in high school, and you teach at the high school level, do not take that out on your current “cheery” students. You may not even know you have an issue, until your prejudice monster raises its ugly head. You must not let your soft biases affect how you handle your students.
You may have some type of soft racist bias and not even be aware of it. I have always considered myself an antiracist, but during a professional development class on diversity, I realized that somewhere in my past I had internalized the prejudiced thought that African-American students did not do as well in school as white students. The class helped me see that I overly praised my African American students, especially boys, when they answered questions correctly, and I was clueless that I was doing this. My prejudice monster had been hiding in his cave.
One good reform action to teacher preparation programs would be to require one semester of counseling or therapy just to help future teachers become aware of the baggage they bring and learn to unpack it before being entrusted with the fragile emotional lives of children.
Unspoken Rule #6: Don’t refer to yourself as a “friend” to any student.
You are not, nor ever will be friends with your students. When your students think you are “friends,” you have compromised your authority in the classroom. Very different expectations exist from our friends than from our authority figures. Also, you jeopardize your professional relationships and trust with other students if they don’t feel you are “friends” with them, and your colleagues will think less of you, too. Trust me.
And . . . DO NOT have contact with students on your personal social media sites for two reasons. One, you are risking your job if something a parent or principal deems inappropriate appears on your site, and two, you are a mandatory reporter. If you see something questionable about a student, you must report it. The risk outweighs the worth regarding social media.
Unspoken Rule #7: Don’t need praise from colleagues, and only appreciate constructive praise from students.
The greatest gift you can give yourself is to not care what people think about you, even if it’s good. Adopt this Wayne Dyer quote, "What other people think of me is none of my business." Most teachers are so busy dog paddling to stay afloat, they don’t have much time to think about others anyway. Regarding students, you should ignore unconstructive praise such as “You wear the cutest skirts,” “You are such a cool teacher,” and “Your Pez collection rocks.”
What you want to hear from students are comments like, “Wow, this class flies by,” “You really care about your students,” “You take the time to teach us again if we don’t get it,” and “Your graphic organizers are easy to understand and use.” When students make a general statement such as “We like your class,” take the time to ask them why and make them give you specific examples.
Unspoken Rule #8: Don’t make major life changes or decisions this year.
My methods professor gave me this advice 25 years ago, and it is still good advice today. During your first year of teaching, do not get married, do not give birth, do not move, do not divorce, and do not have major elective surgery. Your first year of teaching is going to consume your entire life if you want to do it well. Just accept that fact and go with it. Again, do as I say, not as I do because I was guilty of almost every “don’t” my first year of teaching. I married, had a baby, moved into a new house. Not a good idea.
During my first year of teaching and marriage, I spent my nights in our home office planning and grading, not realizing that my new (now ex) husband drank a lot of beer, way too much beer, and my pregnancy ended in an emergency C-section two weeks before my due date because I developed preeclampsia, probably from the stress of enduring so many major life changes during my first year of teaching. Again, do as I say.
Unspoken Rule #9: Don’t think it’s a 40-hour-a-week job, because it is not.
Related to #8, you are going to work at night and on weekends. Just accept that. Most of us still do even after many years of teaching, but not as much as we did that first year. Go ahead and give notice to family and friends that you might be AWOL during the next nine months and you will see them at the beach next summer. Maybe at Christmas, if they are lucky.
Unspoken Rule #10: Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
Teachers tend to become islands unto themselves, but when you ask them for help, they are there. I promise. Most teachers are incredibly generous, helpful, supportive people. They always show up.
And fortunately for you, a resource exists that I did not have my first year . . . the world wide web. OMG! You can obtain everything you need from classroom management strategies, room organization tips, lesson plan templates, how-to advice, handouts, videos, activities. You name it, you can find it, usually for free. Repeat to yourself, “Pinterest is my friend, my very best friend.” Again, “Pinterest is my friend . . .”
Good luck, newbie. You are joining the best profession on the planet! Like raising children, it’s the hardest job you will ever do, but the rewards and fulfillment are worth it. The students are worth it, and they need you. They need great teachers like you who care. Here’s to your first year. May the teacher gods, and the data, be ever in your favor, and may it suck as little as possible.