The question was easy enough–What advice would you give to a first-year teacher who is feeling stressed out and overwhelmed? It came from a concerned father by way of my hairstylist. He was making small talk during his haircut, and a happy coincidence had me sitting and waiting to be shampooed. I gave her some ideas he could pass on to his daughter, but by the time I had finished my shampoo, I realized I was writing a blog post. I offer these suggestions for surviving the first year and thriving as you move toward your second.
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Find a mentor
The demands of being a first-year teacher are so widely recognized that many districts and/or campuses have an official mentor program for new teachers. If yours does not, find a teacher in your building that you respect and like and ask him or her to be your mentor. Partnering with an experienced teacher has many benefits. First, they have had years to fine-tune their classroom organizational systems and they can give you great tips for finding ways to work smarter, not harder. You’d be surprised how much time you can trim off everyday tasks just through efficient organization. Ask to spend time in their classroom and have them explain how they organize their instructional materials, files, papers to be graded, etc. Next, every veteran teacher vividly remembers being a new teacher. They know what you are going through and what helped them in the same situation. They understand the emotions you are experiencing and can be a huge source of support. At the end of a particularly difficult day, they will understand if you come in their room, close the door, and break down in tears. They will be there with a hug and encouraging words. You don’t have to do this alone. Finally, you can learn from their mistakes. My classroom management system the first year I taught was to yell increasingly louder. Of course it wasn’t very effective, and I am the first to admit it. You will find that experienced teachers don’t try to hide the mistakes of their past, they want to share them to help others avoid the same mistakes. Mistakes aren’t bad if we learn from them, and it’s so much better to learn from someone else’s mistakes than your own!
Connect with other first-year teachers
While you may be the only first-year teacher in your building, there are plenty of other first-year teachers that are feeling exactly the way you do right now. Connect with teachers you attended classes with who are teaching in the same area as you. Make it a point to get together and support each other. There are even Twitter hashtag for newbie teachers. Check out #FirstYearTeacher. and #ntchat. Connecting with other new educators can help you realize that you are not alone, and that is powerful.
Think like a business person
Yes, that’s right. Anyone in business knows how important it is to do a cost/benefit analysis before engaging in any activity, but teachers rarely do the same thing. Remember that math workstation you spent 4 hours copying, laminating, and cutting out? Did you really get 4 hours of benefit out of it? Time is a precious resource, so you have to look at each and every activity and choose those that give you the most bang for your buck. Along those same lines, consider outsourcing some of the work. If you are on a campus with an active volunteer group, be sure you are using their services. This was hard for me, because I felt that it would take me more time to give the volunteers directions than I would save, but that’s not the case. Once you learn to turn over some of the work, you’ll look forward to handing it off.
Reflect on your classroom management
As I look back, learning how to effectively manage classroom behavior was, hands down, the hardest part of being a new teacher. Still, to this day, it’s the one area that I am constantly looking to improve. Teaching is about interacting with students, and if that interaction is not done effectively, learning will not occur no matter how well you can explain the process for long division. Consistency is the key. Your students must know your expectations and understand that they are non-negotiable. What Great Teachers Do Differently: 17 Things That Matter Most, by Todd Whitaker, is a book with the potential to transform your teaching. At a scant 126 pages, it packs a powerful punch and is a great book to read over the winter break. Want to change the culture in your school? Do a staff book study and examine staff expectations (but I digress…). In the chapter titled If You Say Something, Mean It, Whitaker states:
A teacher who bellows at students, “I have told you at least a dozen times!” may think the students are slow to learn. But who keeps saying the same thing over and over without learning that it hasn’t worked? It’s the teacher, of course.
When the very best teachers–like the very best coaches—say something, they mean it. They don’t depend on a commanding presence and a booming voice to manage their classrooms. Rather, students respect their authority because they express expectations clearly and then follow through.
Where was Todd Whitaker when I started teaching? I sure could have used that advice!
Focus on the students
When you feel you are at your breaking point, take a long walk. As you walk, picture the smile of the student whose hatred of math is starting to melt away. Hear the voice of the student, written off as lazy because he had given up hope of success, as he wishes you a great weekend with a big smile after successfully solving a tough math problem. Feel the embrace of the girl who hugs you each time she enters or leaves your room, because she doesn’t have a mother at home. That’s why you chose this profession.
It will get easier after the winter break
Trust me on this one. ALL teachers are feeling stressed out and overworked at this time of the year. The fact is, teaching is emotionally and physically demanding. I used to feel guilty because I thought that looking forward to a break meant I didn’t care enough for my students. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Breaks give us time to refresh and recharge our batteries. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t be the best teacher for our students.
Don’t give up
If you are feeling stressed and worn out because of the 12-hour days, you are the kind of teacher we need. You will learn to manage your time, both in and out of the classroom, and it will get easier.
I welcome both new and veteran teachers to leave a comment on this post! We’re all in this together. 🙂