My Top 10 Mistakes as a First-Year Teacher

You are told over and over in college that reflection is one of the greatest attributes of a good teacher. It’s true. As I begin my second year with a whole new outlook on my career, it has been easy to spot the things that made my Year One a tough year. If you’re a (future) teacher, hopefully you can find yourself inspired or share advice!

1. Letting the negativity suck you in.
This is the #1 thing that ruined my first year…and almost made me quit the career I had dreamed about for so long. Teaching can suck. The pay sucks. The unpaid overtime hours suck. The inability to get a raise, bonus, or promotion sucks. Kids’ attitudes can suck. Teachers’ attitudes can suck even more. My first year, I listened to so much complaining and so many teachers looking for new jobs that I was scared. I thought, if these people hate it that much, what will happen to me? Should I get out while I’m ahead? I almost did. I almost let the negative vibes of public education get me, but I stuck it out, and now I’m approaching Year Two with the mantra “Good Vibes Only.” It’s a common saying in Hawaii, but you can see the result in the Hawaiian culture. Some people see rose-colored glasses as a bad thing, but in education, they’re the only thing you can have to shield yourself against the negative vibes.

2. Bringing work home.
I was listening to someone today say that there’s no way you can not bring work home. However, I did it towards the end of last year. Of course, there are exceptions, like when 110 essays are turned in 4 days before the end of the semester. But I promised myself to get my grading, project crafting, or whatever else done at school. This helped me keep my sanity and balance. When I was bringing work home, I stayed up way too late and neglected my house and time with family and with myself. After finally feeling relaxed in the evening, it motivated me to work diligently during planning and those rare moments when you can grade during class. Just try it.

3. Being a loner.
Of course, it’s hard during the first year to jump into groups, clubs, or sports. People thought I was crazy for coaching my first year, but I made it work and knew it would only get easier next season. Coaching put me on a whole new level of respect with my students, which really changed the dynamic of my classroom. But don’t just get involved with students; get involved with teachers. I joined our marathon training group at school. A group of us ran every day after school on a training schedule, and then we ran the Monument 10K together. I also joined yoga classes my school held for teachers each Wednesday. After joining these groups, I could say “Hey” to teachers in the hall and have conversation to make. You don’t have to be BFF’s with every teacher in the school, but the more teachers you can comfortably talk to, the better.

4.Succumbing to testing culture.
I didn’t do it my first semester, but I did my second semester, and that’s what almost pushed me over the edge. After I had great state test results from my kids first semester, I felt a lot of pressure to have my second semester kids perform. The truth is, they just weren’t as bright as the bunch before them. But I beat myself up and let test-prep take over my curriculum. Not only did I lose my curriculum, but I lost my passion somewhere in there. It does help that I am not teaching a tested grade this year, but even before that, I had promised myself that I was not going to teach to the test again, regardless of the pressure.

5. Letting parents run the show.
Okay, not totally. The goal is to not let parents run the show, but to let them think they’re running the show. It’s hard to find a balance. I teach Nine Honors, so I have parents who are reluctant to let their babies fly the coop to high school. And parents who watch their kids’ grades like a hawk because they want them to get into Harvard. This means lots of snotty emails. At first, I was snappy. Then, I was soft. I finally learned that I had to put my foot down and be real and frank with parents–but in the most polite way possible. When you find that balance, you will be able to please parents (enough) without sacrificing the way you run the classroom.

6. Not letting your personality show.

Even though you technically have to be professional and mature in the classroom, it doesn’t mean you have to be a robot. I think that’s one of the things my students prize the most about our class. When something is funny–even if at the wrong time–I laugh. I joke with the kids and we take playful jabs at each other. We get way off topic about sports, entertainment, and who knows what else, and I willingly let it happen. Kids need that. Some may think that getting off topic can totally ruin a lesson and lose kids, but in my opinion, it does the opposite. When you seem human and you talk about human things, kids focus in on you. They want to hear just how normal you are. They want to talk sports with you. Then, when you switch back to English, they stay focused. They have this new desire to listen to what you have to say. They have respect for what you say. Maybe this won’t work in every classroom, but it works in mine! 

7. Putting too much effort into the wrong things.

My first year, I dedicated way too much time to wall posters and color coding and labeling. By the end of my first year, the labels had peeled off, no one had even looked at the posters, and all of my color coded binders were out of order. I always felt swamped with work last year, but it’s because I wasted a lot of time trying to be the organized, aesthetic, prim and proper teacher. This year, I put up half the posters, I threw away a lot of my organizing stuff, and I didn’t do anything fancy with my desks or room. Kids don’t care about how many posters you have on the wall, and me having 15 color-coded folders doesn’t help me…not one bit. Focus all of your energy on creating awesome lessons with awesome materials. That’s where the hard work should go.

8. Talking badly about your job, your admin, parents, or students.

It’s so easy to do, and it has so many consequences outside of just pissing someone off. Last year, in a staff meeting, a guest speaker talked to us about the disconnect (and dislike) that exists between parents and teachers, teachers and admin, and parents and admin. We are all one giant cycle of hating each other. That cycle of hate screams to the public, “Don’t support us. We’re a wreck!” So then, you lose your general support from the public–donations, taxes, attendance at events. And then, there’s just the pissing people off part. Parents, especially. In the small town where I work, it would take .002 seconds for a rude Facebook post to end up before the parent or other teacher’s eyes. Don’t say it or post it. Just let it go.

9. Being “okay” or “content” with your instruction.

I hardly changed a single thing between first and second semester last year. Then, this summer, I got inspired again and have so many new, cool ideas (or at least I think they’re cool). My second semester kids felt it. They knew I was dragging my feet in the mud. Although new content or new instructional delivery methods take work, they make you excited to try something new, and the kids see that excitement. When you get into a pattern of doing the same exact thing for semesters or years in a row, the kids here the monotony. My favorite place for new teaching ideas (and everything in life): Pinterest.

10. Not reflecting.

It doesn’t take a blog to reflect on your past year, and you shouldn’t just be reflecting after a year. Reflection, especially as a first year teacher, should be a constant thing. An every-hour thing, an every-period thing. Knowing something didn’t work and not attempting to reflect and fix it is an awful idea. More than it hurts you, it hurts your kids. Maybe even think about having one notebook just for reflecting. My reflection is usually in the form of Post-It notes stuck on my desk. I might write “The plot elements lesson was awful. Change it up to be more of a visual representation versus lecture.” If I have time, I might even try to change it before the next class roles in. Constant improvement. That should be one of your lifetime goals as a teacher.

 

Teaching, for me, was nothing like what I thought it would be. My heart was broken after my first year. I realized how much testing and administration takes over your classroom, and I wasn’t okay with it. I was watching this awesome video by Rita Pierson called “Every Kid Needs a Champion” during a faculty meeting, and she said something that totally stuck with me. She said, “We teach anyway.” She made note of all of the testing, the adverse conditions, the people breathing down our back, the terrifying students, and she simply said, “We teach anyway.” That really hit home for me. In that moment, I remembered why I signed up to do this. It wasn’t to please admin, and it wasn’t to get good test scores. It was to teach, and that’s what I’m going to do.

Teaching High School English: Year 2

In two more weeks, I’ll be preparing to get my second year of 9th grade English students. Last year, I had a mixture of 9 Honors and 11 Academic (a.k.a average/standard). This year, I have my 9H group, but they threw me for a loop by trading my 11 for 9 Collaborative. I’m looking forward to having a co-teacher, but did I mention I am terrified of working with students with special needs? If I’m being honest, I’m pretty clueless. I was identified gifted in 2nd grade, and I was essentially isolated with a group of about 10 kids in my city from 2nd through 8th grade. Then, in high school, I took Honors/AP everything. I’ve never even shared a class with a student with any issue aside from a behavioral disorder. I’m worried I won’t be able to communicate effectively or meet all of their various needs. I know my co-teacher for those classes (who I like, thank goodness) will be a huge help, but I’m still so nervous. Not to mention, over the summer, I feel like I forgot how to even get ready for work, much more TEACH teenagers stuff. I’m freaking out a little. I’m going to guess that once I get back in my room and get going, I’ll chill out, but right now, I’m way more terrified for Year 2 than I was Year 1. I also have to revamp my discipline system. I haven’t had to deal with many behavior issues aside from some cheating and an occasional cuss word. I’m very much against calling kids out or going in the hall during class. I like to keep teaching and keep them from being embarrassed. I need a red-yellow-green light type system, but in a way that it fits high school. It’s harder than it seems. Even the teacher community on Pinterest gave me nothing. The only other tough thing is going to be differentiation between my Honors and Collab. We’ll be doing most of the same material, but the instructional delivery, practice, and assessment will have to be totally different. I’m just going to keep breathing and telling myself it will all come together.

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