With all the excitement with the new school year beginning, I always think back to my first year of teaching. I was so nervous and excited to meet my class of first and second graders. I was ready to inspire young minds. . .
I was NOT prepared for the reality that only a few of my 27 students understood English! (And they did not all speak Spanish. . . which I speak a little. . . there were 12 languages in my room!) Not all of my 1st graders had attended preschool or kindergarten. I did not realize some would not recognize their own names or how to properly hold scissors. Although I had always worked with kids, I was an emergency credentialed (aka untrained) teacher (meaning I graduated with my BA, then was given an emergency teaching credential and classroom key, with the understanding that I'd go back to graduate school to get my teaching credential). 29 years later. . . I can look back with giggles (sort of) or relief, but I sure wish I had known these "tried and true" teaching tips BEFORE walking into my classroom!
Get to Know Your Students
Sometimes we are so focused on WHAT we have to teach (I mean, we are given standard upon standard and talk about data ad nauseum!!), that we forget WHO we are teaching. The most important tip I have is: get to know your students! Yes, they are with us 6 hours a day, but knowing them as a student is such a small part of who they really are. Try using interest surveys or play team building games. More ideas here. During Morning Meeting, we often have discussions about each other, little by little sharing parts of our lives. One of my students' favorite projects is a Me Museum; each child shares specific aspects of themselves. Getting to know students outside the classroom allows teachers to find new ways to motivate and relate to our kids.
Students and parents alike want to feel that you care about them. I give a parent survey at the beginning of the year, asking them to tell me more about their child (things they do as a family, what they notice about how their child learns, etc.) and I'm always struck by their responses to the question: "Is there anything else you would like to tell me about your child?" I always have quite a few parents who reply, "_______ is a sweet boy/girl. I hope you will like him/her." Yes, the curriculum is important, but it's all about relationships and hoping my students want to come to school and love learning is when I am successful.Don't Be Afraid to Ask for Help
As teachers, (and especially new teachers!) we are often guilty of closing our classroom door and working alone. (So opposite of all the cooperative learning we insist from our students!) Whether it's due to embarrassment or uncertainty about not knowing what we are doing, we teachers are often insecure. I am so thankful during my first year, the teacher in the classroom next door, Elizabeth, an experienced teacher of 10 years, would not let me become a classroom hermit; she was always knocking on my door to ask what I needed or inviting me to teacher conferences or to share materials. To this day, I still turn to her for advice and to bounce off ideas. I learned to love teaching math (a subject that used to terrorize me) because of conferences we went to together; she challenged my ideas about how children learn best and to focus on the whole child!
Due to the thousands of emergency credentialed teachers my first year, there were not enough mentor teachers to assist. Thankfully, our local university had an incredible program called Teacher Helpline (how appropriate!). Retired teachers volunteered their time to visit new teachers, model lessons, and provide support. Although I was so embarrassed to have an experienced teacher in my out-of-control classroom, Mrs. P was lovely and non-judgmental. Read about lessons I learned from her here.
Lastly, get to know other colleagues. You can be each other's support team. Two of my dearest friends, Debbie & Claudia, were all brand-new teachers together at our same first school. We would share our ideas, frustrations & successes, critique each other's lessons and classrooms, and be a shoulder to cry on or a listening ear. New teachers: you WILL cry and it is OKAY!! I was a mess my first year. . . I went home in tears every day from July through April!! But here I still am. . . (and although I thought I forever ruined my first class' lives by not teaching them anything, several of those children (now in their 30's!!) still keep in touch and one of them has become a teacher, too! So I guess as long as your students know you care, everything else will work itself out!
One of the biggest pieces of "tried and true" advice I can give is to know WHY you do WHAT you do. Don't be defensive about your teaching, but be proactive. Inform parents on class happenings, keep them in the loop. In my monthly newsletters, I like to give a short blurb about "research shows. . ." and how it is may look in the form of assignments and class activities. I share resources with parents, including articles and websites. Be confident in what you are teaching; YOU are the trained educator!
Invite parents to share their talents with the class. One year I had a father who was a restaurant owner. He brought in his pastry chef and together with our class, we drew aerial view sketches on graph paper of a California mission. Then we made gingerbread and cut the pieces out according to our blueprint. His pastry chef helped us assemble our gingerbread missions! They were fantastic! (Unfortunately, this was in the years before digital pictures so I'm not sure where those prints and negatives are!!) I've had other parents teach yoga, quilting, and photography to our class. Not only is it wonderful for the student whose parent is volunteering, but it allows your class to experience other activities that you may not necessarily have done with them. (And I always find a way to connect it to our standards!) :)
Read more about "tried and true" parent communication tools here. Your students' families can be your biggest supporters!
Don't Worry About Having a Cute Classroom Like the Teacher Next Door
I know, I know. . .I was SO guilty of this!! I would spend HOURS "designing" my room. I used to paint my bulletin board borders by hand!! (What?! I can't even believe this now. . .) I would spend days & hours on the weekends coloring posters, making learning centers (that the kids truly did not care about. . .but they were cute!) Because I was right out of college, I was able to enlist the help of my other 20-something friends; at dinner parties, I'd pull out posters and big books to be colored while I provided food & drinks! I am embarrassed to admit all this!
When it comes right down to it, your students do not care how "cute" the room is; yes it should be clean and organized and colorful helps. However, as I always tell my students, "This is OUR classroom and we will decide what we need and where it goes. There is not work up on our bulletin boards yet because you have not done any work yet. Once we start working, then we will put up work." The pressure is off you, the teacher, and your students have a sense of shared responsibility for their learning environment. You can also read more about student buy-in here. You have many more things (like learning your curriculum and standards!) to spend your energy and time on, than getting obsessive about your room colors!
Have a Life Outside of School
This is hard; I admit it. Thinking about what we're teaching next, how to reach those students who are on our hearts and minds, signing up for professional development or additional classes, doing professional reading, blah blah blah. . . It's all-consuming 24-7! But. . . you've heard the directions from flight attendants: "Put on your own oxygen mask first, BEFORE assisting others." We cannot teach to the best of our ability if we do not have the energy or clear-mindedness (is that a word?) ourselves. Make time for SLEEP (guilty!!), plan a date with friends or significant other (there's nothing like a good laugh!), get moving or outside, or read a non-teaching-related book just for pleasure (or a magazine!). Yes, school can take over our lives and our family lives, but remember those papers will still be there to grade, and school will still go on, even if your anchor charts aren't all cute and hung. Having a life outside of school gives YOU more interesting experiences to share with your students.
You may want to check out the many helpful tips and suggestions for Teacher Care on my Pinterest board here. How do you keep sane during the school year? :)
Click on the link below to read more tips for new teachers!