5 Things Every New Teacher Needs to Know
By Barbara R. Blackburn
Are you a new teacher? Are you nervous about starting the school year? I know I was my first year.
When I was writing my first book, one of my colleagues, Jason, pointed out that everyone has butterflies the first day of school. The goal is not to get rid of them; the goal is to line them up in formation!
Over the course of my teaching, and networking with other teachers, I’ve learned five key lessons about being a new teacher.
1. You may make mistakes, and that’s normal
I am a perfectionist, and I carried that into my teaching. I felt like, since I had graduated with honors, had been one of the highest rated teacher candidates in college, and had experience as a substitute teacher, that I would be a great teacher right off the starting line.
What I didn’t realize was that nothing truly prepares you for your first year of teaching. At some point in the year, I realized I didn’t know what I didn’t know, and I made more than my share of mistakes.
Everything I thought I knew about discipline didn’t fully prepare me for my student Durrell and his negative words and actions. Everything I thought I knew about parent relationships didn’t help with my most negative parent who thought he was an expert in education. And everything I thought I knew about instruction wasn’t enough to help me differentiate for all my students’ needs.
What I learned by my second year was that everyone makes mistakes; the key is to learn from them.
2. Connect with your colleagues
It is critical to connect with other teachers in your school. This can be challenging, simply due to time. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with lesson planning, grading, and all the other aspects of teaching, but taking the time to associate with your colleagues has several benefits.
First, they can share time-tested ideas that can help you be a more effective teacher, whether it is a new activity, a way to streamline planning, or a discipline strategy.
Closely related is the fact that more experienced teachers can help you avoid common mistakes. Think of it this way: someone who is ahead of you on the road can warn you of the bumps and potholes. Finally, they can offer much needed encouragement when you are struggling.
We all need someone to remind us that tough times do not last. Your colleagues can provide that encouragement. One mistake I made as a new teacher was waiting for other teachers to approach me. There are a variety of reasons for the delay, but one of them is that they may not be sure if you are open to assistance. Be proactive and don’t be afraid to take the first step.
3. Communicate with parents early so you can build a base of support
Many partnerships are destroyed before they start because the teacher believes it is someone else’s responsibility to prompt a connection.
This was the attitude of a former colleague, who believed that parents would contact him if it was really important. In his case, by the time a parent called the school, it was due to a situation that was very negative. He could have prevented the crisis if he had contacted the parents earlier.
If you believe it’s the parents’ responsibility to communicate and/or follow-up with you, you will find yourself dealing with more than one crisis. When dealing with parents and families, take the time to communicate throughout the year.
It’s also important to share positive things about their son or daughter. A friend of mine talks about parent relationships being like a bank; you need to make a deposit before you make a withdrawal. In other words, share positive comments before you ask for their help.
Remember, communicating with parents and families is not an extra job; it is part of your job. There is no way you can truly help your students be successful without the support of their parents and caregivers. And it’s up to you to take the first step.
4. Keep balance in your life so you don’t get overwhelmed
In order to achieve work-life balance, you need to think about yourself, your patterns, and your aspirations. Values and beliefs shape our actions and impact our personal set of life experiences. Here are some suggestions for assessing where you are and where you want to be.
Define what “greater balance” means for you and think about what you value. Being clear about your values is one key to establishing balance, or at least understanding why you don’t have balance. A conflict in values can create stress and disrupt the balance we seek.
For example, you may value getting to work early but also value spending a little time with your spouse, children or significant other before your day begins. Perhaps you value finishing your work before you leave for the day, but also value attending your children’s after-school activities or being available to help with childcare or household chores.
Take some time to sketch out what a balanced week would be like, and take actions to make that a reality.
5. You make a difference—even when you don’t feel like it
I had periods of time when I felt disheartened, particularly at the end of my first year of teaching. I also had days when I started the morning full of energy and passion and excitement, but by 10 a.m. the problems dragged me down.
There were days when it seemed like it didn’t really matter if I tried, put forth extra effort, did a really great activity instead of a worksheet, or tried for the hundredth time to reach that student.
I tried to make a difference, but Roger still got in a fight. I did everything possible, but Brittany still didn’t bring her homework. I communicated with parents, but they still said it was my fault that their child wasn’t learning.
You probably will also have days when you ask, “Is it worth the effort? Am I making a difference?” Let me assure you, you do make a difference.
However, one of the most difficult aspects of being a teacher is that we sometimes don’t see the results of our efforts. It’s like planting an apple tree in your backyard and discovering you are moving away at the end of the year. Full growth won’t be evident until after you are gone.
You dug the hole, planted the tree, watered it, added fertilizer and some TLC — but because it takes three to five years for an apple tree to grow to full height, someone else will enjoy the apples.
Teaching is exactly like that. You invest lots of time, energy, and passion today, but sometimes you have to trust that the fruits of your labor will flourish sometime in the future. You do the work and you trust there is a benefit in the years to come.
It’s important that every single day, you keep the faith. Your kids watch you; they read your moods; and they notice what you wear, what you say, and even sometimes what you think! And every single day, every single moment, remember, “On your worst day, you are still someone’s best hope.”
You are still their teacher. You—and you alone—are the key to someone learning today.
Barbara Blackburn was named one of the Top 30 Global Gurus in Education in 2017.A former teacher, school leader and university teacher educator, she is a best-selling author of 21 books including Rigor is Not a Four Letter Word and Rigor and Differentiation in the Classroom: Tools and Strategies (Routledge, 2018). A nationally recognized expert in the areas of rigor and motivation, she collaborates with schools and districts for professional development. Barbara can be reached through her website or her blog. Follow her on Twitter @BarbBlackburn.