Terry: 3 Things Every New Teacher Should Know That the Advice Books Won’t Tell Them

The first year of teaching is notoriously hard, pushing even the most enthusiastic and prepared newbie to their limits. Endless books have been written on how to “survive” it. I would know. I read them all in preparation for my first year teaching at Compton High School in 1996.

Although these books did provide me with valuable instructional and classroom management tools and strategies, they didn’t address how to thrive in the first year of teaching and beyond. That, I had to learn on the job.

Below are three practical tips to help you thrive in your first year of teaching and beyond, gleaned from my own experience as a new teacher, school principal, and director of new teacher development.

1. Make taking care of yourself a top priority.

For me, teaching is a true passion. In my first year, I exercised this passion by staying up all night planning lessons, eating fast food every day (in between reading the textbook chapter I was going to teach the next day and grading assignments I had held onto for far too long). I left school late and arrived early, rarely getting a good night’s sleep. In December of that year, I was diagnosed with pneumonia, and consequently, I was out of school for two critical weeks before semester finals.

I learned quickly that even the most passionate teachers aren’t superhuman, and they must make mental and physical self-care a priority if they want to be there for their students. Failing to take the time to decompress, eat well, sleep, and enjoy things outside the realm of teaching can quickly lead to a weakened immune system, poor mood, and disillusionment.

I was advised by a veteran teacher to write down a daily schedule for the work week that included designated time for eating well, adequate sleep, and at least 30 minutes of activity to rejuvenate myself physically, mentally, and/or spiritually. Because I knew I was prone to stray from the plan, I shared it with a friend who helped me stay accountable. Six months into my first year of teaching I had developed a rhythm to my work that allowed me to be passionate about my practice while staying reasonably healthy, sane, and capable of bringing my best self to my students every day.

2. Always be learning, not lamenting.

A few years ago I was working with a new teacher named Jennifer who was frustrated to tears. She explained that every day she was making mistakes (not timing an activity appropriately, saying the right thing at the wrong time to a difficult student, forgetting to collect an assignment from a class of students, etc.). Despite attending every professional development opportunity offered, she just didn’t feel like a successful teacher.

Here is the truth I shared with her, and that now I offer you: while professional development is vital for teachers to grow, the most important lessons you will learn about teaching won’t come from professional development; they will come from your mistakes.

When you make mistakes in the classroom, you have one choice: to lament over them, or learn from them. Lamenting for a bit is a natural reaction to making mistakes, but taken to the extreme, it can consume you with negativity and sap your confidence. Instead, make a habit of taking time to reflect on what went wrong (individually or with a mentor), identify what you can do differently to avoid the mistake in the future, and then do it.

Over time you, like Jennifer, will find yourself being a far better teacher than you ever imagined you could be.

3. Celebrate small victories every day.

In my first year teaching, I thought my third-period U.S. History class was going to be the death of me. They were loud and talkative, rarely listening to me or each other. What I did in other classes to get student attention didn’t work on them. I dreaded the start of third period because I just didn’t know what to do.

In the science classroom next door, many of these same students were angels. I asked the science teacher to come and observe me and tell me what I needed to do. His response was simple: “You need a good silent signal and some confidence.”

He went on to share with me a silent signal that worked for him, but didn’t guide me on how to be more confident. The next day I began using his silent signal, and 5 out of my 22 students seemed to respond. I was tempted to give up, but instead I decided to stick with it for a week or two and see what happened.

Each day I started to notice two or three more students give me their attention in response to the signal. I wished the whole class would have responded to the signal from day one, but little by little it was starting to work. Each time I noticed the strategy working, I became a little more confident that if I work on a strategy, commit to it, and recognize the small victories along the way, I can actually turn things around.

What I learned to do over my teaching career was to make a habit of identifying even the smallest of victories with my most difficult classes or with students I struggled to reach. I would jot them down daily and review the list as often as I needed to stay motivated in the face of challenges.

In the end, once you realize as a teacher that you have the power to make progress in most any situation, you actually will!

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