Good News for Beginning Teachers
No one knows better than a first year teacher that the beginning of the school year bristles with anticipation—and not just for the kids. Yet, despite the excitement, the weeks before school are often filled with unsettling thoughts: “Will I ever be able to fill all those hours until lunch?” “What if a parent comes to meet me and can only say, ‘You’re the teacher?!” “Am I going to be able to keep the vows I made to myself to treat my students in a fair and loving way?”
Let your expectations inspire your intentions and guide your teaching behaviors, without putting undue pressure on yourself!
There can be many scary feelings to face just before your role as “Teacher” becomes real. To put those worries in perspective, take a moment and fantasize; picture your idea of a perfect first year. Imagine how you want to feel, the climate you create in your classroom and some of the ideals you have set for yourself. This vision can be a big help in your personal goal-setting process.
If you’re like most beginning teachers, you want to be competent and creative, running a classroom where students are inquisitive and on task. You envision yourself as flexible and fun, enjoying your job, respected by parents, and looked upon as a valuable addition by your school staff.
These are great expectations—and important ones. Let your expectations inspire your intentions and guide your teaching behaviors, without putting undue pressure on yourself! Here are some suggestions to turn your beginning teacher’s dreams into achievable goals.
I Want my Students to Behave
You know you have the ability to think of a dynamic lesson and design a terrific bulletin board. However you may not feel as confident about managing a roomful of students.
There may be days when you will worry, “These kids must not like me at all because if they did, they would never act like this! What am I doing wrong?”
Beginning teachers are often torn between wanting to develop a caring relationship with their students and fearing that doing so will ultimately undo their sense of authority. Not true! Your students need and want to believe that you’re responsible and in charge, but you can be very friendly, warm, and personal and still be the adult they need.
Start by identifying and considering your students’ needs and interests to create a warm and positive climate in your classroom. You can meet students’ needs for belonging and control by involving them in decisions that concern them, like allowing them to choose which assignment to do first, or letting them choose a partner for a particular assignment.
Simply being able to make choices may give some of your students a real boost of confidence and often improves the chances for cooperation because it meets their need for control within the limits and structure you provide. These options will save you countless power struggles. Plus, making choices is an important step toward developing individual responsibility and decision-making skills, assets they will need throughout their lives.
Your ability to recognize that the students are not their behaviors will allow you to accept them without necessarily accepting those behaviors.
Beginning teachers often feel insecure when other teachers walk by their classroom or the principal passes their kids in the lunch line. Sometimes it’s hard not to panic and think, “I know I would look like a better teacher if my students were not so noisy.”
Try not to jump to conclusions or put a lot of energy into worrying about or trying to manage what other people think of you. Your primary concern is the quality of your relationships with your students, which will develop over time, and the overall climate in which you and your students coexist.
Learn to separate who your students are from the behaviors they exhibit, especially their negative or disruptive behaviors. In other words, can you still perceive your kids as worthy of your attention and care even if they forgot their homework again, walked away from a mess they made, or even said your assignment was stupid? Your ability to recognize that the students are not their behaviors will allow you to accept them without necessarily accepting those behaviors.
Be sure that your students have plenty to do. Always have a set of emergency plans, quick and easy backups for when things don’t quite go as expected—or take as long as you had hoped. Overplan! Undirected kids have a way of turning time on their hands into classroom disruptions.
Model the positive behaviors, tone, and language you would like them to demonstrate. Emphasize cooperation over compliance, and responsibility over subservience. Commit to a win-win authority approach, one that meets students’ needs for autonomy and structure, to minimize the kinds of resistance and opposition that lead to so many classroom conflicts.
I Want my Classroom to Run Smoothly
Time management and classroom planning are more challenging for new teachers who are often dealing with certain logistical issues for the first time. Policies regarding school attendance and lunch count, home visits, and field trips are not necessarily things you would automatically know (or even be expected to know), so ask! Everyone else had to ask at some point, and being aware of important policies and procedures will immediately make your life easier.
On days that unexpectedly turn hectic, consider that it may be your students—not you—who are being overwhelmed. Sometimes a great learning experience goes down the tubes simply because the students do not have the independence and basic learning skills necessary to do the work.
Don’t assume that your students have down pat skills such as listening, using basic tools (like a ruler or even the pencil sharpener), moving nondisruptively into small groups, or putting their materials away when they’re finished. While it may seem time-consuming to have students practice these skills, devoting time early on to practicing skills, routines, and behaviors your students will need to succeed in your class will save all of you many hours and much grief later.
Even your own enthusiasm and creativity can be a problem at times. One of the best things about new teachers is the excitement, creativity, and enthusiasm so many of them bring to their work. And after collecting ideas and materials during your teacher training, it’s hard not to want to try everything at once. Nonetheless, being sensitive to the students’ needs and energy can pay off in a big way.
High levels of enthusiasm may, at times, be too much for your kids to handle. On days when children seem hyper, it may help to tone down your energy or soften your voice. Be careful to avoid the tendency to present too much too soon, offer too many activities at once, or make too many changes before your kids can handle them.
Save some of your more incredible lessons for slower times, when they’ll be appreciated, and when your students have mastered the routines and logistics they’ll need to succeed. You don’t want to run out of steam in the first week!
Sometimes a great learning experience goes down the tubes simply because the students do not have the independence and basic learning skills necessary to do the work.
Start slowly and simply. Establish a daily routine your kids can handle. Leave room for some student decision-making, but be careful to not overwhelm. Your students may not have much skill or confidence with decision-making yet so avoid offering too many choices, or choices that are too open-ended, at least in the beginning.
Responsible decision-making and self-management requires certain skills and trust, which may take some time to develop. Once you and your class feel comfortable with one another and have some of the basics down, you can expand available options.
Remember too, that you will always run into situations you simply cannot plan for or control. As the newcomer on staff, you may be the one who has to cope with major changes, including the possibility of a disruptive room change or even being shifted to a different grade level a few weeks into the school year.
At the very least you will have to accommodate new students, transfers, pullouts, equipment failures, and last-minute schedule changes. This demands confidence, flexibility and, most important, a sense of humor. Nobody likes these inconveniences, even seasoned veterans. Hang in there and don’t hesitate to ask others to share their their time-tested strategies for coping with these problems.
I Want my Students to Succeed
Everyone needs to succeed. In order to take the kinds of risks necessary to learn and grow, your kids must perceive that success is within their reach—an experience some of them may not have enjoyed very often, even before they set foot in your room.
Plan to learn as much as you can about your students’ interests, cognitive abilities, experiences, and learning skills before simply presenting content or assigning tasks. There has always been a certain degree of pressure to get through the curriculum, and in our haste to do so, it’s easy to forego this important step.
If your intention is to encourage all of your students to learn, grow, and be successful, you’ll need to start with them wherever they are—and that’s going to be different from one child to another. (Frankly, if your intention is simply to cover content, you don’t even need kids! Without assessing what they already know and what they need, you’re bound to be teaching over the heads of some students, and boring others to tears, neither of which is likely to result in academic growth, much less good behavior.)
As your students become more self-managing, mix it up a bit. Vary your methods of instruction to include small groups, learning centers, self-selection or learning contracts, individualized assignments, and student-teacher conferences.
Teaching kids the skills they need to function in different configurations is a valuable investment of your time and teaching. The better your students can function in small groups or on their own, the more you’ll be able to accomplish together during the year.
Start slowly and keep things simple. Let your students know when they may and may not come to you with questions. If you aren’t available to help, offer them the option of asking a classmate or switching to a different task until you’re free.
Keep independent work and routines relatively simple at first—things the kids can do on their own. While some of these assignments may seem like busywork to you, remember that your intention is building confidence, independence, and self-management. You’ve got a whole year to focus on content!
It takes time, energy, and practice to establish these skills and routines. As the students become better able to work on their own, you will be able to make the work more meaningful by increasing the variety of materials, the number of choices, the amount of work required and the intellectual processes required.
Use their mistakes as opportunities to teach, shape behavior, or encourage them to make different choices. Your patience and persistence can encourage them to keep trying. Schools traditionally have been very negative and critical, and many people assume that we need to be this way or kids won’t learn or take us seriously.
Not true! In fact, a consistent focus on failures or misbehaviors—not to mention a tendency to shame or humiliate students—will undermine the quality of the climate of your classroom for all the students, including the ones who are behaving and doing well academically. (This is not the way to improve performance or behavior.)
Teaching kids the skills they need to function in different configurations is a valuable investment of your time and teaching.
Focusing on the positive, even when it seems as though a student has done just about everything wrong, allows you to build on the student’s strengths—whatever they are! Find something they haven’t messed up and start from there. This approach can have an extremely positive impact on the emotional climate of your classroom.
When kids turn in work that you know can be better, how about telling them it’s a “great first draft,” rather than scolding them for sloppy work? When they turn in a story with many misspellings, punctuation errors, incomplete sentences, and no capital letters, how about noting the one thing they got right—perhaps excellent handwriting or an interesting title—instead of wearing out your red pen marking every error?
Defy tradition by using the mistakes as a basis for your instruction—instead of a bad grade! Start with what they’re doing well and teach them the rest! You may really have to look for good points sometimes, but your positive focus will be tremendously encouraging and appreciated.
I Want to be Accepted as Part of the Staff
Feeling accepted in your school community plays a big part in your attitudes about your work. You can blend in without sacrificing your individuality. Thinking of yourself as an educator after all those years of being a student can take a while. The biggest challenge can be a mental one, but in relating to your principal, the parents of your students, and your peers, the greater your sense of yourself as a professional, the more likely others will perceive and treat you as one.
Respect the existing relationships and dynamics, and at the same time be open and friendly. Initiate conversations, participate in school and social activities, and gradually get to know individuals. Be cautious in making judgments, making demands, or imposing your values and priorities on others.
Pay attention to how much of your conversation is about you. Tune in to whether you are consistently complaining about students, school policy, other teachers, or parents and how often you feel the need to share the details of your classroom experiences and accomplishments.
Pay attention to how much of your conversation is about you.
Lack of confidence usually presents itself either as justifications that reflects your belief that “everyone seems to know what they’re doing except me” or arrogance claims that “no one around here cares, works, or tries as much as I do.” Neither attitude is likely to enhance a professional image or your relationships with others. Nor is either likely to be true.
Start to build a support system by identifying one or two members of the staff with whom you most easily connect. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and use discretion in whom you approach. If someone offers an idea or resource that resonates, give it a try. (Not all suggestions will be a fit, but there are few things more frustrating than spending time trying to support someone who ignores your help and advice, so don’t ask if you’re not willing to stretch.)
Approach people with a blend of confidence, openness, and respect. Watch out for anyone who would exploit your vulnerability, discount or ridicule your struggles, or attempt to impose an agenda. You may be new and willing to grow, but you are also a very capable person and you belong there as much as anyone.
I Want to be Great!
As a student, or a student teacher, you received feedback on a fairly regular basis. Suddenly as a teacher you are much more on your own. While the autonomy can be wonderful, the relative isolation can also lead to a loss of perspective.
Especially during the first year or two, you may tend to judge yourself by presumed expectations of others, by your students’ behavior or growth, or even by what other teachers are doing. You may also find that your expectations for yourself are higher than any that you’ve ever encountered previously from external sources—and not entirely realistic.
Oddly, the teaching profession has historically expected novices to perform as competently (and independently) as veterans. Understandably, new teachers often feel a tremendous pressure to get everything going at once! Remember that running all of your different programs, especially if you’re in a self-contained classroom or working with a number of different preparations, demands familiarity with the content and management of each program, the development and preparation of materials and the establishment of the learning skills necessary to function successfully in each class. All of these take time. Ask more experienced teachers for reality checks or suggestions for pacing, prioritizing and implementing that will work for you.
If you need to take several weeks to build the independence your students will need to participate in small groups, hold off introducing complex logistics or programs until your kids are ready. If you haven’t already stockpiled a roomful of dinosaur stuff, decide whether you’ll feel comfortable starting your unit with what you have.
Throughout your career, you will continue to amass resources and materials, as well as skills and confidence. Your lessons will continue to evolve over time. You don’t need everything you will ever have on a topic to introduce a it to your class.
Most of all, try to resist the temptation to measure yourself against the performance of other teachers. You may find yourself panicking at the realization that your class is 15 pages behind in one subject area or another. This comparison is rarely fair, for a number of reasons.
For one thing, the other teacher may simply be more familiar with the material after years of experience with it, and may have devised a more-efficient set of lessons and activities. Or perhaps your kids had more questions or needed some preparation another teacher didn’t address. You may have decided to explore the topic in greater depth or with more attention to individual needs. You are not in a race with anyone, and the speed with which you sail through the curriculum is by no means a measure of your competence or your students’ depth of learning.
Be true to yourself. Simply adopting someone else’s teaching behaviors can rob you of the chance to develop your own personal teaching style, a process that can span your entire teaching career. What works for one person can become a complete disaster if the behaviors don’t match the intentions, personality, or teaching styles.
Try new things that feel right to you, strategies that allow you to operate within the bounds of personal comfort and integrity. Avoid measuring your success by your students’ successes. On a good day, it’s easy to walk away from work feeling quite the super-teacher. Yet when they just can’t seem to grasp a concept, are restless beyond belief, or have made it painfully clear that school isn’t where they want to be, does that mean it’s time to consider changing professions? Hardly.
Try new things that feel right to you, strategies that allow you to operate within the bounds of personal comfort and integrity.
Start fresh every day. Be patient and develop a practice of self-reflection—daily, if possible. Use bad days as a great excuse to course-correct. There are silver linings in every apparent failure. Instead of feeling guilty, resentful or inadequate, step out of the picture and think about how you can change what isn’t working. Consider a few different approaches for next time or think about what your kids may need to know first before the same lesson can go more smoothly.
Use these opportunities to maximize your professional growth. Good day or bad, start making notes on your lesson plans, unit files or to-do lists. Jot down the little things you can do to make your lessons—or teaching life in general—go better. Your notes might include “preview the video,” “make flashcards for the new vocabulary words,” “put the chart on darker paper,” or “next time, remember to have enough scissors for everybody.” This habit will not only help you develop your powers of planning and anticipation, it will also help you avoid similar mistakes the next time you teach that concept or unit.
Try keeping a journal to monitor your own growth, if only one line a day on a calendar or datebook. At the end of each day, write down at least one thing you felt good about, some concrete evidence of your growth and development.
As time goes on you will become more organized, more efficient, better prepared and hopefully, more satisfied.
You can use some of the following examples taken from the journals of actual teaching interns who recorded short messages about their growth on a weekly basis: “My self-control seems to be improving, I kept my cool through a tough situation.” “I’m remembering to get each child’s attention before talking.” “I’m smiling more.” “I am feeling comfortable with the faculty at my school. The teachers have become so supportive, and I am becoming more confident as a teacher.” “I don’t cry every day.”
And even if you get scared, frustrated, discouraged or overwhelmed, remember this: as time goes on you will become more organized, more efficient, better prepared and hopefully, more satisfied. Teaching, like any other set of skills you’ll ever tackle, is a developmental process. You’re not supposed to be perfect yet!
Look for small steps every day, record your growth, and go back over your journal from time to time to see how far you’ve come. Build your support network and don’t be afraid to ask for help. And most important, make sure you take the time every day to pat yourself on the back for the risks you have dared to take and all the things you are learning to do well. Much success and happiness to you!
The original version of his article appeared in an issue of Instructor magazine back in 1993. It has been revised a number of times since its initial publication, most recently in 2017.
30% off a great resource for beginning teachers: Click here for more information about Becoming a Win-Win Teacher. A great gift for someone just starting out in education or coming back to the profession, as well as for anyone having a particularly challenging year.
Why I Teach
Assuming Your Professional Identity
Great Expectations: Good News for Beginning Teachers
Wish List for Beginning Teachers: What they really want most
Why Teachers Quit: 6-part excerpt starts here
Making a Mistake in Front of Your Class
Podcast: “On the Right Foot: Support for Beginning Teachers” with J. Victor McGuire
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