A First-Year Teacher's Survival Guide
Being a first-year teacher is anything but a
sit-back-with-your-feet-up job. To help you through, we
collected tips from teachers who survived their first year in
the classroom - and who are wiser for the wear.
"Be very tough until Christmas, at least. It's harder to go
back and tighten the reins after the fact." Deirdre Driscoll,
8th grade humanities teacher
B.J. Grattan, 25
Former 6th and 8th grade science teacher
The Brunswick School, Greenwich, Connecticut
If you're a young, new teacher, there's that desire to be
cool in order to be accepted by students, but there's also
the fear that they'll walk all over you because you're
young. Kids are really perceptive. They test
boundaries-partly to test you're confidence, but mostly
because they want boundaries. So give them boundaries! Do
so early, because if you don't, you'll never be able to. In
short: You can always let the reins out, but you can't
always pull them in.
Never criticize a kid; criticize his mistakes.
You will never have a perfect classroom. You're going to
have to accept certain things, so pick your battles wisely.
Otherwise your students will never know what really ticks
New teachers bring a lot of energy to schools but can
easily become overextended by getting involved in too many
activities. It's flattering to be asked to be involved in a
million different things, but learn to say no, so you can
give 100 percent to the things that you're really good at.
Always make sure you're challenging the smartest person,
but make sure the slowest person feels like he or she's
Be yourself and you will connect with kids in powerful
Whenever you're feeling burnt out or frustrated, remember
why you wanted to teach in the first place.
Rosanne Driscoll, 49
10th, 11th, and 12th grade English teacher
Lynn Classical High School, Lynn, Massachusetts
Be their teacher, not their friend. They already have their
friends, and hopefully so do you. If they know they can,
they will draw you into all the drama of their days. You
can still be cool and will end up being the kind of friend
Treat your students with respect and you will get it back.
Don't make them raise their hand to go to the bathroom.
They will appreciate this small concession of being treated
Be as nonconfrontational as possible in any discipline you
hand out-and make sure it's the same for everyone.
Don't ever embarrass students in front of their peers.
Corridor conferences work well. Try to solve any discipline
problems yourself first before you go to a dean or vice
principal. Call the parent yourself if you have to.
Be true to yourself and your kids. [High-school-age kids]
in particular can spot a phony a mile away.
Like your kids. They are mostly still innocent and are not
the done deal yet.
School is practice. Give kids lots of chances to
get things right.
Jen Karlen, 23
5th grade teacher
The San Francisco School, San Francisco, California
Get to know the school custodian, secretary, and
librarian-they will be your allies.
As a young teacher, you might feel as if you shouldn't
laugh. But all that energy is one of your best assets. Just
make sure you balance it with being more serious and calm
Know what is important to your kids and know what they're
doing outside the classroom. Part of that is knowing their
Sit down during the first week and let your students know
what your "hot spots" are-the things that you'll have very
little patience for. For me, it's when kids are
disrespectful when someone else is speaking or when they
make fun of a question asked. Know yourself as a teacher,
and fill the kids in. They will keep themselves under
control if they feel forewarned.
Read some of the books your kids are reading. Being able to
talk about their literature with them can be huge.
When laying out your classroom, have a sense of the
movement patterns of your kids. Plan a quiet corner where
they can read away from the heavily trafficked entrance,
Be sensitive to kids' energy and development levels. Have
quiet reading at the beginning of the day or after lunch,
when they need to settle down. Discussions are most
successful in the morning. Controlled exercises are easier
in the afternoon, when everyone's tired and less focused.
Write each of your kids a letter or postcard before the
school year begins. They love to feel connected.
Deirdre Driscoll, 23
8th grade humanities teacher
The Lynn Community Charter School, Lynn, Massachusetts
Be very tough until Christmas, at least. It's harder to go
back and tighten the reins after the fact.
Find a mentor teacher or ask the administration if your
school has an established mentor program. Your mentor will
be very helpful when it becomes clear to you that you
cannot and will not save the world.
Keep a journal and record your thoughts, feelings, and
successes at least once a week.
Make sure you introduce yourself to your students' parents
Check out the school's supply closet before you accept a
Trust your instincts.
Listen to your students and involve their thoughts and
interests in your planning.
Emilie Schnitman, 25
7th and 8th grade math and Spanish teacher
The Dexter and Southfield Schools, Brookline, Massachusetts
Always go over your next day's lesson plan and the material
you are going to teach the night before. Kids come up with
the strangest and most unexpected questions, and you don't
want to be caught off guard or you'll lose some credibility
in the classroom. If you're asked something you don't know
the answer to, tell the student that she's asked an
excellent question and you'll find out the answer and get
back to her.
Never tell a student he is wrong. Children are very
sensitive, especially at the middle-school level when their
hormones are flying. Instead, say "not quite," or "take
another guess," or "good try." It's even better to follow
these comments with words that encourage the student to
keep thinking after he's made an error, like, "Can you
think of anything else?" Or ask others in the class to help
This same approach can be used on tests and quizzes. Rather
than just marking things right or wrong, write comments
that jog their minds. If it's math, show them the correct
process or offer a hint and ask them to rethink the
Jamie Christensen, 28
1st and 2nd grade special ed teacher
Curie elementary, San Diego, California
Fake it. No one ever knows what to do the first year, so
fake it until it feels more natural.
Ask for help. I was never taught how to complete paperwork
for special ed in my district, but those of us who really
demanded help got it. We also received additional supplies
when we really spoke up.
Learn how to balance. I worked some 12-hour days during my
first year, but there will always be more to do, so you
need to allow enough time for your own life.
Take your lunch.
Make up class rules together.
Utilize your resources (resource specialist for different
learners; guidance counselor for behavior issues, etc.).
These people are trained to handle certain issues and can
provide insightful assistance.
Use a great deal of positive reinforcement.
Don't be so hard on yourself-every teacher has a first year
and you'll be fueled by nervous energy!
For more advice from a veteran teacher, look for Your
First Year of Teaching and Beyond, 3rd edition, by Ellen
Kronowitz (Addison-Wesley, 1998).
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