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A First-Year Teacher's Survival Guide

By Aimee Whitenack

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 you off.
  • 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 doing OK.
  • Be yourself and you will connect with kids in powerful ways.
  • 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 they need.
  • 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 as adults.
  • 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 at times.
  • Know what is important to your kids and know what they're doing outside the classroom. Part of that is knowing their families.
  • 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, for example.
  • 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 before October.
  • Check out the school's supply closet before you accept a job.
  • 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 him out.
  • 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 question.

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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