I was never the type of person to let others know when I needed help.
In Fall of 2014, I student taught in a first grade classroom. As any student teacher knows, I was more than ecstatic to see everything I had learned in the classroom and slowly put into practice in clinical situations play out over the course of an entire school day. I saw things I had only read about in a textbook happen in front of my eyes. I felt a sense of pride with this big step in my educational career.
But I let it get to my head.
I was called in for a special meeting with my student teaching advisor and my cooperating teacher to basically remind me that I was a student teacher. I was still there to learn. That was a wake-up call that I needed. An even bigger wake-up call? My very own classroom.
As my senior year came to an end, I saw my friends accept job offers left and right while I received too many “We offered the position to someone else” voicemails and calls. I began to question everything. And in apparent true Ashley fashion, when asking for feedback from my very first interview, I got “You seemed too confident. Realize it’s okay to pause or say ‘I’m not sure.’” To make a very long interview and job search journey short, I accepted my current job after my eleventh interview–not even two weeks before the first day of school.
I write this post as “Advice for a First Year Teacher” because it’s all things I learned from experience (usually while I felt things were crashing and burning, of course) as a new teacher. The absolute biggest thing I learned right off the bat is don’t be afraid to ask for help. Hopefully many of you are lucky enough to score jobs earlier than I did, but I still had to rely on so many veteran teachers and my principal to teach me the ropes of the school. Not only that, but I ran into so many situations where I truly felt at a loss. A lesson didn’t work. A student wasn’t being receptive to seemingly any strategy. I had a negative interaction with a parent. While troubleshooting did involve plenty of Googling, it also involved going next door to visit Lisa. In my school, every new teacher gets assigned a mentor… which is usually Lisa. Lisa was and is still my rock at my school. The number of times she’s seen tears and listened to frustrated rants is endless, but she somehow always knows how to make it better. One thing she’s taught me is there’s always something new to try. So first year teachers, find your Lisa–heck, find 20 Lisas–and utilize her. Veteran teachers are your absolute greatest resource. I hope you find your Lisa as quickly as I found mine.
On a similar note, realize that lessons will fail. They will absolutely crash and burn. Exit assessments will show next to no understanding. That’s okay. Is it frustrating? Absolutely, but I learned very quickly to just redo the teaching of the concept but in a different way. When your entire class is seemingly failing, they’re not. You need to reassess your instruction. I also am always transparent with my students when something isn’t working. That’s part of relationship building. Realizing something can be better and that you didn’t get it right the first time is part of being the best teacher you can be.
Getting to know your students is your biggest priority as well. Yes, your curriculum and the scope and sequence is important, but your students are always the most important thing of all. One thing I always do on the first day of school is have students take a learning survey I created. I ask about them and how they thrive. Can they concentrate better with music? Do they prefer partners, groups, or working alone? What type of projects do they enjoy best? My instruction is never the same the following year because I design it around them. I also send home a sheet to our parents to help me learn about their child. (This is also a great way to set off family relationships on the right foot, too.) Some of my favorite moments are riding on school buses–yes, you heard me right. I get to just talk to my students. This idea is also the reason I have lunch with my students once a month and why I take time every single morning to just have conversations with my kids during our sharing time of morning meetings. Some of the things you learn may leave you in tears on drives home or infuriate you to the point of screaming after they leave, but you are obligated to be there for them as a support system and constant in their lives, even though our contracts never quite say that.
While being there for my students is always my number one priority, that doesn’t mean self care is at the bottom of my list. Being alive, awake, alert, and enthusiastic around twenty small humans for many hours a day is exhausting. If you say otherwise, you’re lying. I wouldn’t trade my job for the world, but I have to take time for myself. Many teachers at other schools choose to have lunch with their students daily, which is phenomenal, but I need that “me” time of a lunch break. Some of my time away from my students isn’t talking about the day with colleagues in the hallway, but it’s with my door shut with music on. I also have started to try my best to get everything done at school–that’s right, no grading or lesson planning at home. It sneaks its way to my apartment sometimes, but I also learned that I’m a much happier individual when I take my nightly time to binge watch Netflix and go to bed at a decent time. Make sure you’re taking care of yourself to be the best teacher you can be for your students. They notice.
Taking time for yourself is also closely related to the idea of being true to yourself. I’m a person who likes to be involved in things I’m passionate about and do what I love (shouldn’t we all be?) At my school, most teachers are both older than me and fairly seasoned educators. While they’re fantastic resources, it can be intimidating at times, but one thing I quickly learned is to not let that fact allow me to sit back and become passive. My first year, I joined our district technology committee and took on the role to become a co-sponsor of our elementary student council (yes, it’s both the cutest and coolest thing ever.) I also spoke up after an evaluation that I didn’t agree with the behavior/classroom management system everyone was still using. Two years later, and almost the entire school now uses ClassDojo–the alternative I talked to my principal about. As a new teacher, don’t be afraid to be you and speak up. People notice, and they listen.
As a teacher, I’ve quickly realized I think I learn more than I teach. I learn about my students and learn about how to be a better educator every single day. However, nothing’s ever quite like the first year. My first year of teaching is such a learning experience, but my biggest piece of advice is to be open. Be open to asking for help. Be open to changing things as you go if they aren’t working. Be open to your views and ways of doing things being challenged. Be open to all of the ideas I put forward in this article. While I’m no expert, my aim in writing this is maybe, just maybe, I’ll preventing you from learning from not-so-fun experiences just as much as I did.