I prepared in every way I knew how. I asked the pros, read the books, prayed the prayers, and beautified my classroom. I didn’t know what I didn’t know – and I knew I didn’t know it. So, the only thing left to do was rip off the band-aid and dive in. Let me tell you something, it was quite possibly the most terrifying experience of my life. Not because my students were bad – they are lovely. Not because my co-workers were awful – they are the kindest super-heroes there ever were. It was terrifying simply because I knew I would do it wrong over and over and over again before I got it right. And it’s not like a low-pressure job where no one really knows how wrong you got it. 30 pairs of eyes sat waiting for me to be their guide when I really just wanted to turn around and sit in the desk beside them while someone guided ME!
I did it, though. Stumble bumpy and all wrong on some days, I did it. I pushed my way through, learned all sorts of new things, and figured out that there was a teacher inside of me. There is a teacher inside of me. Most importantly, however, I realized that I am a lover of people. Even – maybe even especially – those stinky, awkward, infuriating, hilarious – middle schoolers. As the middle of the year approached, I realized that my main goal was, of course, to teach my students what they needed to know to pass the tests. More importantly, however, my goal was and remains to make my classroom a safe place where they know they are valued and loved – whether they cheat on the test (which happened twice…to my knowledge), fire back at me in utter disrespect (which happened way more than twice), or give me their very best effort (which happened daily).
Now, it’s strange not to be there with them. To pass out fist bumps and side hugs and sassy comebacks. It’s lovely to be at home with my own kids. This year was a doozy and a half of a balancing act. A piece of me lives at that school with those kids in our place, though, and that’s something that I just didn’t expect.
So, without further adieu, here are my top five tips for first year teachers. Maybe they’ll help you or someone you know.
- Accept your fate as the new kid who has no idea what she’s doing when you are with your fellow teachers, but fake your butt off when you are with your students. I mean it. Act like this has been your life forever and ever. Do not show them any fear or insecurity. Act like you are the boss of this job and your classroom and none of their antics can touch your boss-lady confidence.
- Love them big and hard from day one. I know lots of people say that you should wear combat boots until Christmas. I mean, I see the value in that. I certainly have room to grow in laying the hammer down with detentions – truly, this is a growth goal for me next year – but I know that my students know that I love them big. They told me so in numerous letters and cards just before we were sentenced to quarantine. Quite frankly, that feels far more successful than being the hardest boo-hiney teacher in the school.
- Welcome failures – yours and theirs. Acknowledge that you did, in fact, load the wrong question to the Google Form, that you forgot to grade their tests, that you are tired and cranky. Let them know, tell them you’re sorry, and move on. Additionally, when someone breaks a non-negotiable rule in your classroom (cheating and disrespect are mine), confront it head on and do not back down. While you are not backing down on your stance, heap grace upon grace. Tell them you understand how hard this is, how scared you can see they are, how they must feel. Students OFTEN feel like no one cares about their feelings – make sure they know YOU do while you also hold them accountable for their actions.
- Be silly WITH your students. Along the same lines of acknowledging failure, students love to see you display your human-ness with all your quirks and silliness. Own who YOU are and let them see you do it. You are building relationships by doing so AND you are modeling for them what it looks like to be authentic. They need that so big in their lives. (One day I did an actual cartwheel in class. It is still talked about as one of my students’ favorite moments.)
- Get to know your co-workers. They are your allies, your get-out-of-jail cards, your saving grace. Love them well. Ask them questions about their lives, about their careers, about their expertise. DO NOT ATTEMPT TO SINGLE HAND YOUR FIRST YEAR. You will die. I’m not kidding.
There are a million more. I could talk to you about organization and Backwards Design and Project Based Learning. I could talk to you about all the things that are still buzzing around in my head, all the things I’ve yet to learn, but you’ll gather all of that up as you go along. What you need to understand and embrace above all else is that teaching is about people. If you keep that in mind, you will be just fine!