I am confident in saying that most educators remember their first year of teaching, or at least remember parts of it in the blur that it probably was. Even in the best teacher colleges, it's difficult to mimic what it's like to stand up in front of the class completely alone with nobody else in the classroom to look to for approval - or disapproval depending on your student teaching experience. At best, it's a stressful, tiring, but happy year. At worst, it's akin to a hazing.
I graduated in elementary education, but my first year of teaching was in a limited-term contract to teach middle school on an emergency licensure for family and consumer science...and sex ed. I was given a schedule with too many classes and not enough prep time according to the teaching contract but I had no idea what to even ask for. It wasn't just being thrown into the deep end of the pool. It was being thrown into the deep end of a pool with a brick tied to my foot and sharks circling me...but I still LOVED my job.
I am frequently asked what advice I would give to new teachers. Some of this advice I learned throughout that first crazy year and some of it much later, but all of it I wish someone would have told me, so in general, here it is: Know when to hang on, let go, and lean in.
In my first year of teaching, I was assigned a retired teacher as a mentor. I know many districts have mentorship programs where they facilitate this paring for new teachers and I think it's great. Also, look for people who are rock stars at different elements of teaching. Some potential areas where a mentor may be helpful:
someone who is good at creating boundaries (look for the person who seems more relaxed and isn't always working)
someone whose students are regularly engaged (look for the person who may talk about creative lessons they have or who provide collaborative/PBL/real-world learning opportunities for students)
someone who excels at managing their classroom (look for the person who empowers their students while maintaining a safe working environment)
someone who integrates cultural responsiveness so seamlessly that it's built into everything they do (crossing my fingers that you have so many teachers like this in your school that it's difficult to choose just one)
Don't only notice what teachers are doing around you because you work beside them, but be open to looking for expertise and learning from those people. There is no perfect teacher, so by looking for multiple mentors in different areas, you can better support your "whole professional". Also, by having multiple mentors you're taking the mentoring load off from one person and distributing it which will keep your mentors fresh for more questions.
Become Your Biggest Advocate
This is a blanket statement, but especially when we are teachers and are constantly being told to focus on students it can be more challenging to keep our needs highlighted as well. One of our student authors for EduMatch Publishing, Ananya Chopra, has a children's book about the UN Sustainable Development Goals for kids titled Know Your Rights or Have No Rights (2021). The book is amazing, of course, and not about teacher rights, but the title struck me as soon as I heard it. If you don't know what you have the power to advocate for, how are you ever going to be able to ask for anything that you have a right to?
So, even though teaching is a work of heart, your teaching position is still a job. It's important to know what the norms in your school are, what your contract says, and the (usually intensively boring) things they say at board meetings. This will help you know what you need to know and how it might be changing. It will also keep you solid when the rumor mill starts and potentially save you some stress when others discuss important teacher contract changes that might impact you.
This advocacy also extends into other areas like your mental health, creating solid boundaries, asking for things you need for your classroom, and seeking professional learning in areas that you feel would make you feel stronger and more confident in the classroom. Work and build your advocacy muscle. Never expect someone to advocate for you, and if they do, be pleasantly surprised. Be your own biggest supporter.
Appreciate Your Newness
You may come across some people who, with their words or actions, leave you with the impression that they don't appreciate you as a new teacher, however, you are incredibly valuable to the education ecosystem with your new ideas, your enthusiasm, your recent training in the newest ways to teach and learn, Your greenness also means that you haven't encountered some of the things in education that have the potential to make someone a bit jaded, and that is definitely something to hold onto. Three questions to ask yourself if you find yourself in this situation:
If you get into a situation where it feels like a teacher doesn't respect you, ask yourself is it the situation or me? Many times it's not you but the situation that they are frustrated with.
What do I notice about other teachers' attitudes that I might or might not want to emulate? And for whatever that is, what was their professional path that caused that kind of reaction to happen?
Am I being respectful to both myself and my ideas while also still respecting the credibility and expertise that comes with being a seasoned teacher? This can be a very fine line. Again, you bring so much to the table with being new to the profession so be sure to give that the value it deserves, however, experience can teach us things we never learned in college. Learn to listen up as much as you speak up, and don't allow people who don't like your ideas to shut you down from doing them.
Hold Onto Being In The Moment
This advice is both terribly difficult and extremely important. The amount of multitasking that a teacher needs to do at any given moment for the classroom to continue running is astronomical, so asking you to slow down probably sounds impossible. However, outside of the politics inside districts and outside of education, the logistical neediness of our jobs, and the endless demands on our time, our teacher hearts still thrive in the connections that we are able to make with students and knowing that in any given moment we can be the game-changer for another human. Moments of connection with the humans in our schools are what bind us to education. So, be intentional about being in the moment with your students. Put the email away when a student is talking to you, even if it is a question you answered a hundred times. Look them in the eye and open the drawing they made for you in front of them so they can see how much you love it. When something silly or interesting happens in their learning experience, laugh or ooh and ahhh like they're secretly dying for you to do. It can be difficult to remember to be mindful when your mind is so full with everything, but it is not impossible. I didn't learn this until later in my teaching career and by far one of my biggest regrets is not being able to get those moments back that were the reason that I got into education in the first place. This piece of advice can be one of the strategies for helping you stay happy in the classroom.
Let Go Of What You Can't Control
The sooner you learn this lesson the happier you have the potential to be.
Education is an entire ecosystem of people who all have different ideas, agendas, lenses, and views, and I could go on and on. There may become a time when you feel like you don't have control over a decision that is being made that impacts your teaching or students in what feels like a negative way. While quickly learning how to decipher where you do and do not have control, know this:
You always have control over the way you react to situations and how you work inside of boundaries that someone else has the right to set.
You always have influence. Not having control doesn't mean that you can't advocate for what you believe is right. Bring facts, research, experience, and data, and if it is that important to you, be strong in your conviction and influence the change. Those decisions that give you a rumble in your heart are probably the ones that need influencers like you to help make them right.
And if that situation doesn't apply, learn to let it go. Letting something go doesn't mean you're okay with what happened, it means you're not expending your precious energy on something you don't have the direct ability to change.
Lean Into Passions
When I was a first-year teacher people would ask me what I love about teaching and I'd respond with "I just love teaching the students!" It is absolutely amazing if you know that you found your calling and you are leaning into the whole shebang. If this is resonating, bottle that feeling and sit in it as much as you can so you can summon it when you need it. However, you can take it even farther than that.
If you haven't experienced it yet, one day you'll be talking to one of your students and you will stumble upon something that they are passionate about. Extra points if you actually have background knowledge about this passion, and the further you get into the conversation you will notice something interesting about the student. Their face will light up, their shoulders will relax, they will smile, and you'll be able to feel the excitement roll off them. No matter their age, they may even choose to seek you out again to talk about their passion more if you really impressed them with what you knew.
You have the opportunity to recreate that excitement in your profession by really digging into what you're passionate about. Maybe it's learning outdoors, using technology, design thinking, connecting your students to experts, growing your leadership knowledge...whatever it is, finding your passion within a passion gives you something to lean into when teaching feels really hard. These passions may change over time, and your first year may just be about learning different areas and ideas that others have in education (see Twitter, IG, Tik Tok, and other socials for that) before you choose to lean into a passion area. But keep your eyes open. You never know what opportunities may present themselves as you discover your teaching identity.
Teaching is both a difficult and rewarding profession. Don't get lost in the daily bustle of teaching life. Be aware of your mental health and take care of yourself, not because you want to be a better teacher (even though that will be true too) but because you're a human who deserves to live their life and be as happy as you make your students. Learn where to hang on, let go, and lean in.
Have an amazing first school year. You'll never have another.