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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Ask Ellen: First-Year Fears

How can I be successful as a new teacher in an urban classroom?
By Ellen Moir
Credit: Bart Nagel

Dear Ellen:

I'm so excited about my new job. I'll be teaching sixth grade in an urban school. There is a new, energetic principal, and even though almost all of the school's students are eligible for our free-lunch program and we lack many resources, I know there is the hope and expectation that I can make good things happen in our classroom. I learned a little about being successful in an urban classroom in my teacher-education program, but as the first day gets closer, I'm getting nervous. What can I do to ensure a good start this fall?

Ms. Newbie


Dear Ms. Newbie,

The fact that you referred to "our classroom" is a great start. You and your students should spend those opening weeks building a strong learning community. Engage your students in activities that help you get to know them well. Use those first days to ask important questions that set the tone for the year: "What rules will help us create a safe and strong environment for learning?" "What are our hopes and dreams for our year?" "How will we stay motivated when we face challenges?"

We know how important it is to reach out to families right away, sharing your hopes and expectations for the class with those closest to your students. Invite participation in an introductory letter and make phone calls to welcome parents as part of the learning community you oversee. The more you reach out now to work with your students and their families, the easier it will be to make calls later in the year. You might even consider home visits to get a better sense of the community your students live in.

Take some time to get familiar with the standards and curriculum for your grade level, then lay out the goals for each quarter's work. When the students come, you will want to consider their needs and interests, but having a road map of expectations will help you pick the right strategies to support your students' learning.

After building a learning community and unpacking the curriculum, you are certain to have questions. Make sure you have found a support structure for yourself. More schools and school districts are committing to mentoring programs, because they know new teachers require support in those first years to develop the repertoire, confidence, and knowledge they need to be excellent teachers.

Find someone with whom you can build a trusting relationship, one in which you can ask questions, reflect on your teaching, and find support for focusing on student learning.

If your school has not connected you with a mentor, reach out to veteran colleagues yourself. Your grade-level or content team is a good starting place, but also connect with the school sage, someone who seems to know everyone and can help navigate the site's politics. Find the math and literacy specialists who might coach you, the friendly secretary and custodian who can help you with logistics and connections to the community. The principal is another key resource. Because you are both new to the school, you can learn together about the school and community. Each of these valuable adults can make your life just a little easier -- and, most of the time, all you truly have to do is ask!

You bring a wonderful sense of anticipation and hope to your teaching, typical of our best new teachers. Such a perspective will serve you well, especially as you gain more understanding about what challenges you're facing. Remain unbowed and unbroken in your commitment to students. Our work is too important for us to accept the status quo.

Credit: Bart Nagel

Finally, to all of us who teach with a Ms. (or Mr.) Newbie this fall, a special note: I'm encouraging you to do something special for her. There is so much we can do to support our new teachers, even if we are not in the same grade level or subject area, to make our buildings a friendly environment for children and adults.

Here's to a great year!

Best wishes,


Ellen Moir is a veteran bilingual teacher who is focused on the challenges faced by new teachers as well as on the needs of those with long careers in education. She is also the executive director of the New Teacher Center, at the University of California at Santa Cruz, a resource for educator-induction research, policy, and practice.

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Nicole's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree a kind word to a new teacher can go a long way. My first year of teaching I had a mentor who was very harsh and unkind. This made my first year of teaching miserable. i often thought of leaving my school. I stuck it out and ignored her, but I must say it was very hard.

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