George Lucas Educational Foundation Celebrating our 25th Anniversary!
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It's been two decades since my first year in the clasroom. I reflect on that time and wish I'd known a few things about myself, about teaching, and about my students. Some of what I wish I'd known could have been shared with me -- some I just had to live and learn from.

So I offer this reflection both for new teachers as well as for those who support them. And so if you work with a new teacher, I'm hoping you might stop by their room in the next few days and share some insights from your own experience. And if you are a new teacher, then I'm hoping these reflections might help you feel validated, hopeful, and resourceful.

1. This will get better. The first year of teaching is so, so hard. You don't even know why it's so hard -- you can't wrap your head around that because you're in survival mode. It's so hard because you are being asked to push your heart and mind and body in ways you never have. You are making thousands of decisions each day, and there are big parts of you that know you don't know what you're doing. So you question the decisions you're making each day (questioning is good, it is) but that questioning also makes you feel tired and insecure. It will get better. You're just overloaded. You're learning so much (I know you can't even recognize this because you're so tired) but it'll sink in as the months pass. Nothing will ever be as hard as the first year.

2. Always work from the heart. If your actions and words emerge from the heart, you can't make too many mistakes. Let yourself love your students; don't be afraid of falling in love with them. That's the path to take as a new teacher. Get to know them, indulge your curiosity, spend time learning about who they are as human beings -- the rest will follow.

3. They will remember this about you. Your students will remember how you made them feel, whether they felt loved and cared for by you. I know this: I'm in touch with dozens of former students who were amongst the first groups of kids I taught. They remember my love for them in various ways; they don't remember the lessons that I botched, or that I didn't return their homework within a promised two days, or my disorganization. When I listen to what they remember, I hear that it was my love for them -- and I did love them, deeply.

4. Be open to surprises. Students will surprise you -- they will learn things you didn't think they could learn, they will grow in ways you didn't expect. You might think that a particular student will struggle later on (he's already been retained in second grade and he can't spell his own name and clearly has a learning disability). Then ten years later you might find yourself at his high school graduation hearing that he's been accepted to art college and there'll be tears ruining your makeup and you didn't bring tissues and when he sees you he grins and gives you a huge hug and says, "Ms. Aguilar, I'm so glad you came." You'll still be crying and telling him how proud you are. It will truly be one of the most joyful days of your life. He was also in your classroom that first year, when you thought you'd ruined them all. "You were really nice to me and you encouraged me to draw," he says, and you beam.

5. Find a coach. Find someone who can support your growth, someone who has training to be a coach, someone who will observe you and give you feedback and help you fulfill the vision you have for yourself as a teacher. You won't be able to figure this all out on your own. You can't see what you can't see. You don't know what you need to know. Ask for a coach, beg, search out all possible options -- and find someone to help you grow.

6. And if you can't find a coach . . . Move. Find another school. I'm serious. Find a place where someone will support you in your growth as a teacher. Ok, if it can't be a coach, settle for a mentor, perhaps an administrator who will commit to supporting you in a non-evaluative way, or find a partner-teacher who might be a mentor, or a professional learning community of teachers who observe each other. You won't be able to guide your own development by yourself -- the weekly (if you're lucky) or annual professional development won't be enough.

As a new teacher you need a lot of feedback and support. Don't stop searching out support until you get it. If you feel like you're learning and increasingly meeting the needs of your students, you'll feel good. You'll stay. And kids need teachers who stay.

The first year (like a first love) has so many highs and lows and I still get both dreamy-eyed and panicky when I remember the 1995-96 school year. Capture this year, share stories with people you trust, and then in twenty years, look back and write yourself a "What I Wish I'd Known" letter.

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Jennifer Vallot's picture

I totally understand how you feel. I started with such high hopes too, but in my situation I was not given the support and help I needed to develop as a first year teacher and Special Educator. (See my posts above for details). Becoming a SpEd teacher was my dream after injuries to my shoulders took me out of nursing. Now I am finishing my first year with a non-renewal (which I am not sure how to fight and feel like I was pushed to make a decision before I could process what had happened; whether to resign the position or take a nonrenewal. I was told I would not win if I tried to fight it.) They told me it was because I was not growing enough. In my mind, I am questioning how you grow as a first year teacher when you are learning to do at least twice as much as a regular first-year teacher with no support from the building and district administration. My mentor is mentoring two teachers and learning her new job at the district office. I have had not other in-building support, and was put on an unsupported 6-week plan of improvement (if you can call it that) for which I received no real help.

Anyway, I feel for you and your situation. Maybe this is not the right place since it sounds like your school is not supporting you either. Kids with EBD can be exhausting enough to work with, especially when they are struggling enough with behaviors to need a self-contained classroom placement on their IEP, to not have the school backing you. The school psych should be most supportive, instead of undermining your position with the parents and making you look bad/incompetent in front of them. I am so sorry you are going through a less-than-ideal situation too.

sonya rodriguez's picture

As a future educator, I really appreciated this article! Thank you so much for the great advice and tips. I teared up when you shared the story about the high school graduate...this is why we do what we do!!

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Nick Pahl's picture
Nick Pahl
Business Education teacher with hopes of changing the world

I do not think that this is ONLY the case for first year teachers. Some years, no matter how long you have been in education, are more difficult than others. In my experience, it helps find your happiness again in the STUDENTS. Open up a conversation that is not necessarily school related. Let them be free in their conversation ( with limits lol ) and don't be scared to open up to them... oh and prepare your self for a good laugh. Never fails!

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hejames1008's picture
hejames1008
A former educator who will always remain interested in the field and have an opinion.

Elena, thank you for saying what should be said to every new teacher, and what I wish someone had said to me when I was getting ready to start my first year of teaching: if you can't find support among your colleagues, you need to find different (better?) colleagues. I think this can be taken further and applied to someone's first year at a school, not just a first-year teacher.

teachers_will_teach's picture

I wish I'd known about more free resources (like Edutopia!) out there for us.

There's this amazing (and free!) program I've been using to encourage my students to start thinking about college early. They love it because they see the scholarships right there. Thought I'd pass it along- https://www.raise.me/educators.

JohnK Wright V's picture
JohnK Wright V
Certified Math Teacher 8-12 and Technology Applications EC-12, Plano,TX

I agree that if you are in a school, with no support for 1st year (or even new teachers to your school), look at other schools. I learned a long time ago in the Army that you don't have to train to be miserable. I have been teaching for 14 years and in my 5th school. It does get better. In my first year of teaching, I was basically thrown in the classroom. Principal said here are my books. I was brand new to the profession. No Alternative Certification Program. I quit my Project Manager Job at AT&T on July 3rd and I was a teacher 30 days later at a small private Catholic School. I was NOT given a mentor or peer. Once I talked with a fellow teacher about issues I had, and I found out later he told them all to the Principal. In my 2nd year of teaching at another private school, I had a mentor, but he was only interested in his stipend for being my mentor. Would basically say, "hi, how are you" and that was it. Once he wanted for me to sign something in Jan about an Oct Meet the Parents Night that he went over it,expectations, etc. I refused to sign because he did not. I was thrown under the bus. It was not until my 3rd and 4th schools that I taught at for 4 years and 6 years respectively that I was able to work with other peer teaches who gave insight, suggestions, lent an ear, etc. It does get better. Life is too short. At my last school, my Principal picked me for Campus Teacher of the Year. I think about that and how my first 3 schools missed that opportunity. Sometimes you just have to be in those "low" points in your life to learn from those experiences and move on . It really does get better. If your focus is on the kids and you don't like the management, politics, school climate, than I agree it is time to move on. If it is not liking the kids, you need to find out about why and is it something you can improve upon like; classroom management, getting the kids involved in your lessons, making effective lessons, questioning techniques, making effective tests, etc. If your heart is in the kids, then please don't leave the teaching profession. Just find that right school. They do exist!

Jennifer Vallot's picture

Thanks JohnK Wright V. I had a horrible experience in my first year as a new teacher and new to Special Education. It honestly broke my heart and spirit to the point where I was afraid to try again. I did apply again at a different district and got the job. I have spent the summer reading and learning what I should have been taught to do last year. (For details, see previous posts above). My new district is aware of my concerns about being supported in my professional growth and development as a novice teacher, but I am going in better prepared due to my prior experiences. I am praying this is the one. I will at least have support and resources in the building this time and a director who love to teach and not just direct. So far, everyone has been much more personable and welcoming. Here is to a better year and a new start.

Ellen's picture

Elena, Your letter is absolutely perfect. You can't say much more, because as you indicate, they just don't know what they don't know. Your advice to get out of any school that is not giving you support in this first year, or has no plan in place, is dead on. It is further indicative of the school culture, Everyone may be really nice, but if there is something that they can blame you for as a new teacher. It many be easier to blame your inexperience than admitting it was another professional's human mistake. I am speaking generally from experience, And even in discussing my experience with colleagues who were new as well,
Schools can have a strange cultural and social dynamic. It can be hard to penetrate. Only time will tell and make you part of the team. anyway. Like anything else in life, people have their friends and common interests.

Kyle's picture

As I'm rounding out the half-way point in my Master's program, reading letters such as this are immensely powerful and reaffirming. Thanks for sharing this.

Anum's picture

Thanks a ton for sharing some useful insights it is of great help for me as a beginner in the art of early childhood teaching :)

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