I walked into my pre-K classroom on the first day of school, confident that I could plan and implement highly engaging lessons and excited for how much my students would learn. Once my little learners entered my classroom, though, I realized just how much was missing from my plans. As it turned out, the curriculum was the least important aspect of my work that year.
When you’re a first-year teacher, it’s easy to get caught up in the curriculum. After all, the vast majority of preservice coursework focuses on understanding, delivering, and assessing content. However, some of the most important work for first-year teachers has little to do with what you teach and far more to do with the things you don’t learn in college. Beginning teachers can find success by focusing on these three Rs: relationships, reflection, and resiliency.
One of my worst moments in my first year of teaching happened during a student meltdown. As that started, another child at the table pointed and exclaimed, “She’s bad!” Mortified, I quickly rushed over to calm the upset child while explaining to her peer that she wasn’t bad, just having a hard day.
What I learned in this moment is that my tiny learners lacked relationships: They didn’t yet know how to care about each other. From then on, I made it my mission to help my students build stronger relationships with each other. Relationships with and among students lay the foundation for successful teaching and learning. Strong relationships promote collaboration and risk-taking, while students who lack relationships with their teachers and peers are likely to feel isolated and risk-averse. Strong relationships also make the difference between accepting one another on our toughest days and making those tough days even harder.
Here are some strategies to support relationship building in your classroom:
Greeting rituals: Greet students at the door each morning. You can do individual handshakes, give them a “greeting board” choice, or simply greet them by name with a smile. Likewise, implement greeting rituals among your students. Assign a daily greeter to say good morning to each friend, greet everyone during morning meeting, or pass the greeting around a circle until everyone has been welcomed.
Individual check-ins: Helping children care about each other starts with helping them to know they’re cared for. Create a weekly schedule and check in with each child individually. Give children the space to share openly with you. Through these check-ins I learned about new babies at home, visiting grandparents, sibling squabbles, and so many other stressors that helped me better understand my students’ needs.
Lunch bunch: Hear me out on this one… lunch is a sacred time for teachers but also an invaluable time to connect with your students. Consider the occasional “lunch bunch” as a strategy to reach those students who may have a harder time connecting. Once a month, choose four or five students (depending on your class size) and invite them to have lunch with you in your classroom. Encourage conversation and help them find things they have in common.
Teachers are constantly asked to reflect. What went well? What didn’t go well? But that reflection so often stops right there. Instead, new teachers must reflect with a purpose. “Reflect to refine” is an approach that helps teachers use reflection as a systematic tool to improve their practice. Reflect to refine asks teachers to think about the work they’ve already done and keep future modifications in mind. Instead of asking yourself what didn’t go well, ask yourself, “How can I make this better?” Here are two easy strategies you can use for quick, systematic reflection.
Stop and jot: Keep a copy of your lesson plans handy, and jot down quick notes in the margins during or after your lesson. Could your students have benefited from a visual support? Did they have questions you weren’t prepared for? Did you make a last-minute change that went really well? Stop and jot can help you make small, intentional tweaks each year. Tech-savvy? Pull up your digital plans and comment directly online.
Monthly folders: Children’s work is one of the best indicators of our teaching. Consider keeping a folder in your cabinet for each month of the year. Collect a handful of work samples each month from your students. Next year, when the time comes to teach those same lessons, you can look back at your samples and identify what may need a bit of tweaking.
Becoming a great teacher is about progress, not perfection. I’ll never forget one of my first cooperative learning activities that ended in more tears and yelling than collaboration. Students were tasked with using masking tape and classroom furniture to make spiderwebs that represented the spiders we had been learning about. What I hadn’t realized was that my students were missing some important communication and active listening skills. The yelling started, cooperation didn’t happen, and no spiderwebs were successfully built. I felt defeated, and that I had failed my students.
You will inevitably have days when your lessons tank, your students aren’t engaged, and you end your day feeling like your students learned nothing. When those moments happen (and they will), here’s what you can do.
Give yourself grace: You wouldn’t expect your students to master reading the first time they pick up a book, and you can’t expect every lesson you teach to go perfectly to plan. Being a teacher means also being a lifelong learner, so consider it a learning opportunity.
Refine and reteach: If your lesson fails and your students didn’t learn what you intended, reflect on why that happened, refine your lesson plan, and give it another try tomorrow.
Keep going: You’re going to have bad days as a new teacher and you’re going to have fabulous days. Failed lessons here and there don’t define you as a teacher; keep going, keep teaching, and find what works for you. Eventually, those fabulous days will outweigh the not-so-good ones.
Teaching is a hard profession. Your university has likely prepared you well to master the curriculum and deliver content to your students. I’m sure that, like me, you’re eager to get started arranging your classroom, diving into your curriculum, and planning your upcoming lessons. Just remember that there’s more to teaching than content. Going beyond the curriculum with relationships, reflection, and resiliency will help you thrive as a new teacher.