When I was a first-year teacher, everything felt daunting to me. What was the process for requesting equipment from the tech department? Where would I find the replacement toner for the copier? What made it more challenging was the fact that I had a floating position—I moved into a different classroom each period. On top of that, I was tasked with teaching different subjects: math and English language arts. As most teachers would agree, this isn’t an ideal first-year assignment. However, I was able to complete the year because of the support and guidance from my seasoned colleagues.
The support and guidance I experienced wasn’t the type that’s systematically implemented in districts or school-level structures around instruction and curriculum, which is important and needed. Rather, it was more practical and more personal. Realistically, the advice helped me navigate the parts of this education system that can make it challenging for new teachers to remain in the classroom.
1. Clarify the Compensation Scale and Professional Development
My colleagues explained the pay system and elaborated how to advance to the highest salary tier by earning university or professional development credits. Human resources did touch on this in an orientation, but the repeated reminders from my colleagues motivated me.
They shared the classes they took and which ones they felt were worth the time, as well as classes that were free or at a much lower cost than the average professional development class listed through the district’s site. (In my district, we must pay for our professional development classes, so there’s a sweet spot in finding a course that is both meaningful to professional growth and also affordable on a new teacher’s salary.)
When I voiced my displeasure at having to give up nights and weekends to work on a learning portfolio, a colleague said, “Don’t you feel that you deserve to be paid as much as me for doing the same work?” That thought motivated me to finish as quickly as possible and move up the scale. If my colleagues had not pushed me to move up the salary schedule and explained how to fill out the paperwork, I would still be in the first tier.
2. Build Lasting friendships
Many of my colleagues became my work friends. We went out for dinner after work about twice a month with a large group of more than 10 teachers. We’d mostly discuss work, but we also genuinely connected as people. The classroom can feel isolating at times, but being around people who understand the issues you’re facing helps a lot. When a frustration was raised, the group would listen, and if asked, someone would offer a solution, but mostly we just listened. Many of my colleagues were nearly a decade older than me, and I appreciated how they were open to new friendships.
3. Offer a Listening Ear and Encourage Reflection
In my first few years, I would often share my concerns and stresses with my colleagues who had become my friends. They’d listen carefully, and they never offered advice. Most of the time, they knew I just needed to vent. When I did ask for advice, they’d say things like “It depends” or “Everyone is different.” In fact, they’d usually ask me more questions until I came to my own conclusion on how to solve my issue or how to reframe my thinking. In other words, they had me reflect on myself and figure out what I was in control of and what I could change.
For example, if I was having an issue with a student, my colleagues asked me what I knew about the student. Through reflection, I realized that I didn’t know much about the student. So, I worked on developing a better relationship with and understanding of the student. When students had external factors affecting their behavior, since I couldn’t change those factors, my experienced colleagues asked me how I might set up procedures to create an environment that supported all students.
4. Give Reminders About Retirement
A few colleagues were nearing retirement and were happy to share what they knew from the retirement seminars they attended. I had just begun working, and retirement was not on my mind. “You should think about it,” they warned me.
They then went on to explain the different types of retirement that were offered, as well as ideas on how to invest any extra money I might have. “Don’t rely on retirement and Social Security,” they explained. “You need to plan your future.” They referred me to our union’s retirement website, which further grew my knowledge of what to expect many years down the road.
5. Filter the Mandates
When I felt overwhelmed with new training sessions and initiatives, I asked a colleague how he seemed so relaxed in those meetings. He said, “I filter what’s important and what’s not important for my students.” He meant that he took away what was most important and relevant for his students, and then applied what was needed to his class. He didn’t always do every single thing that the school was asking.
As someone who follows rules, I struggled with this, but I began to realize that over time as leaders change and priorities shift, so do some initiatives. And while well-intentioned, they aren’t always what makes sense for a current group of students. I, too, learned to curate what I brought back to my students. My colleague taught me that it’s part of a teacher’s job to take what’s useful and leave the rest of it to the side.
Being a new teacher has so many challenges, and one of the most positive aspects in this career is the true friendships that develop between coworkers.