Thriving in Your First Years as a Teacher
Six realistic, low-stress steps you can take to improve your teaching in the hectic early years of your career.
It is a universal truth that early career teachers are overwhelmed. Between classroom management issues, lesson plans, and grading, we’re oftentimes drowning. With all the pressure to simply survive our first few years of teaching, doing anything else in the name of improvement may seem impossible. As a second-year teacher, I have days when I find myself treating life’s necessities, like sleeping, as if they were optional activities.
We want to become better teachers, but it can be exhausting. These are low-stress, realistic, and enjoyable ideas that you can use to squeeze being a better educator into your hectic new teacher life.
Developing as a Teacher in the Early Years
Write reflectively: Simply by writing about your classroom experiences, you’re already developing yourself as an educator. Writing is widely recognized as a tool to alleviate stress and manage anxiety. It’s important for teachers to write as a way to vent about stressful days, grow from mistakes, and appreciate successes. Challenge yourself to write for 10 minutes each day. I don’t pressure myself to write well—I just write. Whether you invest in a journal or start a blog, the act of writing is worth your time.
Record things you want to change: Create a document specifically designed to record your mistakes and plans for improvement. Whenever a lesson plan goes awry, jot down a note about how to make it better in the future. My own document is entitled “Things to Do Better for Next Year” and includes notes about remaking assessments, adjusting my grading categories, and other fixes that will make my next classroom experience better. Not only does this give you guidance for future lessons, but you now have a comprehensive list of items to accomplish over the summer.
Observe other teachers: New teachers are often required to observe veterans, but we shouldn’t stop there. Even after you fulfill your observation obligations, make time to email different teachers in your building that you admire and let them know you want to stop by their classrooms to see them in action. Most teachers will be glad to work with you and to talk afterward about your thoughts and observations. We get better at teaching when we talk productively about our practice.
Learn a new skill: Making time in your life to learn about something you’re interested in can help remind you what your students encounter every day in your classroom: As much as it can be exciting to learn something new, it’s also scary. It’s important that we regularly look for chances to experience life the way our students do, so that we can be empathetic to their situation. For me, it was learning how to sing. After months of voice lessons, I auditioned for the local theater’s summer musical and made the ensemble cast.
Take charge of your PD: There are many ways you can be proactive in your professional development (PD). Social media websites like Twitter and Pinterest provide an entire network of teachers seeking discussions and other opportunities to connect. On Twitter, the National Councils of Teachers of English hosted an educational chat on mentor texts where I learned about using New Sentences from The New York Times as a tool to help students analyze literature.
A simple way to take control of your PD is to read books on pedagogy. Ask a few of your coworkers to join you and start an informal PD book club. Any teacher would benefit from reading The Growth Mindset Coach by Annie Brock and Heather Hundley. This book provides an excellent month-by-month guide on how to create an atmosphere of improvement in your classroom.
Another classic way to develop professionally is to find a nearby education conference and interact with other teachers. Listening to inspiring keynote speakers and being involved in breakout sessions is a great way to re-energize and learn. When I went to the Mid-America Association for Computers in Education conference in Manhattan, Kansas, I learned about single-point rubrics, using memes as short writing assignments, and the glorious design capabilities of Canva.
Be kind to yourself: Practicing self-care is essential to your continual improvement as a teacher. If you’re not taking care of yourself, you cannot be the teacher your students need. By making good choices that lead to a healthy mind and body, you’ll enable yourself to have a happier teaching experience.
Ways to accomplish this include eating healthy, exercising, and doing activities that you enjoy outside of education. Yes, grading is important, but so is spending time with family, watching that new show, and walking the dog. To keep my head above water, I do guided meditations each morning using an app on my phone. This calms me down and lets me start each day fresh.
When trying to be a better teacher, the key is to not be hard on yourself. Teaching is a tricky and time-consuming job. No one has perfected it yet, and you won’t be the first. While improvement should always be somewhere on your radar, it doesn’t need to be a massive overhaul of your livelihood. Try even just one of these ideas for self-improvement.