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7 Things About Teaching

They Didn’t Tell You in School 

Veteran educators share what to expect during your first year in the classroom.                   

By Edward Graham          

No matter how much teaching preparation you received from university courses, much of being an educator is learned on the job. Here’s some advice from veteran educators that will smooth the transition into your first year, and help you navigate the inevitable rough patches.

Through it all, remember the words to students and teachers from Karen Graessle-Strope, a library media teacher: “Every kid needs a chance to mess up and know that tomorrow is a new opportunity for them to try again with a clean slate.”

Being a Teacher Doesn’t Stop When the Bell Rings

Prepare now to embrace the notion that much of teaching happens after school hours. Some of the most underappreciated tasks of educators—grading work, creating lesson plans, attending meetings and conferences, and communicating with parents—happen outside the classroom.

“I wish I had known how much of my time would be spent doing things that don’t involve being with my kids in the classroom,” Ginger Burgess, an eighth-grade English teacher, said in a recent NEA Today Facebook discussion.

It may take a while to learn how to manage your time, so be prepared for some long nights in the beginning. Remember that  fellow educators are a great resource when it comes to balancing time and providing advice about other issues. “Even though I [taught as a substitute], the first year in my own classroom was hectic. I’m grateful my district had a mentoring program and assigned me a veteran teacher in my building. We met once a week and discussed everything from lesson plans and behavior to personal well-being. That interaction really made a difference!” wrote Don Mackenzie in another NEA Today­­ Facebook post. (For more on developing professional relationships with your fellow educators, check out our mentoring story).

Be Proactive with Parents

Many fledgling teachers become so consumed with class work that they put parental communication on the back burner. “I learned after several years that informed parents are happy parents,” says Diane Postman, a former elementary school teacher and 31-year teaching veteran.

“I started out doing no newsletter, then I did a monthly one,” she says. “But when I began a weekly letter, complaints, questions, concerns, etc. went down and involvement and support went way up.” 

It may seem like just another task to add on to an already bloated workload, but when you can show parents what you’re doing and the lessons you’ve planned, all that outside-the-classroom-work finally pays off. Don’t assume students will inform their parents about their school activities. Instead, be proactive and engage parents in their children’s learning.

Have a Plan for Everything

It’s important to enter the classroom with confidence about what you’re teaching, but you must also understand that sometimes students need to spend a longer or shorter time learning a specific topic, or that life might not always agree with your plans.

“Plan ‘A’ never works out. Always have plans ‘B,’ ‘C,’ and ‘D’ in your back pocket and don’t sweat it when your day didn’t work out as you thought,” says Lori Gates, a fourth-grade math and science teacher who’s taught her own classroom for eight years.

Save yourself the embarrassment of being caught off guard. Always come up with back-up lessons and supplemental activities that support what you’re teaching. Even if you don’t get to use them, they are perfect if you need to spend more time on a specific subject. That way, you’ll have material for the future. You will also want to create lesson plans for the days when a substitute will teach your students. You will get sick multiple times your first year teaching.  Generally, the younger your students, the more likely they will pass their illnesses on to you. Invest in lots of hand sanitizer and vitamin C.

Find Ways to Cope with Stress

“I don’t think new teachers realize how many decisions are out of their control,” says Alexandra Foley, a first-year, seventh-grade English teacher. “It is easy to feel as if you are a small voice in a large political game.”

Many new teachers go into their first year with lofty goals, only to be confronted by the sobering realities of the modern education system. Standardized tests, school administration, helicopter parents, and the new cost-effective measures implemented by school districts can overwhelm even seasoned veterans.

The trick is acknowledging the roadblocks from the start and finding ways to cope with the stress. You may not be able to teach everything you want the way you want, but that shouldn’t deter you from being the best teacher that you can be. Meditation, workouts, and taking personal time to decompress at the end of the day are all perfect ways to stay calm and focused. Keep your eye on your successes, don’t take things too personally, and recognize that every job has its limitations.

Get Involved with the Union 

Being a union member (your professional Association) provides job protections and opens the door to resources and connections that would otherwise not be available. Remember that student members receive dues rebates and special deals on professional products.

“My advice to anyone entering the teaching profession is to join the union and move yourself up,” says Gerald Waldrop, a retired higher education political science and history teacher who taught for over 30 years. “Don’t panic when things starting out are harder than you expected. Calm waters will come.” Having a safety net supporting you in your first year of teaching will give you the chance to go far as an educator. Remember that the union will be there for you if you need it.

There’s Nothing Wrong with a Little Fun in the Classroom

By inserting fun into your teaching, you will engage students on a deeper level, ensure they are excited to come to class, and feel comfortable speaking to you about their concerns. Your classroom doesn’t have to become a circus, but having a little fun will help draw students further into the material.

“It’s okay to let kids be kids,” says Beverly Brannan, a retired elementary school teacher who taught for almost 30 years. “That is, teachers should incorporate elements of fun into the learning schedule. Students and teachers should laugh and enjoy learning.”

Be Yourself and Don’t be Afraid to Evolve

Create your own unique teaching style, remembering that teaching is a process that constantly evolves. What works for one teacher may not work for you, and what works one year may not work the next.

“It is trial by fire, and it has its advantages if you get through the fire,” says Wilhelmena Sapp, a recently retired music teacher who taught at all academic levels during her 35-year career. “You establish your own style and hopefully it is your signature to be respected throughout your career. You’ll be surprised by your own creativity and what you’ll be able to surmise all by yourself.”

Illustrations: Mark Brewer

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