Stay Positive and Pace Yourself: A Survival Guide for First-Year Teachers

challenges_for_first_year_teachersThe 2015-16 school year will be my second year in the classroom. I am looking forward to the start of school with far less trepidation than I did a year ago. My first year in the classroom was hard – there’s no way around it. But I survived. For better or worse, the struggles of are fresh in my mind and I’d like to pay it forward and hopefully support some new first-year teachers in our important profession.

To be clear, the first year is going to be enormously challenging no matter what. It is educator boot camp. However, understanding how to navigate it can make a big difference. Here I’ve identified some of the most important advice that I followed (or wish I had followed), and even though my experiences are from a high school English classroom, I think they translate into all grades and contexts.

Don’t Add to the Pressure

Although it is important to have an appropriate and positive mindset about what you can do, many new teachers forget to bring this same mindset to the things that they cannot do. Your job is to be the best first-year teacher you can be.  Give yourself permission to take  a few short cuts that are in no way reflective of the educator you will be years down the road. Even though you have Stressed teacheralready learned so much in student teaching, you still face an enormous learning curve that happens as you jump to full-time teaching. You will absorb so many things every day, but may have trouble articulating and applying what you have learned. And because you’re trying to apply numerous subtle layers to everything you do (planning, grading, seating charts, anything!), it will initially slow you down. As a morale booster, constantly remind yourself that school work will take you much longer now, but that won’t always be the case.

For example, before starting full time, it took me 30 minutes to grade one essay – which is an impossibly slow speed once you have 100+ students. Know that you will adjust and you need to cut corners as you do so. Also, keep in mind that you cannot nor should not grade every piece of work each student completes. In fact, for your students to gain the skills you want to teach them, they need to practice them so much that it would be impossible for you to see it all. Pay attention in class to who is engaged, participating, and showing evidence of learning, but don’t take every assignment as a formative assessment!

Set Limits

Never work so hard that you’ll run screaming from the profession in June. Give yourself the gift of a second year. Don’t invest 100% of your teaching potential in just one year. This is tied into setting limits, and it’s a challenge I regularly struggled with my first year.

paperworkIt’s essential to limit the time you spend planning, grading, or simply worrying about school. The schedule that allowed me to keep my sanity was to stop work (notice I didn’t say “finish”) by 5-6pm each school night, and only work 3 hours on the weekend (Of course I almost always worked more than this, but I was still limiting my time). Now, before the critics jump in, remember what I was saying about the learning curve and cutting corners! The truth is that new teachers could spend every waking moment of every day working and still not be ready or still not accomplish the same amount that a more veteran teacher could. It’s about making balance your highest priority in a way that will sustain you long-term. Work hard and have integrity in your work, and then put down the work, shake off the worries, and help yourself recharge.

Plan Strategically

Make it a habit to plan ahead in ways that will save your time and bring you support.

Plan your routines. Come up with routines that will save you valuable time in lesson planning. I did a 15 minute period of Silent Sustained Reading three times a week. It was a rich routine, where students did metacognitive logs, reflected on their reading, drew out metaphors, shared their texts, and built individual engagement in reading. The benefit to me was that, three times a week, I only had to plan for 45 minutes rather than the full 60 minute period.

Plan your units/plan a rough outline for the year. Now I’m gonna be honest here: I was not able to do this last year and it stressed me out the whole year. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but have an idea of where you’re going!

Plan your classroom layout. Get into your classroom as soon as possible. Push to make this happen because administrators have a lot to do in August and this could fall through the cracks. Get your key, figure out the seating plan, where students will turn things in, where your own things will go, and what will be on the walls.

Plan your support network. Don’t just wait for this to fall into place! Get to know the important staff at your school and figure out who you will be able to turn to for help. (I baked a cake for the custodian and I always received particularly speedy help from him, so bribery is not out of the question here!)

welcome written on blackboardA Practical What-To-Do List

Here are the more practical things to do that will save you time and energy as the school year begins.

Find out how your copy machine works. Find out how to clear simple jams from the copy machine. Find out what machine you can use as a spare if (when) yours breaks. Find out where to get replacement paper, what to do if it is out of toner, etc.

Find out how to sign up for computer labs/laptops at your school. Find out which laptop carts are good and which ones actually suck. Find out the common problems people have with the sign up system your school uses.

Find out how to get basic school supplies from your office/department.

Find out how to get essential school supplies that your office/department lacks without paying for them yourself. Try to make it a goal to never spend your own money on class stuff. I consider myself a nice and generous person who loves helping people out, but it is not sustainable to continually purchase supplies.

Find out how to contact members of the administration, and see if you can get one of their phone numbers to text when you need a fast reply.

Find out how to get tech support.

Find out how often your school meets as a full staff, and put it in your calendar.

Find out how to get a sub.

It doesn’t matter how close it is to the beginning of the school year, or even if you’re reading this after your year has started, it’s never too late to make this first year successful. Find the habits and mantras that work for you, and keep working at them. Get people to help you and donate things to your classroom. Find validation anywhere you can (because kids don’t regularly thank you for fantastic lessons – totally bizarre right?). And don’t forget to ask people for help often. Me included! You can email me at sara.ketcham@gmail.com. Just find some people (more than one) who will support you.

One last thing: It’s all totally worth it. You have a chance to positively impact so many young thinkers and dreamers. You will help young people become stronger writers, readers, or math-lovers, but if you can also deeply connect with and support students who really need help to stay in school, then you will feel an even greater sense of accomplishment.

sara_ketchamSara Ketcham is an English teacher at Oakland Technical High School in Oakland, CA.  She earned her masters in education from the Multicultural Urban Secondary Education program at UC Berkeley.  She is very passionate about teacher collaboration and community.

  • Jasmine Ramsey

    This is a great article. Thank you for sharing!