If I had to pinpoint the moment I considered becoming a teacher, I suppose it would be the day my Kindergarten teacher asked for some help in the classroom. I was the first to volunteer, and I loved it. Ever since then, I knew I would end up in education — but it was a very difficult journey.
Now, in my fourth year of teaching, I still love what I do, but it’s definitely not easy. Reflecting on my past few years, here are the top five things I’d tell my first-year self that I wish I’d known then:
Look for mentors wherever you can find them
I was fortunate to have started at a school that had a great mentorship program in place, but not everyone is as lucky. With or without an effective mentorship program, it pays to look for mentors yourself, both inside and outside the classroom. I’ve found that sometimes the best advice can come from the places you least expect. For me, it was my school’s custodians. They gave me great advice about working in the school system and they would drop by with friendly reminders to get going on days I had been at school for too long. They became cherished friends and mentors. Although not the most traditional mentor for a teacher, some of the most valuable advice I’ve ever been given came from the custodians at my school.
Do yourself a service: Don’t miss out on great mentorship opportunities by focusing only on official programs or people who do your same job.
Don’t be afraid to speak up — you won’t be alone
In my second year of teaching my class was well over 22 students, our school cap, and a unit of students with special needs was put in my class. I was overwhelmed and in over my head. As a result, I was working crazy long hours just to keep up. Not only was the overcrowding of the classroom bad for me, it was causing issues with my students. A few of my colleagues noticed I was struggling and alerted our local union of the issue.
As educators it can be difficult to ask for help. I was afraid to share my struggle, but my colleagues set up a meeting between me and the President of our local affiliate. With my friends’ help and the help of my union, things started to get better. They were able to bring in an additional teacher and split the class in two, so it turned into a better situation for not only myself, but for my students as well.
The secondary lesson here is to always check with your union affiliate when you’re facing a challenge. There are usually great NEA resources available, from professional development to help with grants, and you never know how they might be able to lend a hand no matter what you’re facing.
Remind yourself why you went into education
Teaching is hard, there’s no way around that. So being able to remind yourself why you joined this profession is important. I go back to the vision and the goals that I have for my students and myself: to empower students, teach perseverance and be their personal cheerleader. Whenever I’m struggling I remind myself of that purpose and it centers me again.
I encourage all educators to find something meaningful that reminds you of why you started teaching in the first place. That way you’ll always have something concrete to come back to when you hit a rough patch.
Teach how to fail and learn from your mistakes
As an educator, you want your students to do well academically, but that isn’t your sole purpose. I weave life lessons into my regular lessons for my students. Teaching life skills and being transparent with students is just as vital to teaching academics. If a lesson did not go as well as planned, I would let my students know that “mistakes are proof that you are learning.” Creating a safe and positive environment for learning helped both my students and myself.
Students don’t just learn from what you teach, they learn from what you do — so whatever your role at your school, don’t be afraid to admit your own failures. They can provide some of the richest learning opportunities for your students (not to mention yourself).
Remember how valuable you are
It’s easy to forget, especially just out of school, that you are an asset to the teaching staff. As a new hire, I was in the “listen and learn” mindset my first few weeks. I quickly learned that even with zero experience, my perspective was still valuable and I brought something new to the table.
An interesting part of being an educator is that a lot of us weren’t always in this profession. Our past careers and experiences can be assets to our peers, our schools and our students. So don’t be shy to share your views simply because you’re not a seasoned educator yet. Remember, everyone has a unique perspective to offer, even a newbie!
Your first few years in education can be difficult. Expect to learn a lot and make some mistakes along the way. We all do. And you’ll find your way too. In the meantime, I hope these tips help you get a smooth start to your first year!