Wednesday, April 23, 2014

10 Things About Being a First-Year Teacher

I've always known that I wanted to be a teacher and I have spent years in college preparing for this job I love so much, but there's definitely a few things I feel I must share with other burgeoning teachers out there. Some humble, realistic things that I learned during my first year that they definitely did not teach me in the teaching program of my college.

1. Classroom Language. By this I don't simply mean what bad words will you allow or not allow in your room (though definitely make sure you do that and are consistent). I mean what vocabulary are you going to use in your room. For example: When I want kids to use a more complex idea I tell them to "Go to Level 3" our classroom has an image of critical thinking as thinking in layers, level 3 being the most complex. My students are familiar with that language. The language you use has to be all your own and consistent with the objectives of the school/department. Make sure you use it consistently!

2. Building/Department Priorities. At our school we teach a specific style of argument writing (anyone familiar with Toulmin?) make sure you ask others in your department what is crucial. If I hadn't asked, I would not have known that not only does the English department do that style of writing, but the entire school!

3. Ask questions. A lot. I'm gonna be honest... everyone knows you're a  new teacher. So asking questions doesn't make you look dumb. It shows you're new. And everyone knows. So who cares. Ask where the staff bathroom is, ask what times you're supposed to be at the school, ask what dances you have to chaperon, ask what professional learning opportunities there are. Ask. Ask. Ask.

4. Plan AHEAD. A lot of my new-teacher friends really struggle with planning. My recommendation? Get a big weekly planner from Target or Wal-Mart and map out your units ahead of time. Write in days you won't have contact with kids and budget your time around vacations. The biggest complaint my friends have is that they are planning the night before they have to teach. That sounds #stressful to me and I'm not about that life. I lay out my units (typically four) and estimate time needed for each. That doesn't mean I've hammered out the details, but at least I have a time frame in which things need to be accomplished. I typically can plan one semester ahead, at least.

5. Google It. I'm all about being creative and using your own lessons but let's face it, it is your first year teaching. You have one billion things you need to accomplish, the dog to feed, the house to fix, Induction meetings to go to, IEPs that you have to attend and pretend you have some idea what they're talking about, and suddenly they want you to create a super intricate lesson plan. Yo. Someone else probably already has. Type it into Google. Download it. Tweek it as need it. It's not "cheating" it is being resourceful. It is not "stealing" if that other teacher didn't want people to have it... they wouldn't have openly shared it with the internet world. I can't lie. This has saved hours of my life, especially creating movie worksheets and similar assignments.

6. Be Consistent! I don't know how to explain how powerful this one is. I personally suck at remembering rules, especially ones that I've made. Some people suggest making a poster together as a class where everyone contributes their rules and it is a class effort. Well. I have 5 separate classes and as a high school teacher, that seems rather unrealistic. So that doesn't work. I pick the one thing I can't stand and hold to it. For instance: SnapChat. My main rule is: Respect. Even students I don't have know that's my rule. It essentially means being respectful with their cell phone and music usage, to their teacher, to their peers, and to the building and materials around them. I make a big deal out of it.

7. Say "No." There are so many programs, teams, sports, groups, and PLCs you have to be a part of. Don't make it hard on yourself that first year and sign up for more than you can handle. Personally, I didn't sign up to help with anything but a couple sporting events and one Speech and Debate Tournament. I love being involved and I love my school, but I spent five years in college (17-21) without any free time, friends, or breaks. I want to make sure that I pace myself as I move into my professional career.

8. Grade at School! Even as an English teacher I tell you this. I only plan one large scale assignment that will require me to grade at home per quarter. I suck at grading at home! I'd rather drink a class of wine or go out shopping or nap or anything but grade. You are given a set planning time at school, use it to do both. I plan on Mondays and Tuesdays (make copies, write out activities, etc.) and the rest of the week I grade during my planning periods. If I can't grade it then, I can do it while my students are working on independent tasks in class, or perhaps stay for maximum of an hour after school. Let work be work. Let life be life. I find not mixing the two over much is the best.

9. Utilize Technology and Other Resources. I work at a great school, but even so we have suffered from budget cuts just like everyone else. We don't have enough thesauruses for my students to do all the activities that I need them to do when writing. However! They have plenty of smartphones! So the 3 or 4 kids that don't have smart phones can simply use the thesauruses or share with a peer. Tools like and internet databases help. Make friends with the Library Media Specialists in your building. They'll hook you up! I also use our gradebook to upload and link .pdf versions of our assignments, helps eliminate excuses from students and allows them to take some responsibility for missing work. Plus that means I don't have to keep track of a hundred different assignment sheets. Also! Pinterest has some awesome teaching stuff!

10. Have Fun! This one is the absolute most important. Love your job. Whenever people ask me, and they do, a lot; how I can stand to be a teacher I simply tell them: "Holy crap, because I love it. I go to work everyday and get to be my weird self, and laugh!" All I do during the day is laugh. I would say only one out of 30 days is truly that hard, because I make it fun. I rarely feel as though what I'm doing is "work." I get to hang out with books and talk about books and joke with kids and build relationships. Everyday I go in and 50-90 kids are looking forward to seeing me. I wouldn't trade that for the world. If you find that having fun is a struggle, make a "Feel Good Box." One of my mentors recommended it to me. Mine is a cardboard box with colorful duct tape all around it that holds pictures, cards, art, and letters my students have given me. When my day gets hard, I go look at them and almost instantly feel better.

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