Starting your teaching career is an exciting time. You have the opportunity to work in a job that you are passionate about, possibly changing the lives of your students. However, this excitement is often paired with nerves — almost to the point of abject terror in the hours leading up to your first day.
You aren’t alone. Countless other teachers have been in your shoes before and experienced the same anxieties. Follow these tips to make your first year of teaching as smooth and effective as possible.
Get Organized and Stay Organized
Organizational skills can save you time and stress during your first year of teaching. Take steps before you even enter your classroom to organize your decorations, lesson plans and undergrad notes.
“If you are a first-year teacher I know you have been collecting things over the summer,” says Kelly Jackson, a classroom organization coach. “Do yourself a favor and organize them before you move them.”
In their eagerness to develop an engaging classroom, new educators often have piles of posters, crafts and decorations. Moving into your classroom is similar to moving into a new home. If your boxes aren’t organized, it will take you three times as long to unpack everything.
Also, you might not need all of the posters and decorations that you think you do. The team at Rainbow Sky Creations emphasizes that your classroom doesn’t have to be Instagram perfect. You don’t have to create every display you see on Pinterest or have a classroom packed with cute stations and posters. In fact, trying to compare yourself to every other teacher based on their decor is more likely to leave you frustrated and feeling inadequate.
It’s okay to take a step back so you can get settled into your classroom before you start decorating everything.
Focus on Your Classroom Procedures
Students thrive on routines and procedures. Younger students especially benefit from knowing what to expect (and what is expected of them). Before your first day, establish rules for your classroom and policies for various parts of the day.
“Routines and procedures are like the glue that keeps your classroom together,” says first grade teacher Lindsay Sauer. “They are both things to not only plan out, but to spend ample amounts of time establishing and practicing with students. They should be very explicit and clear and modeled by you as many times as needed.”
Establishing procedures is particularly important for students who have spent the past few years learning remotely. They might understand how the remote classroom works but have forgotten basic in-person classroom etiquette.
You may not even have time to decorate your classroom. At the beginning of her career, former teacher Bronwyn Brady was given a first grade classroom three days before school started. It was an old preschool room with nothing in it. “At the end of the day, the goal of an effective classroom set-up is really to create a sense of order for your students and an environment that is conducive to learning,” she writes. “It’s okay if your classroom is a little bare.”
Your classroom doesn’t have to be packed with posters and activities. It just needs to be effective.
Be Flexible With Your Lesson Plans
Before your first day, you likely put in a lot of time on your lesson plans. Each is beautifully written, with alternative options and details for substitute teachers. Unfortunately, the day will come when your lesson goes out the window and you have to make up activities on the go.
“There will be days where everything goes perfectly according to plans, your students are totally onboard and invested with your lessons, and you and your class are super productive,” says high school special education teacher Lisa Capobianco Alexander. “But then there are days where everyone is distracted, lessons go totally off the rails, and you feel like you got nothing done. Those days happen to everyone.”
At times you may need to create lesson plans day-to-day based on the needs of your students. This approach allows you to stay on a subject longer to make sure everyone understands the material.
“Don’t feel bad if you’re planning day-to-day,” says Rose Clearfield, a former K-4 special education teacher. “It is virtually impossible to start planning past the next day until you are able to evaluate your students, which is a time-consuming process, even when things go smoothly.”
Clearfield recommends saving all of your lesson plans from the first year, even if you don’t use them. This will help you next year so you can plan further ahead and pair effective lessons with the needs of your students.
Establish a Work-Life Balance Early On
It’s understandable that you are excited to start your first year as a teacher — and you want to do a good job. But that doesn’t mean you can afford to burn yourself out.
“[When I first started] I was continuously shocked by how much teachers were asked to do,” says elementary teacher Brianna Frizell. “Between lesson planning, IEP meetings, data discussions, staff meetings, book clubs, after school activities, student events outside school, and more I felt like I was constantly being pulled in so many different directions.”
If you want a long term career as an educator, take time for yourself and set reasonable barriers between work and personal time.
“One of the things you will be tempted to do is to stay late after work each day to catch up on all your unfinished tasks,” says Kadeen at Kadeen Teaches. “You will quickly realize that even though you’ve spent countless evenings at work, you still haven’t caught up. You’ll probably feel a bit overwhelmed, tired and miserable quite frankly.”
Staying late all the time at work is counterproductive. You leave tired and arrive tired. You’ll get less done during the day and will burn out faster.
Build Rapport With Your Students
The semester is longer than you realize — and the year even longer. Depending on your grade and subject you teach, you’ll spend a few hours each week with your students or the whole day with them. It’s worth the time and effort to get to know them.
“Put relationships first,” says former high school art teacher Lindsey McGinnis. “The best way to motivate your students is to build rapport. If they like you and see that you care, they will be more likely to behave and put forth effort for you.”
For younger students, you are one of the first authority figures they will get to know outside of their parents. For older students, you can build trust and create a sense of safety in your classroom.
“Building relationships with students is the first line of defense for dealing with behavior struggles, unengaged students, and creating a comfortable classroom environment,” writes intervention teacher for grades K-4 Martha Moore.
In that environment, students feel valued and seen, Moore adds. They can also feel comfortable asking for help to address problems that you might not have noticed yet.
Balance Rapport With Authority
No one said being a teacher was easy. You will need to balance a natural rapport with authority. You can be friendly with your students, but they still need to respect you. This balance isn’t always easy to achieve.
“Whether I liked it or not, I was the authority in the classroom and I needed to take charge,” says Laura Candler, a teacher with over 30 years experience. “That didn’t mean being a dictator, but it did mean sometimes making decisions that weren’t popular with my kids.”
There’s a difference between being friendly with your students and befriending them. The latter could compromise your ability to lead your classroom.
This balance is especially important with older students. Your relationship with your students can affect everything from how they ask for extensions to whether or not they pay attention in class.
For example, it’s “a good idea to think beforehand about how to react to a silent class,” writes Christopher Nash, co-managing director at INOMICS, a career site for economists. He says that singling students out can be “kind of mean if they genuinely don’t know, and they might resent you,” but continuing to talk implies that it’s okay to not answer.
“You will be neither the first nor the last teacher to experience students not responding to a perfectly reasonable question,” says Nash. “Do not take it personally, but do have a plan how to deal with it without getting flustered.”
You are learning to manage a classroom as your students learn from you. The policies you set up in your first month of teaching may differ from the policies you have in place by the end of the year.
Buy a Whistle for Outdoor Activities
Elementary teacher Alleah Maree offers one more piece of advice for new teachers: Buy a whistle. “A whistle will save your voice, get their attention quickly, and help your kids see you as someone who stays calm and doesn’t need to yell,” says Maree. “I had a few different whistles that meant different things, kinda like the Von Trapp kids in The Sound of Music.”
Maree explained to her students what each whistle meant (one to get someone’s attention, three to line up, etc.) and practiced running through whistle drills during the first day. No matter how rowdy students get outside at recess, a whistle can get their attention without leaving you screaming over them.
Be Gentle With Yourself
Every job has an onboarding process. In most companies, new hires are expected to spend the first six months to a year learning the ropes. As a teacher, you don’t have that luxury. Your students expect you to be ready on the first day. Be kind to yourself and don’t expect to be perfect.
“A good dose of humility goes a long way in this vulnerable profession of ours,” says Jason DeHart, assistant professor of reading education at Appalachian State University. “Teaching is essentially human and is a complicated balance of personal interaction, pedagogical implementation, and content area knowledge. The balance takes time.”
Everyone learns lessons in the first year they wish they knew beforehand. Sometimes these lessons come after a period of reflection. Sometimes they are realized after significant classroom mistakes. Both are inevitable in your first year.
“You are a human being, and so are your students,” says Jennifer Caldwell, an education consultant at online learning programs provider Edmentum. “This means that mistakes will be made in your classroom. It could be an academic mistake, a behavioral mistake, or a mistake in not being prepared.”
Many people love the teaching profession and stay with the same school district for years. Even these expert educators usually admit to having a rocky start. During your first year, you might feel exhausted, sometimes overwhelmed and even inadequate. Remember that you’re a professional and this is a learning process for you too.