At twenty-two, my passion for teaching was ignited and I thought I was completely ready to take on the world. I was a newlywed that just moved to Austin from Lubbock, Texas after graduating from college. I had just completed the “Tech Teach” program where two years of challenging classes, and a year of student teaching cultivated me into a novice educator. I was throwing around acronyms and soaking up all the content necessary to make me successful in the classroom. I had an amazing Mentor Teacher that guided me and allowed me to practice teaching in any kind of environment. She also provided me with lessons and activities that I still use to this day. (You’re the real MVP Dawn Gray!)
With this being said, I initially felt very confident about landing a job. What I didn’t know was how incredibly competitive Austin Independent School District was. I was applying everywhere, emailing principals, and becoming discouraged when they hired internally. With my ego deflated, I accepted the fact that distance would be a sacrifice and began to look in other districts outside of the Austin area. I found a job fair opportunity for a smaller school district, Del Valle ISD, and worked up the nerve to go after so much rejection. Del Valle is a small area about seven miles east of downtown Austin. Growing up in Austin, I knew the demographics of Del-Valle, and I knew that it was where a lot of families moved after gentrification took hold of Austin.
I went to the job fair, my shaking hands holding a resume and cover letter. I meandered into the convention center, trying to appear confident as I approached the first middle school table. A younger woman came to speak to me, and I told her what I was certified to teach-she automatically referred me to the principal who greeted me with a warm smile and handshake. Like clockwork, they took me to a smaller room for an interview and I followed, wiping my damp hands on my pants. Not cute. Every fiber of my being was attempting to avoid the nervousness seething throughout my body. They quickly sat me down as they started asking questions-
“What is your first priority as a teacher?”
“What do you consider your biggest strength?”
“What will be your protocol for discipline?”
“There will be students that will try to cuss you out and walk out of your classroom, what will you do?”
I answered all the questions with my future students in mind, I will build relationships, harvest relationships, value relationships- and you know what? I meant it. I wanted to pour into my students so badly.
I signed a contract that afternoon, and received a card from the principal, my heart full of sincere gratitude. I immediately felt at home, and as the year progressed, I fell more in love with the students and staff. I don’t know how I always get so lucky with the most amazing group of teachers, but they taught me so much my first year. Were there challenges? Absolutely. I did have students that tried to cuss me out, I had students walk out of my class, and I would spend nights at school until ten o’clock, attempting to create the most engaging lessons, calling my husband with tears in my eyes because I was so tired. Through the blood, sweat, and tears though, I also had students that were so incredibly hard to reach write me letters thanking me for their education. My hardest class became my favorite class by the end of the year, and I still have students from that group of students message me asking for proofreading and advice. The first year of teaching taught me so much about not only me as a teacher but me as a human being. I realized what boundaries were important to me, and realized how humbling it was to step back and simply learn from every situation, and all the seasoned teachers surrounding me every day.
Everyone has different experiences their first year teaching, so I decided to ask several master teachers what they would tell new teachers coming into the field (A huge thank you to Gabriel Medina, Allison Congdon, Edgar Chaves, Hanna Taylor, Kimberly Finke, Carla Burnett, Chanley Wickbolt, Nick King, Alex Johnston, Bill Graves, Debra Howard, Elizabeth Koepke, Hannah Milici, Mario Martinez, Chelsey Cody, and Leigh Deweese). Because of them, I was able to compile a list that was so long, that I am creating two parts to this blog post, so be on the lookout! Here are some essentials to survive that first year-
Build relationships, build relationships, build relationships
This is the most valuable thing you will learn as an educator. You are going to have students in your classroom that are so easy to teach because they are used to being safe. They are loved on constantly at home and want to learn because of that. However, you will also have students in your classroom that have walls built so high, that they won’t let you see them. They will hide behind them, whatever they are, defiance, humor, or lack of focus, while you push and push to earn that trust.
It is now your job to let the students know they are safe while giving them a reason to learn. If they know you care, they will care to know. It is now your job to gently break down that wall, and the best time to do this is the first week of school. Really make an effort to reach every single student. If you are willing to open up about your life, they will be more willing to break down the wall themselves. Remember things about their life and ask them about it, notice a haircut, notice when they are absent and let them know that they were missed, and always, always, always let them know they are valued, even if they mess up. Showing grace is not always easy, but disappointment goes much farther than anger, and the student will be more willing the fix the behavior if they know you truly do care for their well-being and future.
Building relationships with your students are essential, but building relationships with your staff are also incredibly important. Everyone on your campus has something to offer, no matter the position. Teachers are some of the most compassionate and selfless people, and they are usually more than willing to help you if you are stuck in a situation. Ask for help if needed, always offer a smile and a helping hand in return, and talk to every co-worker while legitimately caring about what’s happening in their life. The students are only a part of the equation when it comes to a pleasant school community, make sure you’re adding to the positivity!
What do the masters say about this?
“Let your students know you care for them constantly, some never hear words of affirmation from anyone.”
“You have to reach them to teach them.”
“Be in the “power zone” at all times. Not only to monitor and supervise but to engage your students and get to know them. Strike conversations with them. Ask them questions about things that interest them and make comments on those things as the year progresses”
“Learn their names and try to pronounce them correctly to the best of your ability.”
“Let your students know who you are! Share with them about your life.”
“Build relationships with good substitutes, you’ll need them.”
“Build their confidence- goes along with words of affirmation. Even if the skill level is lacking, if they are confident they can succeed they will eventually get where we want them to be.”
“Always end on a positive- this is a big one for me! No matter how frustrated the kids get you at any point in the year- always end the class period on a good note because the last 5-10 minutes is what they will remember the most after leaving your class— and will also set them up for their return to you the next day.”
“I tell my kids I love them all the time because I really do. “
“Get to know your kids.
Simple questions like “who lives in your house?” can tell you A LOT about their lives. Asking “what do you like about yourself?” is also very informative. “
Keep your Expectations High, and your Head Held Higher
“Don’t smile until November!” I heard this phrase over and over again in my Education program. Obviously, you can smile at your students, you should be smiling at your students, but the premise of the saying means you need to keep your expectations especially high at the beginning of the year. Your students will know what you expect early on so when May rolls around, they will barely need you. There should be procedures for every part of your classroom, what do the students need to do when they walk in? Where do they turn in work? What do they do when they leave your room? When you have those procedures, practice them Every. Single. Day. Don’t let up, and let them know you are not changing- they will inevitably rise to the occasion. If you do this early on, and you focus on building relationships with the students, classroom management will be a walk in the park.
Expectations don’t have to stop at classroom management, they should bleed into your lessons as well. If you effectively build relationships with your students, they will want to please you. Have incentives for assessments and work with the students that really are struggling. Allow them to be proud of themselves and never pass up an opportunity to celebrate success!
What do the masters say about this?
“Adopt a growth mindset and impress it upon your students every chance you get.”
“Keep your expectations high and raise them every time they meet them.”
“Set standards for behavior, happily remind students of those behaviors DAILY and when they don’t line up, document it and be prepared to enforce consequences. ”
What’s your plan, Stan?
With expectations, have a discipline plan in place and communicate it with your students and parents. If you don’t have classroom management, you will not be able to teach. Do your research and do what fits best for your teaching style. I have utilized Class Dojo (https://www.classdojo.com/) for the last three years with my students, and it has made all the difference in discipline.
When you make your plan, make sure when you have followed through. If you say you are going to do something, do it! Whether you like it or not, other students pay attention to what you do and how you talk to other students. Never start a power struggle, take the conversation outside, and make sure you pay attention to positive behavior as well.
One of the most beneficial things I learned from the book Teach Like A Champion (http://teachlikeachampion.com/ <–strongly suggest reading!) was to make positive phone calls home. The first three weeks of school, I make positive phone calls to the student’s parents that I know might be harder to deal with throughout the year. This allows the parents to be on my side when something negative happens, and the students know that I DO call home. Then, throughout the year, I continue to call home with positive news. For one of my Class Dojo rewards, I have this as an option and the students always want it.
I have been told that there is always one person at home that can affect the student’s behavior. Find out who that person is. At the beginning of the year, I typically ask my students to fill out a Student Info Sheet. On that sheet, I ask for a person that they want me to contact if I need to brag on them. I am able to utilize this contact for positive calls and if the student needs intervention. Sneaky right?
What do the masters say about this?
“Find a way to keep track of all discipline issues.”
“Kids are kids, but we are training them to be adults. ”
“Be prepared to follow through with discipline each class period. Giving warnings, documenting mishaps, calling parents and assigning consequences. (In addition to having good relationships with students)”
It is Absolutely, Positively Okay to Say “No.”
This is something that I struggled with a whooole lot as a new teacher. I feared that I would lose relationships with my students if I told them not to do something. Through this though, I realized that it was a must to have boundaries. Your students will learn to respect them if you communicate them effectively. Explain to them the logic behind why you can’t do something, and they will most likely understand. Learn to find your voice when necessary, whether it is not feeling comfortable with a task asked of you by leadership, or a student asking you of something. If you have a relationship with the person and communicate effectively, they will understand!
What did the masters have to say about this?
“Loving your students does not mean you will let them do whatever they want.”
“You will get respect when you hold students to a standard, not when you are lax about discipline! “
To this day I am learning from other teachers, every situation and every student. Your first year of teaching is so incredibly important for many reasons, but your learning doesn’t stop there! (Hence why there will be a second part to this post). Teaching is not an easy profession, it takes certain stamina that is only learned. While this post focused a lot on the classroom and how to manage students, the next post will be relating to your worth and how to survive the logistical side of teaching people don’t necessarily see. Stay tuned while we venture into meetings, organization and time management in next week’s post!