Survival tips for first-year teachers

It’s fun to see colleagues around the country sharing their “teacher stats” as this school year kicks off. Here are a few of mine:

  • 23rd year of teaching – 20th at Mounds View HS
  • 3 schools: Wilbur Middle School, The Independent School and Mounds View HS
  • Grades taught: 8-12
  • Favorite grade ever taught: 12
  • Subjects taught: Journalism, Economics, Language Arts, Civil Liberties, U.S. History, Government, Psychology
  • Students taught: 7500+

Frankly, I’m surprised I made it this far. When I think back to my 27-year-old self, heading off to my first day of teaching at Wilbur in 1994, I shudder to think how naive, inexperienced and idealistic I was.

I thought my lessons would be so great that every student would like me. I thought I was going to assign essays every week and grade them all. I thought I could impact even the most hard-to-reach students, not watch some of them slip away out of reach.

I didn’t think at all about some of the stupid things that would reduce me to tears, like a colleague blaming me for a broken VCR or a computer malfunction the day grades were due.

We’ve all heard the dismal teacher stats — the flipside to our longevity brag sheets, the numbers of teachers who found that the bad outweighed the good.  Only about half of new teachers even make it past five years, many driven out by frustration, poor school leadership, low pay, unrealistic expectations and the overwhelming nature of the job.

Is there a secret sauce that enables some teachers to stick it out for 20+ years? What kinds of traits and skills prepare you to last? Can we arm new teachers with tools that will make them effective — and willing to make it a career? Or is it more situational, based on school circumstances?

I know there’s no way to prepare teachers for some situations they might face — some schools are just flat-out dysfunctional. But even in the best of circumstances, being a new teacher is tough.

Here are a few tips that can help you build the kind of classroom and career you want.

  1. Take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself seriously. You are going to make mistakes, and if you are insecure and defensive, students will react badly. Be ready to admit when you’re wrong and laugh at yourself.
  2. Be authentic, but not too authentic. Teenagers will sense if you are pretending to be something you’re not, and they will poke and prod until they get the real you. But being authentic doesn’t mean telling them your relationship woes or health issues. Beware TMI.
  3. Make your work life manageable. Don’t assign essays every week – you won’t be able to grade them all. Don’t give yourself more homework than you can handle.
  4. Prioritize planning. If you put in time on the front end, developing engaging lessons that will keep students on task, you’ll spend a lot less time on discipline and rule enforcement on the back end. Besides, planning is much more fun than running detention.
  5. Don’t make excuses. It’s true – some students are very difficult to reach. But the majority will work when they feel connected and valued. Ask some recent graduates, and they’ll tell you their behavior varied from class to class, depending on the teacher. You matter.
  6. Stick to your principles. If you are working in a school that requires you to do something you think is wrong — like drilling kids on vocabulary all day when they could be reading literature — find a way to stand your ground, or find a school that better fits your philosophy. The quickest road to burnout is doing work you don’t believe in.

Good luck with the new school year, and may there be many more to come…