I’ve told this story before, so I’ll give the abbreviated version for those of you who haven’t heard it: The first time I formally stood in front of a classroom was also the day I stepped off an eighteen-hour flight from Detroit to Taoyuan, Taiwan. Jet-lagged and armed with exactly two words of Mandarin in my back pocket, I rolled out of my airport cab and into “orientation” where I signed some paperwork and underwent a “training session” that concluded just in time for me to unlock my classroom for the twenty-four students I was responsible for teaching. I doubt this is the norm for most first-year teachers, but it was indeed my first experience as a teacher.
I learned a million things that year, but let me tell you, few of them came out of the textbooks I read as a student. Here are five things I wish I would have known before stepping foot into a classroom.
Burn. Don’t Burn Out: 5 Things I Wish I knew as a First-Year Teacher
Don’t fake it until you make it
Like many first-year teachers, I was proud. I didn’t want my colleagues to know that underneath my cool façade, I was green and trembling. Rather than asking for ideas and swapping lesson plans with the veterans, I spent hours inventing my own. This was not only exhausting, it was impractical.
Veteran teachers have been in the trenches for years. They have excellent lesson plans and activities; most of these teachers were more than happy to give them away. Ask and you shall receive. Stop trying to reinvent the wheel. Stop trying to fake it until you make it.
Get out of your own head and into a colleague’s classroom
I learned more in five minutes of observing my colleagues in action than I did in five years of school. OK, I might be exaggerating a little, but not much. Again, pride is the first-year teacher’s enemy. Get out of your head and into your colleagues’ classrooms as often as you can. You may only be able to spare five or ten minutes a day, but I promise you, a lot can be learned in that time.
Stay away from “the group”
The teacher’s lounge can be a haven, but it can also be a sponge for negativity and discontentment. As a new teacher, I wanted to assimilate; I wanted to be accepted by my colleagues, so I took lunch in the lounge. The only problem was that I chose to assimilate with “the group”—that is, a gang of teachers who did nothing but complain about their colleagues, students and administrators. They were a black hole and boy, did I get sucked into it.
Whatever you do, stay away from these groups at all cost.
Never use negative language to describe challenging behavior
This point pairs nicely with the preceding one. “The group” that befriended me in the lounge exerted a lot of energy talking about “badly behaved” students. I have a problem with this for a few reasons, but at the top of the list is the fact that language shapes the way we see the world. So when we use negative language to describe challenging behavior, we start to see students in a negative way.
The paperwork will burn you out—if you let it
My mentors and professors always cautioned me against trying to do “too much” when responding to student work. “Focus on two main things in the first draft,” one mentor told me. I didn’t listen—and I certainly paid for it.
You’re not going to believe how much of your job is tied up in paperwork and grading, especially if you are a composition teacher. One of the best things you can do for yourself is create a realistic grading schedule, stick to it, and for goodness’ sake, stop working harder than your students! If you know you can only grade 10-15 papers in a night, don’t bring home a stack of 50; this will stress you out and lead to exhaustion.