Six things I wish I knew during my first year of teaching

The first year of teaching is an unforgettable time – joyful, stressful, tiring and about a million other things. I loved my first year of teaching. I saw my students make huge strides, and I was named Teacher of the Year at my school. That said, there’s a few things I wish I knew getting into it. As you get ready for your first (or second, or third, or fourth) year, here’s six things I wish someone had told me:

1. Don’t buy (or create) all the things.

You’ve visited at least five Targets, been to Lakeshore a few times, and have scoured yard sales to find books and furniture. I know because that was me two weeks before school started. By August, my living room was flooded with book bins and Target Dollar Spot activities that I thought I needed for my first year. My Teachers pay Teachers cart was full, and I recruited my husband to laminate everything for my classroom from task boxes to classroom posters.

I spent hours creating my own materials like all about me books, inspirational quote posters, and individual academic objectives posters for eight students for three intervention programs.

When the first day of school came around, I was exhausted and didn’t use the supplies that I bought and made that summer. The all about me books were never printed, the inspirational quotes weren’t right for my students, and I never updated the academic objectives posters after the first month of school. And those Target Dollar Spot activities I searched tirelessly for? They’re still unopened in a storage container. I wasted time and money on things I thought I needed before I knew my students’ needs, academic performance, and social-emotional needs.

I wish somebody would have told me that I didn’t need to buy all the cute things or create all of my materials before the first day of school. I’m not advocating that you do nothing to prepare for the beginning of the year, but I am advocating that you do the right things to prepare for your first day, month, and year of school.

Focus on creating and enforcing appropriate rules, routines, and procedures. Evaluate and commit to memory the Common Core State Standards, alternate standards, and your program’s curricular objectives. Prepare for your students by analyzing their Individualized Education Plans and gathering appropriate assessment tools. Focus on your specific students’ needs, make long-term plans using your curricular objectives, and provide opportunities to form meaningful, trusting relationships with your students—don’t buy all the things.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Asking for help is a sign of wisdom, not weakness. During your first year you will have a million questions, and that is OK. Nobody expects you to know it all—veteran teachers don’t even know it all! So if you have a question, ask it.

Seek answers from teachers at your school, administrators, social media communities, and Google.

Also, no teacher has it together all the time! Teaching isn’t a profession where you can “fake it until you make it.” Your students will see right through you and they deserve better. So whether you have a question about curriculum, how to set up math centers, or how to access your district’s online attendance system, ask the questions. You’ll be glad you did.

Feel free to ask me questions on Instagram and Twitter. My handle on both is @thespedcreative.

Find your tribe—the people you celebrate with, strategize with, and commiserate with.

Find your tribe—the people you celebrate with, strategize with, and commiserate with.

3. Find your tribe.

Teaching is stressful. Teaching is wonderful. Teaching is overwhelming. Teaching is (insert whatever phrase you want). In order to get through your first year of teaching, you will need to find your tribe – a group of teachers at your school you can rely on to support you, encourage you, and step inside your classroom to help you. For me, it was my host teacher and a team teacher. They were the women who heard my concerns, questions, and helped me navigate tough scenarios. They were the ones who weren’t afraid to step into my classroom to ask if I needed anything or offer me a moment to breathe.

What I wish I would have known is that it’s fine if you don’t hang out in the teacher’s lounge. I have heard horror stories from teachers about spaces at school that breed negativity, and you just don’t need that! You are a first year teacher and you have too many other things to worry about.

I wish I would have read this article about navigating school culture and finding a “marigold teacher” before I started my first year, so I am passing it onto you now. Find a colleague who will support you through the ups and downs of your first year and steer clear of those who will only bring you down.

4. Take days off.

It’s ok to take days off and self care is important. Repeat this phrase to yourself so it really sinks in. You can’t take care of your students unless you take care of yourself. Self care is not selfish. Using your sick and vacation days for their intended purpose is not selfish. Now re-read this paragraph so it really sinks in.

During my first year I had perfect attendance until November 2, and I took pride in that fact. So much so that when I suffered from my first retinal migraine and couldn’t see at work, I didn’t want to leave. It took multiple staff members and my husband to tell me that something was really wrong and I needed to leave school.

Fast forward to March and I still hadn’t learned that taking a day off is OK. I had a rash all over my body and my doctor thought I was having a severe allergic reaction. So I got a blood test before work and passed out during the appointment. After some peanut butter crackers and grape juice, I felt good enough to go to work. When I got there, I was not physically or emotionally at my best. My special education coordinator recognized this and kindly told me to go home. Immediately.

I tell you these embarrassing stories because I want to drive home the fact that self care isn’t selfish. Taking a day off is not selfish. Go get your nails done, go on a run, have a reset day. Trust me, take care of yourself and you will be a better teacher because of it.

5. It’s OK to do things differently.

As a first year teacher you are starting your legacy with your first class, but you’re also taking over a position that was another’s before you. This teacher taught using their own style, interacted with grade-level teammates in a certain way, and had expectations of aides that you now teach with.

I wish someone told me that it’s OK to do things differently than the previous teacher. I taught students with set behavior plans in a classroom with two established aides my first year. I stressed myself out trying to learn pre-existing behavior plans without even observing the behaviors myself! Multiple people told me that the behavior plans would be necessary the first day, but guess what: they weren’t. I got so caught up in doing things the old way that I didn’t consider that my students might have changed over summer.

I can’t tell you how many times my actions as a first year teacher were compared to the actions of the previous teacher – in both positive ways and negative ways. I wish somebody had told me that I don’t need to feel guilty for doing things differently. Students change and grow, and not every teacher has the same teaching style. It is ok to be different and to try new things because it’s how you learn and grow.

6. Be yourself.

Finally, don’t compare yourself to everyone else on social media. Social media is an amazing way to connect to educators and get ideas for your teaching practice, but it is often a highlight reel of teaching. The low points rarely make it on there. So save yourself some stress, and don’t compare yourself. Do things differently because you are doing what is best for your students.