As we head into a new school year, I was trying to think of what I would want to tell myself as a first year teacher. Here's what I came up with:
Congratulations! You are joining a fantastic group of professionals dedicated to making the world a better place. Now that you are staring down your first set of class rosters, you might think that you are in no way prepared for any of this. Here are some basics to help you start your year smoothly:
Tip #1: Be Professional
I firmly believe that if we as a profession want to be treated as professionals that we need to dress and act like them at all times. Wear nice shoes and make sure that your outfit is at least business casual. Show up early to meetings. Be prepared for each day. Be proactive when a problem comes up: talk to the individuals involved and be ready to own up when you've made a mistake. The world will not come crumbling down if you admit that you answered a student question incorrectly yesterday. In fact, your students will most likely respect you more for being honest and demonstrating that it isn't a big deal to be wrong. After all, we are all learners.
Tip #2: Know the RulesFaculty Handbook
Your school should have what is essentially a rule book, called a faculty handbook. If you haven't been given one, either request a hard copy from your supervisor or find out where you can read it online. The handbook should cover expectations for everything from hours on campus to parent communication to student expectations. Look through it and make sure to ask any questions that you have. By signing your contract you've agreed to follow these rules, so make sure you know what is expected of you.
This one is a biggie, especially for new teachers. Your faculty handbook may be very detailed or it may simply state that teachers should dress appropriately for their assignment. Either way, check out how the teachers around you are dressing for clues about the school's expectations. As a new teacher, I especially recommend that you pay attention to how your supervisor (probably the principal or assistant principal) is dressing. If they dress more formally, then you should too.
You will most likely be on your feet all day, so invest in a comfortable but nice looking pair of shoes. Remember that you will be bending over to help students with their work, so make sure you can do this in any blouse that you wear. Invest in a few thin camisoles that you can use for layering.
If you have a casual day during the week, I recommend investing in a good pair of dark jeans and taking care of them. They will make a more casual top look professional. A school polo or t-shirt is also a great idea for casual days. Again, make sure to watch your boss for clues on exactly how casual is acceptable.
Like the dress code, guidelines for interactions with students inside and outside the classroom may or may not be spelled out in detail. Hugging, high fives, and even handshakes can be regulated. If not, keep it professional.
Check to see what it says about working with students before/after school. Some schools forbid teachers to tutor their own students. At a minimum, issue them a written pass to cut down on any monkey business in the halls and make sure that the door to the classroom is propped open if you are working alone with a student.
If there is a social media policy, follow it. If not, you have to decide how much online contact you are willing to have with your students. I have a closed group on Facebook dedicated to my students where I am the moderator (meaning I approve comments and can kick out anyone who's inappropriate), a Remind account to send phone number free text messages to families, and a website. I am experimenting with the idea of having a private Instagram account for families next year to share classroom photos. An important note: all of this is separate from what I do here, which I consider to be personal, not professional.
Tip #3: SupportFind a Mentor
Your district or school may assign you a teacher mentor as a new teacher. If not, find one IMMEDIATELY. Ask someone with a classroom nearby if you can stop in and ask them questions occasionally. It's nice if they teach the same grade/subject as you do, but it can be any teacher who seems to have it together.
Find a Way to Relax
My ways are blogging, walking my dogs, working out, and, when all else fails, baking. Pick one or two things that make you genuinely happy and do them at least once a week. Teaching is an intense job and its easy to feel like taking time for yourself is selfish. It is the exact opposite. If you don't recharge your own battery and get burned out, it will impact your students, your work, and everyone around you.
Tip #4: Get Involved at SchoolGet to Know Your Students
Here is one of my best tricks for getting to know students: on the first day of school, I ask them to fill out a note card with personal information. Some of it is standard, like their address, but I also ask them about themselves. ("What else would you like me to know about you?") Even in middle school, a surprising number of students will be heart-breakingly honest. I have to sort through a fair number of banal comments like, "I like grapes," I also find out about difficult home situations, fears, anxieties, learning disabilities, bullies, and other conflicts.
But don't stop there! The information is only so useful if you throw your cards in a box and never look at them again. Pick two kids a week and TALK to them about what they shared. Ask about that baby brother or Google their favorite TV show so you can discuss it. (Do be discrete if it's something very personal. "So what did you think of last night's Walking Dead?" is a very different conversation than "Are you able to get your homework done while watching nine brothers and sisters?")
Students really do notice which teachers are at their games and concerts. You certainly don't have to attend every event (which may not be possible anyway depending on your schedule outside of work), but if you have a large number of students participating in an activity, you should try to hit ONE game, concert, or performance.
Tip #5: Get Involved in the CommunityPolitics
Although it shouldn't be, teaching is becoming an increasingly political activity. If you've never followed politics before and always forget to vote, now is the time to get involved! What are your local, state, and federal representatives doing to support education? Do you agree with their positions on school funding? If not, DO something. Write a letter to the editor or to their office. Start a petition or sign an existing one. Stand up and be counted. Teachers are dedicated professionals who deserve to be treated with respect and there is far to much demeaning of us and our work going on in politics.
Consider volunteering at a soup kitchen once a week, building houses for the homeless, or helping in a shelter. Regardless of how affluent or impoverished your school is, there are going to be students dealing with difficult situations and seeing some of that up close will make you a more empathetic teacher and a better person.
More tips coming next week! Make sure to let me know what you think in the comments below.