A wise man said, “Being a new teacher is like trying to build an airplane while flying it”.
He’s not wrong: if you’re about to start your first year of teaching, you are in for an incredibly rewarding, challenging, and eye-opening year. (It’s going to be great!)
To help you prepare for the year ahead – if that’s a thing – we asked experienced teachers what they wish they’d been told when they were starting out.
Here’s what they had to say.
10 things experienced teachers want new teachers to know (to have an extraordinary year)
1. Prioritise routines and behaviour management
You’ve seen behaviour management strategies and routines used in classrooms throughout your training, now it’s time to decide what it will look like in your own classroom.
Know exactly what you want from your students, and communicate your expectations with them. As Gayle pointed out to us, “Start with behaviours and routines, because ‘if you can’t control them, you can’t teach them!’”
“Lay down the law from day one,” Rachel told us. “That doesn’t mean being a hard-ass, just set clear expectations and follow through from minute one, day one of the year.”
2. Build healthy relationships with your students
Take an interest in your students and make time to talk to them about their lives and about what matters to them.
Why? Your relationship with each student will help everything else fall into place. By connecting with them, you’ll be better placed to teach them.
Sometimes that will mean tending to their emotions first. “If kids are feeling bad (sad, angry, depressed, anxious), they do not have the emotional and intellectual space to learn,” said Sue. “There is more than a little truth in the words: ‘People may not remember exactly what you did, or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.’”
3. Ask questions
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ever.
A number of teachers emphasised that they wish they’d asked more questions when they were just starting out. “No question is a silly question,” stressed Janet. “Ask if you are not sure!”
4. Focus on one thing at a time
Feeling overwhelmed by how much you have to do? Don’t!
Many teachers we talked to suggested focusing on mastering one curriculum area at a time. Once you’ve got the hang of one part of your programme, you can move on to another.
“Get your maths up and running the first few weeks, then sort your reading groups (or vice versa),” advised Shula. “It’s never-ending how much we could do for our students, but focus on what you are doing and do it well!”
Remember, you’re still learning!
5. Teach the students in front of you
It’s pretty easy to “over teach” the curriculum, as one teacher put it.
Don’t stress too much about aligning yourself to the curriculum – focus on what your class actually needs to learn.
Ask yourself, what do they know? What don’t they know? How are you going to help them learn what they need to know?
By looking at each child in your class, you’ll find you’re on the right track with the curriculum anyway!
6. Don’t work weekends
Enjoy your students, and the privilege of working with them – but know that you don’t have to work crazy hours, or give up your days off!
Many teachers suggested putting some rules in place to maintain a healthy work/life balance. That might mean setting specific hours, or being strategic about your planning.
Bernadette encouraged new teachers to make it a 7.30am to 5.30pm job, while Jocelyn recommended planning “lessons Wednesday to Wednesday or Thursday to Thursday (rather than Monday to Friday), then ‘most’ of your weekend will be free of planning”.
After all, said Philippa, “Your down time is very valuable and actually makes you a better teacher.”
7. Get to know the support staff
“Build a good relationship with ancillary staff, especially the caretaker and office manager!” Sue told us.
She’s got a good point – they’re the ones who take care of the day-to-day running of the school. They know the inner workings of the school, and can be unbelievably helpful.
Get to know them!
8. Expect the unexpected
When you’re suddenly responsible for 30-ish children, it’s important to know that anything and everything can (and probably will) happen.
Peggy’s first year of teaching involved having to move classroom (so hers could be turned into a new library), broken bones, fighting, biting (“all in a day’s work”), planning a wedding, and a miscellany of other events.
Moral of the story: sometimes you have to go with the flow; other times you need to be able to think on the run – you’ll need to be adaptable and flexible!
9. Look after yourself
In your first year of teaching, your immune system isn’t going to know what’s hit it. Don’t be afraid to take time off to get better, because, as Sue pointed out, “If you push yourself to go to school, you’ll need more time off. A sick teacher is no good to anyone... yourself or your class!”
Best way to look after yourself? Follow Jeanine’s advice: “Sleep well, do light exercise that makes you happy, and eat sensibly.”
Looking after yourself includes going easy on yourself, too. (Your mental health is as important as your physical!)
“Try not to overthink everything,” Julz cautioned.
Charlie agreed, “In your first year, you're going to want to try and do everything – but no matter how much work you do, you just won't get it all done. Go easy on yourself when something doesn't work, there's always time to change and make it better.”
10. Have fun and be yourself!
Have fun inside and outside of the classroom – humour is your greatest weapon.
Enjoy your relationships with your students, and enjoy your relationships with your colleagues. Celebrate the wins with them both (even the small ones).
In the wonderful words of Gayle, “Be authentically you. Use integrity, do your best, and go well.”