Friday, February 1, 2013

A Letter to First-Year Teachers

It's a school day, so I feel like I should be helping someone out. It's what I do. But we have a snowday today, so instead of helping out students, I'm going to attempt to help out those first-year teachers out there by offering sage advice dunked in sarcasm sauce and topped with my favorite sentence enhancers.


Dear New Teacher,

You are wonderful. You are amazing. You are a saint. Thank you for what you do.

You won't hear those words enough, so I thought I'd start out with that.

My first year of teaching was pretty much horrendous. I think you can probably expect that. There were many things that were simply awful that were also out of my control, but I contributed to my own mess of a year. Let me share with you some of the things I did wrong, so you can learn from my mistakes.
  • I never bothered to ask for help. I was terrified that asking for help would be a sign of weakness, a show of incompetance. I didn't realize that doing something incorrectly was ultimately much worse than asking for help.
  • I did not manage my time wisely. I waited to make copies until right before I needed them, I spent my prep period doing projects that didn't need done until later rather than the things that should have been taken care of right away.
  • I gave way too much homework, more than I could ever keep up with for grading, because I thought that was what good teachers did.
  • I created all of my own PowerPoints, worksheets, tests, etc. because I didn't want to take "the easy way out." 
  • I was very intimidated by my coworkers (who I found out too late were wonderful, intelligent, friendly people) and I never felt confident enough to strike up a conversation. It didn't help that I was only twenty-two, I lived forty miles away, I wasn't married, and I still lived in my parents' basement. They were adults. I felt like a student eating lunch with them.
  • I didn't get nearly enough sleep.
  • I planned a wedding.
  • I never really sat down and planned my year long-term. I just planned day-by-day. BIG MISTAKE.
  • I didn't plan bell to bell.
  • I didn't develop a good relationship with my students in the classroom.
That's a lot of mistakes, and I'm sure there were plenty more. The good news is that all of these have pretty simple fixes, and you can avoid a lot of heartache by doing some pretty simple things. Allow me to offer some expletives-laden advice. (There are expletives because I am a potty mouth hugely passionate about this stuff.)
  • GOLDEN RULE OF TEACHING: ASK FOR HELP. This is not a job you can do on your own without going completely insane. Most teachers share a common personality trait in that they are happy to help people. It goes with the trade. Most of your coworkers will be happy to help you out (and you'll quickly discover the ones that don't want to help, in which case you should spit in their coffee and hide their mail). Find those experienced teachers and ask for help! They've got all kinds of neat little tricks up their cardigan sleeves for making your life in the classroom bearable, or maybe even pleasant.
  • Time-management, for the love of everything good and holy. Figure out your shit before you start it! Prioritize and get stuff done. Do everything you need to complete before tomorrow, and then you can do stuff that's more long-term. If you have to (and I do, so no shame) make a To-Do list and number the items by priority. Make your copies at least the day before, because I guarantee that the morning you need to make fifty copies of an exam and first period starts in ten minutes will be the morning that every asshole out there is making nine hundred copies of the parts of a flower worksheet, front and back. Either that or the copier will be broken. You know, all that Murphy's Law shit.
  • Bad teachers ignore their students needs and focus on their own. Mediocre teachers give busy work to meet their own needs that may or may not be what the student needs. Good teachers give a lot of homework in the hopes that en masse activities will meet the students' needs. Great teachers give just enough really good homework that will successfully meet the needs of both the student and the teacher. What this boils down to is that you don't have to give a ton of homework if the work you do give has a lot of value. It's all about quality instead of quantity.
  • It is okay to use other people's PowerPoints, worksheets, tests, and downloadable templates. :) Really, though, sharing is caring. This ties into Bullet #2. You simply don't have time to make every single thing out there! My personal rule is that I like to make things when I haven't found anything else that will satisfy. As a perfectionist, this kind of happens a lot, but I also know that I can satisfy my perfectionist needs by tweaking the work of others. Example: I downloaded a PowerPoint presentation about King Arthur from the interwebs. The PowerPoint had all of the information I hoped to convey, but it wasn't interactive enough to suit my taste. So instead of making a PowerPoint completely from scratch, I just added in a couple of slides with interactive questions and activities for my students. It took ten minutes.
  • I am not good at making friends. I'm not sure why, but I'm not. It is really important, though, that you attempt to develop some sort of a positive relationship with your coworkers. Teaching is lonely business, otherwise. If you aren't willing to sit at lunch with the science teachers, at least make friends within your department and talk about non-school stuff.
  • Sleep. Seriously. Get enough sleep, especially if you're a real bitch in the mornings like I am. I realized I was being really unfairly cranky towards my first period class and it was really because I just wasn't awake enough to deal with some of them. So, I started going to bed early and waking up earlier. Nowadays I'm up two hours before I have to be at work so I can take out the crankies on my yoga mat and on my morning coffee. I can't tell you the difference this has made in how my days go.
  • I would seriously try to avoid any other major life changes during your first year of teaching. Your first year of teaching will be its own enormously huge change. You really have no idea how much this will affect your life until your go home with whiteboard marker on your fingertips and tape on your pants and you smell like freshmen. (Side note: get pet Febreeze for your classroom, especially if you share students with the P.E. teacher.)
  • Plan your school year. I mean, the whole thing. Not necessarily every single day, but you should know exactly what unit is coming up next and you should know how you're going to do it. This year was the first time I ever did this and it is un-freakin'-believable how much easier my life is. I sat down with a school calendar and a list of all of the things I wanted to do this year, and I planned my year. Keep it flexible (give yourself at least three more days than you think you'll need for each unit to account for fire drills, snowdays, and hangovers) but try to stick with it. I already know that we will begin Shakespeare notes on Friday and we will have the Romeo and Juliet test right around March 1st. I feel powerful.
  • There's a saying out there along the lines of, "Idle hands make children do evil things like stick gum under the desktop and hit each other with rulers." Something like that. There's this cute little idea called "bell-to-bell planning" floating in the education world Kool-Aid right now, but it ain't no joke. I am a true-blue believer in bell ringers, teacher time, teacher-student time, student time, and exit slips. This is close-ish to a typical day, and dependent on the subject matter. My day really runs smoothly like this and we get a lot accomplished in a class period.
    • Minutes 1-10: Bell ringer activity and vocab card
    • Minutes 11-25: Teacher time (lectures and other such teacher-dominated teaching)
    • Minutes 26-40: Teacher-student time (guided practice activities)
    • Minutes 41-45: Student time (students get a headstart on homework, etc.)
    • Minutes 46-50: Exit slips or other such end-of-class assessments
  • Teacher-student relationship is critical in a smoothly operating classroom. I've written in the past about how I take pride in this nowadays. It wasn't the case my first year of teaching. I cannot stress enough the importance of getting to know your students. This is the motto I teach by: I don't teach English. I teach kids.
If you're still reading, you deserve a cookie or something because this is the longest letter ever. Go on. Get up a get a cookie. I'll wait.

I'm only a third year teacher, so I'm not saying you should necessarily take to heart everything I've said here (like spitting in coworkers' coffee... that's probably not a good plan... that will create animosity in the workplace). I do hope, however, that there is some merit to my words and maybe this will keep you from making many of the same mistakes I made my first year.

Teaching is a challenge, and it is a challenge that nothing will prepare you for, not even subbing or student teaching. When you are a teacher, for better or for worse, those kids are yours. Even the most stubborn, bull-headed, big-mouthed kid is yours and he trusts you to take care of his needs, both as a teacher and as a positive adult role model.

You will cry some days. You will want to pull your hair out. You will take a sick day for the sake of mental health. You will write bad words on a student's paper in a fury because twenty days into the Shakespeare unit they said Queen Elizabeth wrote the play Romeo and Juliet and then you'll have to white them out.


You will also laugh a lot. Kids are funny, whether they mean to be or not. I never realized how much I would laugh as a teacher. You will have really amazing days where your lesson goes perfectly. You will have good crying days because your non-reader finished the book you recommended and loved it. You will have a kid hug you one day, for seemingly no reason and it will be a kid that you would never in a million years have expected such a show of affection from. (Side note: I just ended that sentence with a preposition but I can't think of a better way to word it, so screw it. "Screw It" days will happen too.)

And best of all, you will have days where a kid or a parent thanks you for what you do. Last year there was a parent who brought me flowers because I stayed after school for an hour helping her son study for a test. This winter my drama club kids got me a dozen roses and presented them to me after our last show. Even that first year of teaching, when things were so bad, I had a group of wonderful drama club kids who made me a video telling me thank you for everything I had done for them. I still cry when I think about that video and those kids.

I wish you all of the luck in the world. I'm sending good vibes your way, I promise. Don't forget to wear your power heels or a tie to school the first day and be a real hardass, because it is so much easier to get nicer throughout the school year than to get tougher. Save every single picture, note, whatever from a student that makes you smile and hang it up near your desk so you can look at it on bad days. The bulletin board behind my desk is covered with student artwork, letters, and Christmas cards (still) because they are very uplifting on bad days.

Let me be the first to say that, even though I probably don't know you, and even though you may live very far away, and even though you may teach little runny-nosed kids (poor you), and even though you might teach a completely different subject or at a different kind of school, or in a different country, I am here to help you. All you have to do is ask.

And, because no blog post of mine would be complete without it, here is a funny GIF of a guy running from the police with a bucket on his head. I hope his teachers didn't blame themselves for this. There was obviously nothing they could do.