Elyse has taught middle school for five years. She majored in middle grades education and minored in both English and psychology at UNCW.
Your first year teaching will be incredibly exciting, full of growth, and…emotionally taxing. As amazing and enlightening though your field experience undoubtedly was, when you are the lone adult in your very own classroom, you find there are more lessons to be learned than taught.
The following is a short list of some things to keep in mind when going in to your first year.
#1: Be Prepared
At the end of a long day, the last thing anyone wants to think about is what you’re going to teach next week—or even the next day! As much of a pain it can be, extreme preparation is key to save yourself the stress in the future. I was advised in my first year to never leave the school building until I had everything in place for the next day. This turned out to be an especial lifesaver on the mornings when I would unwittingly hit the snooze button one too many times. Scripting your classes can also go a long way in making your day go smoothly. Towards the beginning of the year as well as on days when I would expect to have a guest (observations anyone?) I would script absolutely everything, from the first minute of class to the last. Plan out how things should go, and have an alternate plan in case things don't go that way. Many a lesson has gone awry because the wifi came to school late that day.
#2: Don't Engage
Middle schoolers are—to use the slang—“savage.” There’s always going to be those particularly difficult children that will try to throw their instructor in exceedingly frustrating and creative ways. No matter what the behavior, however, absolutely nothing can be gained from engaging the student on their level. Repeat after me: we don’t argue with children. One wise teacher told me in my second year to utilize the word “regardless.” This term came into use the very next day, when one of my angrier students informed me that school was stupid. “Regardless,” I said, “we’re here now, so we may as well make the most of it and maybe learn something in the meantime.” The student in question had no immediate comeback and was a little thrown , which was, in itself, pretty satisfying.
#3: Model Mature Behavior
Some of your kids were raised in households that did not set the most positive example for behavior. That’s where you come in. When you are with your students, it is your burden to be the model citizen because, cooperative or not, every student you teach will be taking their behavior cues from you. Use your magic words (please, thank you and excuse me—in case you need a refresher), and speak to everyone with the utmost respect. Of course, that just sounds like the recipe for being a decent person when the reality is much more difficult than that. It will not be easy to model this perfection on a Tuesday at 8am, when three students are trying to ask you questions at the same time—and they’re all questions you had answered not five minutes before. This will not be easy when you are meeting with a parent who is modeling just where their child learned their behaviors. This will certainly not be easy during testing. Be professional; give your students the benefit and courtesy of your best example.
#4: Be the Authority
My first year teaching, I was the youngest teacher in my entire school, and it showed. I could take my badge off and completely disappear into a crowd of middle school students. In all honesty, I probably still could, but I’ve learned enough to know that it is important to not throw on that particular invisibility cloak. I introduced myself to my homeroom that first day of the first year and informed them that I had just graduated college and was a whopping 22 years old. The effect of that simple statement was palpable and profound. Several students immediately commented—dismissively, I might add—that they had siblings my exact age, or older. This connection, along with my stumbling first steps as an inexperienced teacher, compromised me as an authority figure. The next year, I told my kids I was 50. Obviously, I wasn’t. They were immediately disbelieving, but the message was sent: I am an adult. I kept up that charade through the end of the year, claiming I was born in 1965. I even made a point to research some cultural staples of the time period of my supposed youth. It seems silly, but it made an impact. Being an authority means being a believable adult in the classroom, of course, but it also means drawing a visible boundary between you and your students. This may be difficult, especially when kids today are cyber-sleuths and will dig up whatever social media accounts you have ever had in your life. Keep your stuff private and ideally keep any communication within a classroom setting. Being young, as many first year teachers are, means that you’re going to need to be more careful and expend more effort to be a clear person of authority. It will, however, pay off.
#5: Ask for Help
There may be a time when you are too stressed and too busy to even think about asking for help from the people around you. You may not want to bother your coworkers, and you may not even know what you need. You will know that whatever you’re doing isn’t working, and that something needs to change. Ask for help. It’s not failure; it’s normal, in fact. Ask your mentor to sit in on one of your classes and observe. It will be uncomfortable, but they will be able to pinpoint some potential problems and advise you on how to correct them. My amazing mentor even welcomed me into her own classroom on several occasions so that I could take notes, having long since forgotten what any classroom besides mine looked like in action. A classroom dynamic doesn’t heal itself miraculously, and teacher burnouts happen with alarming frequency. You owe it to yourself and your students to be the best teacher you can be; so don’t hesitate to reach out.
They tell you that teaching is hard, but rewarding. This is true. What is less widely recognized, however, is that teaching is a craft which you will hone each and every day. Read everything you can; listen to more experienced educators; reflect on every mistake and failure. Most importantly persevere, because you have the most important job in the world.
© 2017 Elyse Maupin-Thomas