The First Year: Lessons Learned

The first year of teaching is so exciting, but also very terrifying at the same time.

When asked to describe what my first year was like, I compare it to the feeling of drowning and barely getting a few gasps of air in between treading and taking on more water. It was so hard. However, no matter where you are in your journey of teaching - first year or 11th, I think there are things worth mentioning..dos and don'ts, if you will.

Make time to exercise
Yes, we all know that exercise is good for your body, but if you're a teacher this is so important? Why? After a long day or week, you need time to unwind, process what happened, and time to reflect on it. During my first year of teaching, I was in the midst of training for a marathon. Now, I understand that I'm a little nutty (most people I know only want to run only if someone or something is running after them), but this was such a blessing in disguise. Most days after school (unless I had a meeting or conferences), I would go running in my neighborhood. It was SO good to process. There were days I just wanted to cry (and sometimes did), but running offered me a healthy way of thinking through the day and getting my stresses out. A lot of times I'd also problem-solve much more effectively running than if I had just meditated (without exercise) or talked it out (aka vented or bored my hubby to death).

So you don't run, you don't have a gym membership, or the time? Well, if you have at least 10 minutes, then I highly recommend Fitnessblender.com. They have over 500 FREE (you read that right) workouts, and a series of paid workout regimens if you want something more structured. You can pretty much find any workout you're looking for in the timeframe you want. Seriously, they are amazing.

Treat the secretary, custodial staff, and lunch staff with the utmost respect
My mom, who taught for 20 years taught me this one a long time ago, and it is one of the best bits of advice I have ever received.

Support staff at schools don't get much of the spotlight, but they should. They are behind-the-scenes staff and they are the ones who keep the school running in tip-top shape. I don't care how grumpy or grouchy some of these people can be, shower them with kindness! Even if they don't respond (at first), or reply grumpily, take the high road and continue to shower them with respect, compliments, and just plain friendliness. If you do this, they will back you up no matter what and will always be there for you.

I don't know about you, but I absolutely love to bake! I actually get excited when I see our bananas going bad (the rare times they do), because it's banana bread baking time! Who doesn't love a home-baked treat every now and again..and just because?! If you have the time, consider baking some bread or other home baked treat and giving it to your secretary or cleaning staff at random. It means the world to them that you thought of them in a way other than helping you out or cleaning up after your kiddos.

OR..did someone in your class have a birthday and bring in treats to share? Usually there are cupcakes or cookies left over. Instead of gorging on them yourself, however tempting, leave them with a nice little note for the staff to let them know you were thinking about them, and saved the leftovers for them to have. Seriously, they love it.

While your cleaning staff is in your room after school, engage them in conversation. They are people,  just like you, and they have families, worries, joys, and things they'd love to share with you if you take the time to listen. I can't tell you how close I became with the cleaning staff at my school. I am still in touch with one of the ladies who didn't even clean my room! (She was assigned to a different area of the school). And you know what? She sends me the nicest encouraging notes every week, and usually when I'm needing a pick-me-up. So you never know, it could turn into a lifelong friendship.

We all deserve respect, but consider the support staff each and every day, because they have to clean up some of the nastiest messes without complaint; help field phone calls for you; help when you're suddenly very ill and you can't get a substitute on your own...and if you're sweet to them from the start, they will respect you, too, and truly help you in ways you didn't realize you'd need it.

Don't be afraid to ask for help
When you're new it's hard to know whom to go to for help. But just reach out to anyone and someone will be there to help you.

Need help organizing your room? With lesson planning? With modeling a new strategy with your class? Reach out to colleagues on your team (if you have one), or utilize specialists in your school (literacy specialist, math coach, counselor, etc) to help you. And don't be afraid to ask your principal. If it's your first year, or you're in a new school, the principal won't expect you to know everything. Remember that adage we learned years ago: "The only dumb question is the one not asked."

Get a mentor even if your district doesn't provide one
During my first couple years of teaching, our district provided mentors in a comprehensive program for us new teachers. It was outstanding. However, I realize that not every district offers mentoring programs such as this. Or..even if it does provide new teachers with mentors, many new teachers report that their mentor barely touched base with them all school year. So..if that's the case, find a mentor!

How does one go about this? Is there a teacher on your team or in your school that you admire? You kind of get to know teachers that teach well after you've attended a few meetings and gathered the culture of the school. If there's a teacher like that, ask if they might mentor you. Then follow-up with scheduling a time to talk with them, meet with them and to discuss best practices. If you have planning periods, try to observe your mentor teacher teaching. This really will help you to grow and develop as a first-year teacher.

Find your marigold
Okay, I didn't make this one up completely; a couple of months ago I found an amazing article about the importance of new teachers finding a positive, supportive colleague with whom to connect. These teachers are teachers you can ask questions (i.e. an email the principal sent out was confusing or vague); vent to (you have a completely unsupportive parent and you need advice); go to if you're having a rough day. The wonderful thing about "marigolds" is that they want you to be a better teacher and person. They don't drag you down and they don't get caught up in the negative school culture. They will help you thrive, enjoy your job, and reach your potential.

Sometimes marigolds are mentors, but sometimes they are just a special person with whom you connect at your school.

Take time to reflect
No teacher is perfect. I know it may surprise you with all the amazing teacher stuff you see on Pinterest, but let's be real. Every teacher has a lesson that flops. Or a day where the kiddos can't seem to settle down and work. Or several days with a problem student. That's life in the classroom. The important part is to reflect.

When we reflect, we become better. Reflecting on a lesson, a student, your day, your week can help you to think about what you didn't like about it or what the situation was, and how you can improve or try something new tomorrow.

How should you reflect? Whatever works for you - exercise (this worked wonders for me, as mentioned above), meditation, journaling, blogging, talking with a mentor or marigold teacher...any of these methods can be very helpful and healthy ways to reflect. Edutopia offers some other helpful ideas, too. In the end, you should have a fresh perspective and some ideas to try.

Don't give up
The first year is filled with so many challenges. You may feel like giving up sometimes. But don't do it. Keep trying. Keep doing your best everyday. Look at your kiddos in the eyes and know you are making a difference each day. Keep on keeping on!