New Teacher Advocate — KDP New Teacher Advocate Summer 2016
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Advice From First-Year Teachers: Just Breathe
Cheryl McCarthy


I always wonder how my former students are faring during their first year of teaching. So, I decided to reconnect with former students—first- year special education and general education teachers—through a survey about their experiences. Ten teachers responded and I interviewed several of them. Although all of them were dually certified in Exceptional Student Education and Elementary Education, six teachers taught in general elementary classrooms. Interestingly, most rated their first year of teaching as either excellent or above average. None of them rated their first year as unsatisfactory or below average. They also felt moderately to extremely supported during the course of the school year.

I asked them what they wished they had known or what they would tell a first-year teacher. Here are some suggestions from new teachers on how to survive the first year.

• Hoard like crazy! Many teachers who said that teaching was a challenge also said that they didn’t have adequate materials. Their advice was to not expect your principal to hand over a blank check for you to buy classroom supplies and materials. Elizabeth said she was given $300 for supplies for the entire year. She bought nearly everything with her own money. Start buying and collecting materials now. You don’t have to purchase everything new. Go to garage sales and purchase board games, mats, toys, costumes, lamps, and other gently used items. Kayla went to book sales at the local library and filled a paper bag with books for $3, then leveled each book for her classroom library using Go to Craigslist and thrift stores to look for old cabinets and shelves. A little bit of sanding and spray paint can make them look fresh.

• Do what you can when you can. During your first few weeks, you will be inundated with faculty and department meetings, parent conferences, emails, and paperwork. Have the small things finished before the first day. Decorate and plan well before the students arrive. Design your classroom jobs and set up your seating arrangement, grading policies and gradebook, classroom schedule, rules, bulletin boards, letters to parents and students, and charts for academic progress.

Many teachers stressed the importance of setting up rituals and routines in the first few weeks to establish the tone for the rest of the year. Have a solid classroom management plan and stick to it because you may very well have students with behavioral challenges. You will take a lot of work home, especially in the beginning. Learn your limitations and pull back when needed.

• Adjust and adapt. Your expectations may not match the realities that you face the first year. Education is always changing, so keep an open mind. Adapt to your new teaching environment and seek support. Ask to observe the strongest teachers in instruction and classroom management. First-year teacher Kimberly said:

Don’t be afraid to always want to learn and understand more about every teaching aspect, not just about the position you are in. Find a good support system at school. Teachers are willing to help and share what they have and what they know. Ask questions.

• Be prepared for the vast amount of testing and data collection. One new teacher said that she could get her students much further if she didn’t have to do so much testing. She indicated, “I can’t do anything about it. I’m almost two weeks behind in instruction just from doing assessments last week.” Invite parent volunteers who can commit to being in your classroom on a regular basis and have them work with small groups or do some individualized testing, while you do large group instruction or assess individual students. It will be especially difficult to match testing in states with common core standards. Ask for the training that you will need and embrace the opportunity to learn new methods of instruction and assessment.

• Breathe! Take small steps, and do what you can for today. The first year is the hardest and it has the biggest learning curve. One new teacher used to worry and cry as she planned, but then realized that she needed to break down her planning into smaller bites and think about where she needed to go next—take the bigger picture and turn it into steps. Teaching is a hands-on learning experience for which internship and practicums cannot prepare you. Another new teacher said:

You have to just do it to learn it. There is no better preparation for the first year than firsthand experience. Many things are learned from professors in a classroom, but to truly gain that with-it-ness, real-life experiences are the most helpful.

My personal favorite piece of advice was: “Remember that you are human, and always do what is best for your students. For some of them, the best thing that you can do is love them.”

Dr. McCarthy teaches in the Education Department at Flagler College in St. Augustine, Florida. Her areas of expertise are special education, instructional practices, and building creativity in classrooms.