Thursday, June 30, 2016

How Did I Cope? (Tips for New Teachers)

Survival 101

To answer the title question (How Did I Cope?): I didn't really, not so well, anyway. I barely survived day to day that first year of teaching. But I made it! And eight years later, I'm still here, and I love every aspect of teaching. So there really are some tips I can offer to survive that horrid first year. (Does everyone have a horrid first year, or was it just me?)

1. Lean on Me: When you're not strong (which for me was every day), please lean on your mentors, your supervisor, your fellow teachers (especially the veterans), your campus office staff, and anyone else who's there. That doesn't mean complain to them -- no one likes a complainer -- but be willing to ask for help and to listen to their advice, because it's their help and advice that will get you through each day. They know what they're talking about because they've been where you are now. Learn from them, and don't forget to thank them from the bottom of your heart for supporting you.

2. Stand and Deliver: No matter how discouraged you get sometimes (which for me happened every day), remember why you are there -- for student achievement. Slap a smile on your face, stand up tall and deliver your lessons to the best of your ability. Those students need you. The old saying "Fake it til you make it" certainly applies here. Even when your beautifully planned lesson falls flat (which will happen often), smile and switch to Plan B. Even when you don't have a Plan B (which should never happen because you should always prepare for whatever may go wrong), smile and stand and deliver that one idea you've been toying with in the back of your mind. Kids love improv.

Being a middle school teacher is tough, but you really can do it!

3. The Paper Chase: Time is valuable in teaching, and there never seems to be enough of it. The last thing you want to do is spend all of your conference time at the copier. Work smarter, not harder (another cliche that applies here): Plan paper-free lessons as often as possible. Forgo the packets and opt for language arts board games or literacy stations -- something to get the kids moving around. Of course, that requires getting a handle on classroom management and procedures, but I can tell you from my own experience that when the students are moving around and doing something fun and engaging, they are less likely to act out. Some of my worst days (behavior-wise) occurred when the lesson I planned was too lecture-heavy and students had nothing to do but sit in rows and do paperwork. It takes a lot of trial and error to find what works for you, but don't ever be afraid to try new and different things.

One way to cut down on paper use in the classroom is to implement independent reading time on a regular basis. There are many activities you can incorporate that do not require endless copies. SSR has often been hotly debated, especially in the secondary classroom, where time is limited. If you agree that SSR is an invaluable necessity but need to convince others of that fact, take a look at my research on the subject by clicking on the picture. This presentation is for sale at my TPT store.

4. Fame: Don't get your name in the headlines or face on the news by blowing a gasket and doing something stupid. If you feel yourself losing your temper or losing control, allow yourself a breather. Call for help, send the student or two who cause the most trouble to your Best Teacher Friend's room for a while, or if all else fails, be honest with your students and tell them you need a time out. One of my mentor teachers told me that she once was in a horrible mood because of a previous class, and when she snapped at her students in her next class, she realized she needed to get real. She opened up to them, told them it's not their fault, and asked them to give her a moment to decompress. They generously obliged. Kids are very forgiving. Sometimes they forget that teachers are people too, so you just need to remind them.

You can also pamper yourself! Sometimes indulging in a little me-time is the perfect way to unwind and unload the stress of the day. A teacher friend of mine is also a Jamberry consultant. Click on the photo to go to her website.

5. Places in the Heart: There have been many teacher memes traveling around social media lately that are absolutely true. One of them says that kids who get enough love at home come to school to learn, and kids who don't, come to school to get love. Depending on where you teach, you may be likely to encounter the latter more often. In order to capture kids' minds, you must first capture their hearts. Get to know each of your students, connect with them, and find the best in them; even your most challenging students have something great about them that you can latch onto.

6. A Beautiful Mind: Once you've captured their hearts, be prepared to challenge their minds. You will hear a lot about differentiation, which is probably the most difficult aspect of teaching middle school. In any given class, you may have 30 students, and 12 of them need inclusion support, 6 of them are 504 for various reasons, 8 of them are GT, and 4 of them are ADHD but don't get services. Of those 30, at least 7 of them are major behavior problems, 3 of them are absent at least once a week, 4 of them have clinic orders for you to let them go to the bathroom whenever they ask (which is every day, at least once a class period), 3 of them have vision problems and have to sit in the front, 5 of them have conflicts with others in the class and can't sit near certain people, and 3 of them have to sit near the teacher. I could go on, but you get my drift. There are so many different needs in one class, and your job is to fulfill them all within the 50-to-90-minute class period while teaching all of the required content to reach all learning styles at all levels. It is exhausting, to say the least, so get help where you can. Seek out professional development on differentiation -- there are so many ways to differentiate, and you will likely find that it's easier than you thought it would be. Keep documentation of the things that you are doing (check out Pinterest for great ideas), and collaborate with your team during planning periods to make sure you have all of your bases covered.

7. The Notebook: Speaking of documentation ... Keep a notebook (any spiral will do, but you can also find great notebooks for specific purposes at teacher supply stores) for all of your documentation. You will need to document any time you call a parent, have a behavior issue, apply an academic intervention, have students with missing work, etc. Some teachers prefer digital documentation on spreadsheets and such, but I found it easier to carry a notebook around with me than to run over to my computer and open a file. But seriously, document everything. In time, you will find what organizational system for documentation works for you.

8. The Pursuit of Happyness: Teaching is hard. Really, really, really hard. And there will be times during that first year (and probably the second and third) that you wonder whether you really want to do it anymore. Don't allow yourself to burn out. It took me a while to learn this. My first year, I often stayed at school until 6 or 7 at night, trying to clean up and recover from the day and get things done for the next day. I worked at home all night and on weekends, catching up and trying to get ahead. Eventually I realized that I could let some things go. I started with baby steps, allowing myself one night a week to not work on school stuff. After a couple more years, I figured things out a bit more and stopped bringing work home. (You truly do not have to grade everything!) You have to give yourself time to be you, be with your family, relax, and have a life. Everything will work out. You will develop a system. You do not have to be a superhuman. Let yourself be happy -- during school and after school.

When I'm not thinking about school, I'm enjoying time with my sons and my English bulldog, Rex. And my husband (not pictured).

9. Groundhog Day: Part of keeping yourself happy is truly having fun with what you're doing every day. I am a big believer in the saying, "If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right." Some lessons are virtually impossible to make fun (it's so hard for me to get excited about Greek and Latin roots and affixes), but, good Lord, if you are bored to death by your own lesson, imagine how the students are going to feel. To avoid getting stuck in a boring, repetitive rut, use Pinterest to get ideas for adding some fire to your lessons. My favorite book for lesson planning is Teach Like a Pirate, by Dave Burgess. If you can find ways to inject passion and creativity into your lessons, you will have fun, your kids will be engaged, your lessons will be memorable and impactful for your students, and all of that will translate into a happier educator.

One way to engage students is by using interactive notebooks. You'd be surprised by how much middle school students love to color, cut, and paste. Click the photo above to link to my interactive notebook products on TPT.

10. Click: Finally, you must allow yourself to develop your own teaching style -- a style and method that clicks for you. Yes, you will learn from and take the advice of your mentors and veteran teachers, but you still need to trust your gut and go with what you're comfortable with. The biggest mistakes I ever made in the classroom (and, boy, were there some doozies) were made when I was trying to imitate the teaching/disciplining styles of others' that really didn't fit my personality or beliefs. It takes time, but trust your instincts and be your own teacher. In time, you will grow into the kind of teacher you want to be.

The most fun I ever had was last year when I transformed into Professor McGonnawrite to teach a week of Hogwrites School of Word Craft and Editing. Click on the picture to check out the weeklong unit I did that featured station rotations focusing on 7 traits of writing.

There is no denying that a teacher's first year is exhausting, emotional, and full of trial and error. But during that year, you will learn so much, and you will look back on it in a few years with nostalgia and glee. Until then, I hope my tips will help just a little bit. I will close by saying that, at first you may be afraid, even petrified, but I know you will survive (because if I did, anyone can)!


  1. Thanks for sharing all of your ideas! I love your enthusiasm for teaching and of course, your costume is great too!

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! I sure had fun with "Hogwrites," and the kids loved it too. Weeks later, they kept asking for Mrs. McGonnawrite to come back. :)