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First things first: Congratulations on your new teaching job. This is a big deal, an opportunity to make a significant difference for students whose year has been a bit unstable up to this point.
A panic has probably set in. You won’t have the time other teachers normally get to prepare their classrooms, set up procedures, and plan good lessons. You’re jumping onto a fast-moving train, and it won’t stop until the year is over.
I started my first teaching job in January of 1996. The previous teacher – a first-timer herself – had decided teaching was not for her. And when I learned more about my schedule, I could see she had her reasons: Three periods of sixth graders and one period of eighth graders, each one held in a different teacher’s room during their planning period. I didn’t have my own classroom; just a cart I wheeled from room to room and a small desk in the corner of a supply room.
I have definitely been where you are. So here’s my advice to help you navigate the rest of the year with your sanity – and your desire to teach – fully intact.
Step 1: Start with the right mindset.
As you rush through these first few months, having a healthy mindset will help you prioritize, work effectively, and deal with the inevitable setbacks that will come with this position.
Set the bar low.
Trust me, the people in your building are thrilled to have a living, breathing human filling the vacancy left by your predecessor. The fact that you’re here means administrators don’t have to spend more time interviewing, other teachers don’t have to cover your class, and students don’t have to suffer the unpredictability of a long series of subs. Unless you’re a complete train wreck or the school is staffed with exceptionally unreasonable people, your administrators and colleagues will be happy with you as long as you do two things: (1) maintain reasonable order in your classroom, and (2) cover the basic curriculum.
So cut yourself a lot of slack. Remind yourself every single day that what you’re shooting for is good enough. Expect things to go wrong, and when they do, address them with those two basic goals in mind: reasonable order, basic curriculum. This is not the year to master differentiation. This is not the year to excel with technology. This is NOT the year to design a gorgeous classroom. Teach your students something worthwhile every day and make sure they don’t hurt each other, and that will be enough for now.
But pay attention to the ways you can improve. Right away, set up a “next year” file, where you can deposit notes and ideas on the things you want to do next year. These ideas can range from small decorative things you notice in other teacher’s classrooms to instructional strategies you want to try. You won’t have time to implement most of them this year, but keep track of them for later.
Ask for help.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make as a new teacher is to pretend you’ve got everything under control. Your colleagues are a rich source of information and they want to help you, but most won’t give you more than a quick “Let me know if you need anything.” They’re busy. Or they’re shy. Or they don’t want to make you feel incompetent by being overly hand-holdy. It’s up to you to seek out the help, to ask lots of questions, and tell someone when you’re struggling.
So when the teacher across the hall pops her head into your room and asks how things are going, do NOT say fine. It’s not fine, and you know it. This doesn’t make you defective. It makes you normal. So ask the questions. Keep a sheet of paper on your desk or folded inside your pocket, and all day long be writing down the questions you need answers to.
Then ask them. And if the answer doesn’t make sense or the person you ask isn’t particularly helpful, ask someone else and avoid that person from now on. Don’t worry about being annoying. You’re new. You’re supposed to be a little needy right now.
Because you’re showing up mid-year, people will forget to tell you things that would normally be included when orienting new staff, so just when you think you’ve got things under control, something will change.
Like this: On your third day of teaching, someone may show up at your door to pull a student for special services. Apparently, this happens every Thursday, but no one told you.
Or this: Right when you’ve gotten your students started on a great new activity, you hear a commotion in the hall — everyone’s on their way to the monthly pep rally! Except you had no idea there was a pep rally, because no one told you.
Don’t take these oversights personally or get overly rattled by the unexpected disruption. It’s impossible for everyone to remember to tell you everything, and you can’t ask about something if you’re not even aware of its existence. Get into the habit of shrugging stuff like this off. Without that ability, you’ll find yourself looking for a new job before the year is over.
Step 2: Do some reconnaissance.
You have a LOT to learn in a short period of time about your school and what your students have accomplished already this year. Here’s a list of the things you’ll need to learn in the first few days. [For a more complete list that you can cover at a more leisurely pace, download our New Teacher Checklist.]
- Your daily schedule
- The procedure for taking and reporting attendance
- Where to go to the bathroom and when
- Where you can find basic classroom supplies, and how to order more
- Lunch options and procedures, both for your students and yourself
- School rules: Read the school rules and discipline plan, then ask another teacher to tell you what they think are the most important things to know about it. Then have the same conversation with a different teacher. If the two teachers’ interpretations of the discipline plan differ, go to your administrator and do one more final check. Although the discipline plan appears to be in black and white, every school has its own way of interpreting their plan.
- Where to make copies and what the protocol is: Do people generally allow you to ‘cut’ into longer projects to make single copies? Where do people put anonymous left-behind papers?
- Emergency procedures: Find out what the plan is for fire drills, lock-downs, and severe weather situations.
- Library information, both for your students and yourself
- Get a copy of the standards and curriculum that apply to your assigned position.
- Figure out where your students are and what has already been accomplished that year. If the former teacher isn’t available to tell you, your next best source of information is another teacher who teaches the same thing, or something close to it. If no one knows, ask the students.
- If necessary, create a basic pre-assessment to see what the students know.
- Depending on how complicated or messy the situation is, you may just have to pick something and go with it.
Step 3: Do a bare-minimum classroom setup.
You could drive yourself crazy trying to get your classroom perfect for your first day. Baby, it’s just not going to happen. You have more important things to do right now. So just make sure you have these things in place:
- A spot on the board for you to write the date, the day’s agenda, and any homework that you’ll assign. Try to keep this place consistent all year, so students get into the habit of looking there for that information.
- A place for students to hand in papers.
- Some basic supplies — something to write on the board with (whatever kind of board it is), a pen and scratch paper for you to take notes to yourself, extra pencils and paper for students who don’t have supplies, and a box of tissues.
- Textbooks, workbooks, or other curricular materials necessary for getting work done.
- A basic familiarity with how your classroom technology works: How to turn on and perform basic functions with the classroom projector, document cameras, interactive white board, and student computers (if any).
Step 4: Establish classroom rules, consequences, and procedures.
In the first few days, it’s essential that you establish rules, consequences, and procedures. Because time is scarce, your goal right now should be to get something in place that works, even if it’s not perfect.
If the former teacher already has a system in place that you can live with, go with that. Ideally, learn these procedures from the teacher personally. Or have the students show you. Even if you think you’d probably do it differently, if the system in place works okay, just go with it for now.
If the former teacher’s plan is not an option, your second choice would be to find another teacher in the building whose system you like well enough and just copy what they do. Be transparent about this with the teacher and your students: Just tell them you’re going to use Ms. ______’s system for now and maybe you’ll adjust it later on.
If no other teacher’s plan is available or you’re being thrust into the classroom at the last minute, use this as a basic structure:
(some of these are adapted from Whole Brain Teaching):
- Follow directions quickly.
- Raise your hand for permission to speak.
- Raise your hand for permission to leave your seat.
- Keep your hands and feet to yourself.
- Treat each other and our classroom with respect.
(this is pretty old-school, but it worked for me)
- 1st: verbal warning
- 2nd: name on board
- Check by name: Teacher’s choice of consequence (separation from class, sentence writing, parent phone call, etc.)
- Have something quiet for students to do the minute they walk in the door: a warm-up, bell-ringer, or a journal activity.
- Have the day’s objectives written clearly in a place where all students can see.
- Have students write down the daily agenda and homework as soon as they arrive and set up a system for checking that they’ve done it.
- Explain what students need to do if they need to sharpen their pencil, go to the bathroom, ask for help, or turn in papers.
Step 5: Build relationships.
Although this is listed as the last step, it’s one of the most important. Building relationships with students, co-workers, and parents is the key to making your work more satisfying.
Make building relationships with your students a top priority. Getting to know your students is the foundation for more effective classroom management, more personalized instruction, and greater student achievement.
One way to build relationships quickly is to give students a “getting to know you” survey or questionnaire. If you don’t already have one, take a look at my Student Inventories. And once you’ve collected information on student interests, home life, learning preferences, and other facts, keep track of it all using something like my Deep Data at a Glance chart, so you can access the information quickly and determine which students you need to spend more time with.
If your administrator isn’t on board with this priority and wants you to devote most of your time covering the curriculum, you might share this list of Influences and their Effect Size on Student Achievement, from John Hattie’s 2008 meta-study Visible Learning. Out of 138 different factors influencing student achievement, the teacher-student relationship was near the top, showing a greater impact than time on task, cooperative learning, and socioeconomic status. A strong relationship with your students will pay off over the course of the year, so invest some time now in getting to know them, and helping them get to know you.
Faculty and Staff
While you’re at it, spend some time getting to know your colleagues as well. Start by finding one or two positive, supportive teachers who seem to really love their jobs (around here, we call these people Marigolds), and spend most of your time with them.
Other key staff members to get friendly with are the school secretary, the librarian, the cafeteria staff, the technology coordinator, the guidance counselors, and the custodial staff. You’re going to have lots of questions for all of these people, so be sure to get off on the right foot by introducing yourself before problems arise.
Meanwhile, be friendly with everyone else. Your new position is kind of an extended job interview, and if you prove yourself to be competent in the remainder of this year, your chances of getting re-hired the following fall are much greater.
Here’s a little trick to make all of this easier: Borrow a copy of last year’s yearbook, and make sure you can keep it for a couple of months. This will be an invaluable resource for matching faces to names — for faculty and staff and for students, if they attended your school last year.
Parents are going to be curious about you, and most will be concerned about the disruption to their child’s education that this change has created. As soon as possible, send home a detailed letter, including:
- Your background: education, experience, where you’re from
- Your philosophy of teaching
- Some personal information: a photo of yourself, information about family, pets, hobbies, favorite TV shows, movies, food…help them get to know you as a person.
- Your contact information: email, phone number
- What you need from them: Let them know you are open to feedback and are available for conferences when they request them.
Before you send the letter home, ask your administrator to approve it. Do this for two reasons: One, it will ensure that your letter doesn’t contain anything your administrator wouldn’t want you sending out; as a new teacher, you may not know exactly where the line is. And two, the initiative will really impress your administrator; since your future in this school may not be secure, you need to shine a spotlight on the good things you’re doing.
Once you’ve been teaching for about a month, send home another letter to let parents know how things are going, what changes you have made, and what’s coming up.
Two Final Tips
Don’t engage in negative conversations about your predecessor. If students or co-workers want to share information, go ahead and listen, but it’s unprofessional to position yourself as the new and improved one in contrast to the one who left. It’s not great karma. Just think about how you would want people to talk about you after you left a job, regardless of the situation.
If your students are just hog wild and you can’t get them under control, take a look at my video on using a notebook to tame an out-of-control class. Setting up a consistent system of rules, consequences and procedures is much better and longer-lasting than doing this, but in an emergency, the notebook strategy works pretty well.
Have You Been There?
Did you start your teaching career mid-year? If you have other advice to add, please contribute in the comments below. With our collective wisdom, we can help this new batch of teachers turn a less-than-ideal situation into a fantastic career opportunity. ♦