Don’t Panic: 5 Tips for First-Year Teachers

For students, the excitement and anxiety of a new school year soon fades away. But for new teachers, these emotions can last deep into the year.

new teachers need specific survival strategies.When you’re just starting out, teaching includes a significant amount of on-the-job training. These tips will help ensure you get the best out of your first year while avoiding burnout:

Buddy up with a veteran

Many schools pair new teachers with veteran teachers in mentorships. Make sure to take advantage of this priceless resource. The U.S. Department of Education suggests that such pairings can also help new faculty cope with issues like classroom management, administrative bureaucracy and lesson planning.

To save energy where possible, consider asking fellow faculty for help with curriculum design and lesson ideas. Investing time in a weekly or monthly meeting can have significant payoff in the long term, both for a new instructor and for a seasoned veteran.

Set small goals

It is tempting to try to change the world in a single set of lesson plans, but it’s important to begin with small and achievable goals as you adjust to the classroom. An achievable goal in the first year might be modifying and building upon existing lessons.

In their book “Understanding by Design,” Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe warn that a complete overhaul of every unit and lesson is an extraordinary task. They suggest instructors target individual units or assignments as they shift their teaching. Doing that also allows for student and peer review along the way.

New teachers who focus on small goals are more likely to finish their first year feeling successful but not overwhelmed.

Leave work at work

This sounds simple. It’s not. In fact, it’s a rule all teachers surely break.

But focusing on good time management and trying to commit to a habit of doing work at work and relaxing at home is a worthy goal. Joe Durham, founder of the website Time Management for Teachers, contends that learning to prioritize work results in better outcomes for students — a goal of every first-year teacher.

Journal successes and failures

Dedicating yourself to small goals means that radical changes in curriculum or lesson plans will come over time and through experience, rather than all at once. This means it’s good to take notes, either in a teaching journal or on lesson plans themselves.

Develop a habit of daily reflection noting successes and failures. Mike Powell, a veteran teacher dedicated to professional journaling, says this “will allow you to reflect on your professional practices and to witness what is probably going to be enormous personal growth.” From a practical standpoint, a journal allows you to note what works and what doesn’t as you develop future curriculum designs.

Narrow assignments and ease grading

Rather than packing student homework with too many questions, consider assigning different questions to each student or to a small group, and narrowing homework assignments to key questions.

It is important for students to reinforce their skills, but a shift in homework philosophy can lead to prioritizing and streamlining that pays off. Incorporating exit questions or other smaller assessments can help identify student issues without significant increases in grading or workload.

Most importantly, remember that the best teachers develop their styles and strategies over time. It can be overwhelming to witness a talented veteran teacher’s classroom and curriculum design. Remember that they, too, were once first-year teachers full of ideas and short on time.

The best educators have a long-term commitment to the craft and refine their skills each year. Learn from them as you develop your own style.

Monica Fuglei is a graduate of the University of Nebraska in Omaha and a current faculty member of Arapahoe Community College in Colorado, where she teaches composition and creative writing.

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