The Top Ten Things I Learned as a First Year Teacher


Top Ten Things I Learned in my First Year of Teaching

Though I am no longer in my “first year” of teaching, I still remember those “first year” lessons so well.  Here are my “Top 10” to encourage you whether you are in your first year, or your twenty-fifth year. You may respond, “Really?” or you may respond, “Don’t I know it!”
  1. Be Friendly, Not Familiar– this was the most important lesson I think I learned early in my teaching career. How did I learn it?  In the WORST possible way when a parent “called me out”. And she SHOULD have. Thanks to her I learned a valuable lesson that will last me all of my teaching career.  I had made ignorant assumptions, shared information about her and her family (that I thought was public) to another parent, and word got around. Oh my! I loved these parents, and I loved their kids. I would in no way, ever, gossip about them. Yet, that is exactly what I did. I needed that “slap” on the hand. She wasn’t gentle about it, but she was gracious and immediately forgiving. I thank God for her and this lesson every day!  When I say, be friendly, I mean it. It’s okay to be friends with your parents, but you must also embrace the boundary that exists between parent and teacher. Be friends. Be friendly. But don’t assume you are part of the family. You aren’t. Whatever your student’s family has going on is NONE of your business, even if they share it. You may have to hold on to information that makes you uncomfortable, but remember, it’s never your information to share with anyone. Of course you are a mandated reporter, so if you think something is going on that is harmful to your student, call CPS immediately.
  2. The TOP 2– Memorize this. TOP 2. TOP 2. TOP 2. I learned this valuable lesson from my first principal (thank goodness, she was a GREAT leader).  She would say to me, “Natalie, what are the top 2 things you need to take care of today?” I would tell her. And she would reply, “Do those 2 things and then go home.” Were there some things that did not get done? YES. Did my students learn and grow? YES. Did I do everything that year I wanted? NO. Did my students make progress on their IEP goals? YES. Did we make living math journals? NO. Did we learn math facts? YES. Did learning happen? YES. But did I do it all? NO. I had to learn to let go. Yes, there are a million fruitful, engaging and super FUN things I can do in my room. No, I can’t do a million of them. Nor can I do a hundred of them. Maybe, if I’m lucky, I’ll do 10 of them in a year. Wait, maybe 5. I mean, let’s be realistic! But you can be sure that I will meet every IEP timeline, document progress on every goal and make a deep, meaningful connection to each student every day. Well, most days. I mean, I am the weather system. On occasion I do have a cloudy day.
  3. Relationship Counts More than Anything 
    During my first year of teaching I began working on my masters degree. It was a little quick, granted, but I’m an “older” first year teacher and I wanted, and needed, to get it accomplished.  As a parent, I read a book titled, Parenting with Love and Logic.  Upon further research, I discovered the authors had also written books on teaching with love and logic. I applied their approaches to my room on day one. Granted, it has taken, and will continue to take time, for me to fully embrace shared responsiblity and mutual respect in the classroom, but I get better at it each year. My master’s thesis was about “The Power of One,” a principle I learned from the Love & Logic reading. That first year, every single day, I would make my rounds during morning work. I would get on each student’s level and shake their hand, look him/her in the eye and say, “Do you know what I notice about you?” and then I would share with them one very simple observation that was unrelated to performance. (Ie. I’ve noticed you like to play soccer at recess.) Pretty soon the students were telling me, “Mrs. Jager, do you know what I’ve noticed about you?” or they would say, “Mrs. Jager, could you notice today that I like math?”  I saw behavior, in-class effort, and turned-in homework statistics go UP. Then, I looped with my students the next year, and even a year later some were still saying to me, “Mrs. Jager, would you notice something about me today? I would really like that if you did.” My principal once shared with me that my “effect” with the kids is what she believed made me an effective teacher. That “effect” is birthed out of the relationship. I am the weather… my students want to be affected by our relationship. They look to me to be in their corner.
  4. Loose the Power Struggles-  That’s right. Give them up. Don’t go there. If your student comes in every day and slams the door, and you say, “Stop slamming the door,” then rest assured that everyday he will walk in and slam that door. Two options: ignore the slamming door. Your response to the slamming door only encourages him to keep slamming. But if you ignore, his power is gone. Or, option 2, give him a different direction. Instead of waiting to respond to the slammed door, tell him to slam it. When he walks in say, “Make sure you slam that door today.” In that way you are sharing the responsiblity and once empowered to slam the door, he will stop slamming.  You are not weak if you let your students perceive they are winning a power struggle. For some students, it might give them the sense of control they do not get at home.
  5. Feed Them-  One of the biggest reasons that students come in and do not get started on work first thing in the morning is that “effective filter.” The effective filter could be anything that is going on with them that day. Perhaps their parents fought the night before… maybe a family member is sick. Perhaps someone they care about has had to leave them. They might be concerned that there is no food in the house. Think about all the things that you go to work carrying in the back of your mind, the things that move to the front, the things that you are worried about. Your students have the same filter in place. One of the quickest ways to get a student engaged in learning is to literally feed them FOOD. Honestly, I’m not fond of being a cafeteria, and I’d love to just say, “Mom didn’t feed you? Oh well, guess you’ll eat tomorrow when you decide you don’t like to be hungry.”  It’s not that black and white. There may not be any food at home. There may not be food your student can access on her own. Often in the morning my son is just not hungry, but I hover and I coach and I say, “take a bite, please” until I see at least half of his breakfast is off the plate and in his tummy. But not all parents do that. If a student comes in hungry they are not prepared to learn. Instead of asking a student, “did you have breakfast” which could imply there is no food at home, I simply ask, “Are you hungry?” I put out a few coffee filters (they are cheap and recyclable) and add a cup of cheerios or chex cereal. Any student that is hungry can have a serving. Our cafeteria also gives away milk that goes untouched after served, so my classroom aides bring back 2 or 3 cartons of milk each day that I keep in my classroom refrigerator.  Student can quietly feed themselves at their desk while doing morning work.
  6. Always have Something for Students To Do- It actually took me two years to really put this into action.  There are some students who simply cannot be idle. You can’t just say to every child who finishes their work early, “Go get a book.” For some, a book is not engaging enough to keep their behavior managed. Put folders together with activities in them. Have both easy (coloring page) and challenging (word search or math problem worksheet) extra work ready to go. I have “File Folder” games set up and in brightly colored drawers.  My students all know if they finish before others they can go get a book, a file folder activity, or a worksheet. Some of my most challenging behaviors come from students that like to be busy. When they are idle is when the behaviors get challenging. Keep them challenged to keep the challenging behaviors at bay.
  7. Let Your Students “Motor”- My husband is a busy bee. He cannot be idle. He cannot sit and watch a movie. He’s just wired that way. Some of my students are just like him. For those students I have motoring activities ready to go.  I have a mini trampoline outside of my room. Students can grab the 3 minute sand timer and go right out the door at any time they feel they need to (using a “break card” to ask permission) and jump it out. Sometimes I have one student run down to the tree and back (yes, running in the hall, oh my! Our halls are “outdoor” but it’s still the hall.). I also have gallon milk jugs that are half-full of sand. I put a cute picture of a zebra on them. Some students want to take the jug to another room. That teacher and I set it up so that the milk jugs travel back and forth all day. If a student is having a tough time focusing or managing emotions I ask, “Do you want to take the Zebra jug to Room 7 for me?” The answer is always “yes!” And then sometime during the day, a student from Room 7 will deliver a Zebra jug to my room. Other motoring activities include: a Sit-n-Spin located in my hallway, watering the plants, an activity choice board where a student can choose jumping jacks, yoga moves, or taking the tardy slips to the office. This also eliminates the “time out” which is a term we do not use in our district. Rather than putting a child in “time out” I send a child on an errand. They feel useful and fulfilled and no one has had the humiliation of separation.  Not to mention, when a student changes her physical state, she also changes her emotional one. Sometimes it’s a subtle change, but even a subtle change is enough to get her back on track.
  8. Let your Students “Stand”- I have a standing area in the back of my room with a tall table (a music stand would also work but I do not have one of those).  If a student wants to stand during instruction, I allow him. Why bother with that power struggle? Not everyone can be seated for long or even short periods of time (my husband, for example). I, myself, struggle with this when I attend trainings. I like to stand and move around some during sessions. If a student asks appropriately, I allow them to stand at the table in the back. Power struggle is eliminated, their feelings and needs are managed and learning can continue.
  9.  Ignore, ignore, ignore Perhaps you may have heard the term ‘Praise the best, ignore the rest.’ For the most part this is true. Obviously, you are not going to ignore a chair flying past your head, but you can ignore the student that is humming and you can teach your students to ignore it also. This was such a hard lesson for me to learn, but what  happens if you don’t ignore bad behavior is that the behavior followed by  your reaction eventually becomes a classroom habit. Joey knows (not his real name) that the minute he starts vocalizing, Mrs. Smith (not her real name) is going to correct him. He then has successfully gotten her attention. And because he enjoys getting a reaction from people, he has met his own need of control. It’s horrible. IGNORE. Warning… once you start to ignore the behavior will escalate because Joey will then act our more to try to get you to respond. Keep him and the other people in your room safe, and ignore as best you can. Eventually he will give up. He will!
  10. Remind Yourself that you are Doing a GREAT Job! If you are teaching full-time, remind yourself that you are doing a great job. You are. No one else in the world can do what you do the way you do it. It is not trite to say that you are impacting students lives every sing day. You are. It’s not trite to say that you are making a difference. You are. It’s okay to feel a sense of accomplishment about that because it is true. And yes, you did earn it. You took the classes, added the certifications, took more classes, attended in-services, collaborated with colleagues, took more classes, cleared your credential, took the behavior classes, and added another credential.  You can teach people to read, for heaven’s sake. What you do is noble and worthy. Be proud of it!

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Renee Prueitt says:

    Excellent! Enjoyed reading it.

  2. Tree says:

    So true!!!! Every. Single. Word!

  3. talkinpinata says:

    Just stumbled on your blog. As a first year teacher about to begin my 3rd week of school I loved reading this. Number 2- I need to get better with. Not everything will get done, but I just keep telling myself that I am trying my best 🙂

    And the ignoring behaviors part made me smile too. I also have a hummer!

    1. Thanks for stopping by talkinpinata! I have a new phrase I have recently adopted, “What gets rewarded, gets repeated.” Memorize that and share it with your aides!

      Yes, the time management is the hardest part, I find. Teach kids, meet ALL IEP timeline requirements (if you are sped), report progress on time. The rest will work itself out.

      Blessings on your first year!

  4. ateacherschalkboard says:

    Your blog posts are so inspiring!

    1. Thank you! I’m so glad you visited!

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