Every first-year teacher is familiar with the compassionate look from a seasoned coworker that says “I get it… I was there once too.” It truly is genuine compassion and understanding for the first-year (and let’s be honest, first years) of teaching.
During those first 9 months, what we hope to enjoy as a purpose filled, impactful profession can quickly turn into paperwork, late nights, behavior problems, complaining, and sleep deprivation. First year teachers everywhere have all felt the feelings of overwhelm and discouragement. You are not alone!
And yet, somehow, teachers make it 20 years down the road and look back on a career with that seemingly unattainable joy and purpose. How is this possible? What gets them there?
I would say that there are three things that can set you on the path to a satisfying and successful teaching career.
Embrace your style… all of it.
No, you probably don’t teach the same way that your teacher friend across the hall does or the same way that the veteran teacher on your team does. Your teaching style is uniquely you (and it should be!). So often teachers burn themselves out trying to do their job just like someone else they admire. Mentorship, asking for help, and getting ideas from other people is all well and good (and really is encouraged), but if you can’t confidently step into your own teaching
style, you will find yourself exhausted very quickly.
Take care of yourself. Embrace what works best for you. Set boundaries around what works for you and protect them. (It really is possible to be home in time for dinner and not spend your evening grading papers.)
Look to grow.
Know that the chaos of the first year is just that – the chaos of the first year. And when that year is done, you will never have to do it again. You walk into your next year of teaching just slightly more seasoned and slightly more prepared. You will not be stuck in your first year overwhelm forever. However, the key to making each year progressively better is to make sure you are intentional about your growth.
Teachers must reflect on their practice, analyze their performance, and make a plan for moving forward. This requires a little bit of intentionality and looking backwards to learn from what went well (and what definitely didn’t). Don’t beat yourself up for things that were less than what you hoped for. Use those botched days and derailed lesson plans as fuel to feed your fire. Learn from your list of successes and learn from your list of failures.
Find a mentor. Ask for help. Shed a few tears. Clean up your desk. Then, make it better.
Find joy in your students.
If our students are the reason we went into the teaching profession to begin with, then they are the ones that will focus our eyes and capture our hearts. Any job without passion behind it becomes a dead-end burden. Allow your students to keep you from drifting away from your purpose in this profession. Look for ways to laugh with them, imagine with them, and be inspired by them. Seek out moments of genuine connection.
A final thought...
It’s normal to sit down with yourself during the first year or two and think, “What else can I do with my teaching degree?” Don’t throw in the towel just yet – surround yourself with positive people, pick one or two things to be really good at for now, set boundaries, and take it all one day at a time.
Never be afraid to ask for help. Every teacher has had to endure a first year of teaching, both good and bad. Everyone in your building has at one point been in your shoes. Use this to your advantage. Sometimes all it needs to be is a listening ear. Or maybe, the solution to your problem is just a few doors down with tips for organizing, being prepared, etc.
Don’t let fear keep you from using the people around you as a support system. Remember, you aren’t required to know it all! Do the best that you can with what you have, and just know that it really does get better after the first year.
And – if the thought crosses your mind – don’t be afraid to try a different classroom setting or a new school if your current job is not supportive of you. It’s okay to switch things up and give other things a try!