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How to Ace Your First Year of Teaching (Opinion)

When I began this essay in May, there were only 22 days left in the school year. Some were calling it the end of the year, but I called it 22 opportunities to grow as an educator.

Just kidding. I am not that teacher, and this is not that essay.

I am a teacher, though, and now I’ve finished my 10th year in an 8th grade classroom in the Philadelphia school district. Back in 2013, I completed my delightful-suburban student teaching and received a delightful-suburban wooden plaque that said “Student Teacher of the Year.” I was convinced I was the next big thing in education. I fantasized about my own TV show: a “Nanny 911”-style show, except with teaching, where I go into struggling classrooms and transform them into education showplaces.

Three months later, I started my actual career in Philadelphia. If I deserved an award, it would have been a yearbook superlative simply saying “worst.” Everything from my classroom culture to my instruction spiraled out of control my first few months, and the reality of having my own classroom in an underresourced community hit me hard. I crashed and burned because I thought I could waltz in from a suburban high school, where entire teams of seemingly well-rested staff members dedicated their resources to ensure every child attends college, and deliver that exact type of lecture-style instruction to 8th grade children in a school that didn’t even have enough desks.

But now it’s 10 years later, and I’m still here. I’ve turned it around and I want to help you do the same. I’ve worked closely with many student-teachers, graduate students in yearlong mentorship programs, and first-year teachers. All these teachers have used at least some of the practices I’m going to share, and I’ve personally witnessed shifts take place within a month.

Before we get to the good stuff, it must be stated that there’s no monolithic urban classroom. However, most schools that enroll predominantly children of color from low-income families struggle with the same core problem—a lack of adequate resources for students, families, teachers, administrators, and even the building you’ll be walking into. Behavior concerns and lower academic achievement are not the root of the problem. Instead, those are the symptoms of a school’s lack of resources. Once you accept this, you can begin adding to the resources by improving the culture and performance of your classroom.

Be prepared to have just four walls, 28 desks, and 34 students all with different strengths and needs. If you’re struggling with classroom management, there won’t be a magical “office” where kids can be sent—just a secretary and a principal trying to figure out how to resolve an overflowing toilet when the school’s only custodian is out sick. There aren’t “assistant principals” running around to break up an escalating argument in your classroom. And there’s probably not even a well-stocked “supply closet.”

The only resource you can truly count on is yourself, and my goal is to help you personally create a welcoming, safe, and educational environment for your first year. Here’s what I’ve learned:

1. Teach with kindness. Teach with kindness and you’re more likely to receive it in return. Treat your students like rational adults, and that’s what they’ll eventually become. A simple “Can you have a seat real quick so I can go over this? Thank you!” is significantly more effective and better for everyone’s mental health (including yours) than barking “Sit down, NOW!”

2. Avoid getting into power struggles. When you “demand” a child do something, they’re either going to ignore you, hate you, start arguing, or most likely, all the above. Give each child a choice. “I need you to sit down or else I won’t be able to give you credit for this assignment.” This shows the truth: “Our teacher technically can’t force us to do anything, but there are consequences, and we get to make a choice about those.”

3. Communicate with families. If you’re anxious about calling, just text them. No matter how “tough” a kid might seem or no matter what you think you know about their home life, almost all of them have someone in their life that they want to make proud.

4. Establish rules and consequences. To this day, I still have three rules: Stay in your seat, keep your hands to yourself, and don’t talk across the classroom. If a rule is broken, have a clear and immediate consequence (incorporating the tip above is easy).

5. Stop yelling. Yelling is just exhausting yourself. I’ve never had a “good scream” in my life nor have I ever thought while being screamed at: “I’m going to work harder now to please this person.”

6. Face your classroom at all times. Whether you’re answering your classroom phone, taking attendance, or helping a student, turn your body to get a clear view of all children at all times.

7. It’s OK to ask your students to wait. If a student needs help, has a concern about their grade, or wants to tell you about their birthday, make sure that your classroom is completely safe and calm before giving students individualized attention. You’ll learn early on that it helps teach students patience and it’s not a human-rights violation to tell your frequent flier students “Ask me again in 10 minutes” when they ask to use the restroom.

8. Don’t stress about your administrators. It’s OK if your administrators don’t always like what you’re doing. You don’t need to wow them—this isn’t a corporate job, and you won’t get fired, especially if you’re in a union. Instead, your relationship with your administrator should be collaborative. Ask their opinion, hear it out, then do what’s best for you.

9. Enjoy yourself. There’s a teaching adage that says “Don’t smile until December.” Smile on the first day of school, and if you can, smile the next day, too. If a kid says something funny, you’re allowed to laugh. Students will match your energy and your mood, and if you create a positive classroom, you’ll feel the impact when you go home and so will they.

Every teacher, child, class, and school is different, but I believe these are universal tips that can help any teacher, even the ones who won’t crash and burn at the start of the year the way I once did. I wish you luck in your journey!

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