Being a teacher is among the most misunderstood professions. Everyone has a vague idea of what teachers do, but few truly understand all that the job entails or how difficult it is to do well. I’ve been teaching high school history for 18 years, so I’ve been through the wringer a few times, and these are my top five pieces of advice for new teachers.
1) Don’t assume you’re going to change the world.
Every profession needs dreamers with boundless energy to make change. Teaching might need these attributes more than other jobs, but newbies need to realize that being a teacher is a marathon, not a sprint. The reason so many burn out and leave the profession in the first five years is that they dive in hoping to be a savior and then realize it is a long, hard slog with sometimes impossible obstacles. Pace yourself and try to change the world one student at a time.
2) Learn to say no.
In addition to your day-to-day job of planning and executing lessons, grading papers, meeting with students and parents, and attending to your professional obligations, there are always going to be a hundred little voices asking you to sacrifice a little of your time here and there for this and that. Will you be our club advisor? Will you serve on this committee? Will you teach the rest of the staff that thing you do so well? And on and on. I’m not suggesting you say no to every request, but new teachers are easy pickings. If you want a personal life, choose your “yeses” wisely.
3) Always try to be yourself.
New teachers get tons of free advice, but much of it is just noise. “Don’t smile until Thanksgiving,” some will say. Others might suggest that you “set a firm tone on day one” or “try to be their friend.” In fact, the best advice I could possibly give you is to be yourself as much as you possibly can. Students can spot a phony from a mile away and you will lose them immediately. If you’re bubbly by nature, be bubbly in the classroom. If you’re a comedian, be funny. Just be you.
4) Beg, borrow, and steal everything you can.
Don’t reinvent the wheel. Chances are that whatever interesting lesson you’re thinking of trying has been done before by one of your colleagues. Ask. Any teacher worth her salt is willing to share lesson ideas, materials, and even lesson plans with new teachers and will usually hand it over and say something like “edit to your heart’s content.” And that’s important, too. Just because a lesson worked great for your colleague doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for you as is. You’ll probably need to tweak it to fit your style and your group of students.
5) Be ready to feel like an abject failure.
And, more importantly, understand that just because you sometimes feel like a failure doesn’t mean you are one. In fact, feeling like you’ve failed in teaching a particular lesson or with a specific student often means you’re doing everything right. Recognizing that something didn’t work as you intended and being able to adjust for next year (or even next period) is an extraordinary skill that takes a ton of practice to hone. Keep at it. Remember, it’s a marathon.