One of the questions I get asked most often is what advice can I offer to a new teacher? I’d like to sit down with the ‘first year teacher Matt’ of many, many years ago and offer some nuggets of wisdom. Here they are - I hope there’s something here for you as well:
REMEMBER WHY YOU CHOSE THIS PROFESSION. Hopefully it’s because you love children. If you don’t love kids (or even really like them) you are in for a rocky road. And not the ice cream. Teaching can be exhausting and overwhelming - often at the same time - and what always helps me be present and give my best are the kids. The relationships you build with your students are the foundations that all the rest is built on. Quite simply, the kids are why I get up and come to school each day.
YOU DON’T NEED ALL THE STUFF. I will repeat - you do not need all the stuff. When I started teaching I remember thinking I needed all the charts and displays and ‘cute’ things for my classroom. I thought it would make me a better teacher. I thought it would make the parents like me more. I thought it would make the kids happy. Here’s what I now know - if you want ‘all the stuff’ - the ONLY reason to buy it is for YOU. If it makes YOU happy - get it. But you DO NOT need it. Parents don’t care. Kids don’t care. What I ultimately realized was what would make my classroom the best place for kids and for me was investing in myself, not the ‘stuff’ - PUT THE STUFF DOWN.
One way to invest in yourself is through PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT. If you’re lucky, your school will send you to conferences and/or bring folks in. If this isn’t an option, or even if it is, there are some amazing books you can read that will help you be the best version of you without leaving your home. Anything by Kristi Mraz is going to be amazing. Her books have colored the teacher I am in so many ways. She has helped me always put kids first. Fittingly, her latest book is called Kids First from Day One. It is spectacular and one you’ll read and reference over and over. I also reread The First Six Weeks of School every summer as my way of getting my mind back into school mode. If you want to dig right in and not buy a book - check out Kristi Mraz’s blog.
Academics are important, but social/emotional learning is equally, if not more important. I was lucky to be introduced to Responsive Classroom during my student teaching many moons ago and have used it ever since. My current school is a Responsive Classroom school (everyone is required to use it) and quite simply, it works. Mindset for Learning is a book that has completely shifted the tone and demeanor of my classroom. Troublemakers is another book that changed the way I view ‘difficult’ students. PULL THEM CLOSE is my new mantra. Compliance does not equal engagement. Relationships matter. Also this post.
FIND YOUR CREW. Your school will most likely assign you a mentor. Whether they do or not, find your own. It might be the teacher next door or down the hall, but find the person who inspires and supports you. When I started, a 3rd grade teacher became my go to person. I visited her daily before school to chat about management and teaching. We’re still dear friends and I owe her so much for helping shape the teacher I now am. (Shout out to Emily!)
Always ask yourself - WHO'S DOING THE WORK? Often teachers find themselves doing most of the heavy lifting. Are you making all your charts before or after school? Making tons of photocopies of worksheets? Spending your entire Sunday prepping and planning? During reading/writing conferences and small groups is your voice on the most? I am constantly asking myself - is this something my students can do without my help? My classroom is almost entirely bare when school starts. It’s stark, but the kids help me setup and label everything and when parents visit a few weeks later for Open House, our classroom is bursting with kid created content. When a child appeals for help during reading or writing, I try to push back with ‘What do you think?’ or ‘Try something’ before always going in and offering a solution. Remember, the kids are there to learn not only academics, but independence. As far as planning and prepping, I try to arrive an hour to an hour and half before students. I utilize my planning and lunch times whenever possible to plan and prep and yes, this means sometimes I shut my door. I try to plan activities that are engaging, but don’t require me to do all the work ahead of time. I teach five and six-year-olds - it should look like they did the work, not me.
Remember to HAVE FUN with your kids. Yes, there is so much to teach. So much to assess. So much to grade. So much to organize. So much to prep. Don’t forget to stop and have some fun with your students. Sing. Dance. Be silly. It makes all the difference in the world.
I hope some of this is helpful. Please remember, teaching is truly a work of heart. It is the ultimate balancing act. We can hold our students to high standards and have fun with them too. We can manage our classrooms effectively and love our kids fiercely. We can be invested in our students completely while at school and have a personal life at home too.
What advice would you give to your first year teacher self? What questions do you still have? Comment away!