Valuable Things I Learned as a 1st Year Teacher

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It was 1986. I had just signed my very first teaching contract…to teach 6th grade at a junior high school. My salary for the year was $14,500. (I’m not joking… I figured I could lose a few pounds anyway…) But I was going to have my OWN class! I was so excited I could hardly see straight. I envisioned attentive students in their neat rows of desks, absorbing every word of my flawless lessons. I could see it clearly and I was ready. Bring it on.

So the day came when they finally let me into my classroom!

Geeze, I had only been pounding on the school door to let me in since June 15. There was my room. OK, so the desks were a little old and mismatched. I could handle that. But wait, were there enough desks? And where was my desk and chair? Shouldn’t there be books? And shelves? Supplies?

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Little did I know at the time, but the new teacher got the scraps. My room looked like it had been looted after a major riot. Once the other teachers came trickling in, they must have taken pity on me because somehow I managed to scrape up more desks, some books, shelves and had things halfway presentable for the first day. 

But it wasn’t what I had envisioned. I quickly learned that (back then) it was sink or swim. I was determined to swim. But I felt very alone. Collaboration was not a thing back then. Teachers did their own thing. Now, don’t get me wrong. The teachers I worked with at the time were caring, wonderful people. Mentoring was just not the thing at the time, especially at a junior high. But I knew I needed help. 

This was my thinking though…Maybe I should already know how to do this. Was it a sign of weakness to ask for guidance? It sure seemed like it. So I tried to figure it out on my own.

What. A. Mistake. I sank. Fast. No one really prepared me for 35 unruly 6th graders who were only 10 years younger than I was. (3 sat at a table in the back because I couldn’t seem to acquire those last 3 desks…) Again. Not what I had envisioned. And,

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After 3 or 4 months of (you know what), I began realizing I needed HELP. My classroom management wasn’t improving. In fact, it was deteriorating. I had so many questions. Since blogs and Pinterest weren’t available back in the stone age, our teacher peers were our best resource. So I visited the veteran teacher down the hall, Mrs. Comeford. My savior. My angel. I cried. I put my pride aside and asked her for help. 

Well, she helped me. From classroom management to how to handle late papers, she guided me and I listened. Each day, each month, and every year after, I improved. I learned from my mistakes. And slowly, I got it together and began to evolve into the teacher I had envisioned. I learned a few tips over the years. Boy, if I could go back, I would definitely change a few things…

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Cher and I had something in common.
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THE hair and all its glory.
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I would seek help from the teacher who had the classroom and the management that I had envisioned for myself BEFORE DAY 1

Step one…Find your Mrs. Comeford, the teacher down the hall who has “It”.

“It” might be a little different for each of us. But generally, this teacher has students’ respect, attention, and love. They adore their teacher. Students know what the expectations are and they do their best. There is flow in the classroom. Think about what you envision for your own classroom and find that teacher who will help you accomplish that.

It might even be a combination of 2 or 3 teachers. It might be hard to find that someone before school starts, but start looking early so you have some solid plans in place. Ask for some of their time each week to share some of their secrets. Plan some questions ahead of time like, “What kind of classroom management do you use?” “How many warnings do you typically give a student?” “Can you show me your plan book and grade book?” “When and how do you plan?”, etc.

If you are lucky enough to meet weekly, you will learn so much and perhaps make a new life-long friend.

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I would keep it SIMPLE.

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With so many ideas for organization, classroom management, decor, and instructional techniques out there on social media, it’s hard to filter out the ones that will really work for you. You can’t implement them all, no matter how amazing the ideas are. Besides, so many of these ideas cost $$$. And remember… Less is often better in your first couple of years. So narrow those best ideas down to just a few. Keep your classroom decor inviting but simple and purposeful.

Wall space is at a premium, so choose what you display wisely. What resources will the students need and use throughout the year? If it is just cute to look at, you might want to replace it with a purposeful student resource: word wall, alphabet cards, sound cards, calendar resources, anchor charts, rules, clip chart, and so on.

When searching for instructional resources online, stay focused on your students’ needs and the standards. If I could go back, I would master the curriculum and standards for the first year and only supplement when absolutely necessary. If you are not familiar with the curriculum that the district has provided, it’s hard to supplement appropriately. So,

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Once you feel confident with the curriculum goals and state standards, THEN start to supplement with materials that will truly help your students reach their goals

But keep it simple. More is not always better.

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I would try REALLY hard to go home at a reasonable time each day. Enlist VOLUNTEERS!

No, really. I mean it. Set a time and stick to it. You need to have time to relax and refresh. If I could go back, I would round up as many parent helpers as possible to help with tasks that can be done by anyone: bulletin boards, organization, center prep work, and so on. Then you can focus on the tasks that only you can do: planning, grading, parent contacts, emails… 

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Have a volunteer sign-up sheet at meet the teacher and/or open house. Place it on a table with cookies or other treats with a big sign. Use a sign-up website to do the work for you like SignUpGenius where parents see what tasks you need completed and they sign up for dates/times to come in and do them. When parents sign-up for specific dates and times, they are more likely to follow through. Plus, they get automatic reminders from SignUpGenius! Ha! One less thing to do! 

Be ready for your parent volunteers and,

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If you’re lucky, you will have that one parent volunteer who can read your mind. One who just jumps right in and can see what needs to be done. Ahhh…I’ve had a few of those angels.

Remember them at Christmas and the end of the year with little thank-you gifts! 

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I would keep the grumbling to a minimum

I’m not proud of it. I whined my first year. I lacked support, I missed my family and friends, I was starving (I actually did lose more than a few pounds) and I was struggling to get it all done and maintain my sanity. But I complained too much and smiled too little.


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I learned to save my venting for my closest family and friends and tried hard to be solution-oriented. Not just a whiner. Don’t get me wrong. We NEED to vent once in a while. But be careful. Choose your allies wisely and keep the venting to a minimum. You want your co-workers and administrators to view you as a positive, valuable staff member. Your positive attitude helps your relationships with peers, family, students, parents, AND yourself!

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Stay organized

If I could add up the minutes I have spent looking for something in my classroom, it would add up to days…maybe weeks. I don’t know. My point is, that I sometimes put things in very special places. So special, I can’t find them again. 

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Well, I’m not quite this bad…

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I LOVE it when I have spent a few minutes labeling, tidying up, and tossing old things I’ve never used but was sure I would…

After 31 years, I decided to get rid of the teacher desk that I never sit at.

It just became a place to plop things and hide things in the deep black holes called drawers. I tossed things from the 90’s and found some great school pictures I had forgotten about (I took them home and made a photo album and had a great time laughing at the ridiculous hair and clothes through the years). I even found $20 buried under 5 staplers and a bunch of useless claw staple removers. 

Once I purged 3/4 of what was in my desk and kept only what was truly necessary, the desk was rolled out of my room and replaced with this:


Yes. Everything necessary from my desk has now gone into these wonderful drawers. No more plopping either. I sit and work at the kidney table where I teach small groups. I HAVE to clear it off daily so I can teach. So I must file away papers. 

I use something similar to this to organize those loose papers without a home, although my labels include M-F files, team meetings, to file away, to grade, etc.:

When teaching guided reading, it’s really important to be organized and ready. I learned over the years that my students’ reading scores improved dramatically when I spent more time instructing and less time searching for materials.

Looking for more tips on guided reading organization? Check out these blog posts:

So get organized in a way that works for you. Don’t wait 31 years to do it though…

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WIN over parents

I found that only being 10 years older than my students my first year of teaching was challenging in many ways. It was especially challenging to get parents to trust in my expertise as a teacher. If I could go back, I would work harder at winning over parents. Not in a fake way. In a sincere, I care about your child, let’s work together way. Since then,

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Call parents periodically to tell them about something wonderful or funny their child did or said. Or send home positive notes regularly.

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Happy Go Home Notes are a quick and easy way to let a parent know their child had a great day! Some parents even keep them in a scrapbook. They are important. Take the time to send those positive messages out to parents. You care about your students. Let your parents know how much.

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Take time after school to make positive connections with parents. Say hello. Ask about the new baby in the family. Tell a quick, positive story about their child. Be friendly and smile. It goes a LONG way!

When I noticed that the father of a certain little boy in my first-grade class would look worried if I was holding his child’s hand after school, I decided to take a different approach. Yes, I needed to let him know that his son had a hard time once in a while. But I also had to let Dad know when his son made good choices, tried hard that day, or just made me smile. I saw that worried look on Dad’s face less often when I was holding his son’s hand, and saw more smiles. 

I could go on and on about what I’ve learned since that 1st year of teaching. It is an endless list. But the important thing is

I learned from my mistakes and made the necessary changes.

My hope for you is that you save yourself the trouble and be proactive instead of reactive like I had to be. Learn as much as you can from those teachers that have “It.” And stay positive and friendly. One day you will be the teacher who has “It” and the new teachers will flock to you for your secrets! ♥

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