It’s the morning of your first day of school. Your outfit has been planned for two weeks; your dry cleaning has been done as far in advance as possible. You’ve spent the past few weeks celebrating your new job with friends and family, sharing your excitement on Facebook, injecting your new teacher excitement into every conversation.
Then that first period bell rings and you get butterflies in your stomach. “How should I greet them?”“What do I say to each student as they walk in?”“Did I overdress today?”“What if they think my lesson is boring…on the first day?”
It’s as if the years of preparation and graduate school are completely forgotten and useless. That was what went through my mind last year. Nothing in education is as great an equalizer as the first day of school. For my first few months, every day felt like the first day. It took some time to cement my position as a credible teacher in my school and to earn respect from my students and colleagues.
Working for the New York City Department of Education felt more like Cirque de Soleil at times. There were so many things to consider: health insurance, pension plan, classroom arrangements, organizing all the art materials, setting up direct deposit, reading through scores of IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) for students whose faces I’ve never seen before, as well as simple tasks like finding the right key for the 3rd floor bathroom. It’s an understatement to say that the first several months were overwhelming.
Gradually, things got better. I became more organized and confident about what I was doing in my classroom. Here are the 7 pieces of advice I would offer all teachers anticipating The Day After Labor Day:
Cook all your dinners on Sunday night.
Preparing healthy meals helps keeps you both mentally and physically fit. You will be completely exhausted and immobile the minute your shoes come off and hit the couch.
Develop relationships with school personnel.
While most think the school principal have all the power and therefore should be the only person we connect with on a daily basis, it’s important to cultivate professional relationships with other school personnel. School secretaries are not too unlike the sphinx from the drama of Oepidus. Make sure you treat them with respect and they will be a helpful aid throughout the school year.
(Almost) never say no.
Well, let’s not say ‘never’, but try to avoid saying the word ‘no.’ Your administrators want to see that you can be part of a team, and that means doing more work than you’re required to do. No teacher in my school leaves at 2:35 when the kids do. We all run clubs or after school activities. Volunteer your time and energy in something you’re interested in. My feeling is, if the kids want to stay in your classroom, don’t leave.
Take advantage of being a new teacher.
You may think that being new is a bad thing, but think of it as an asset. Unlike some veteran teachers, you’re not disillusioned or jaded, but rather, open to new ideas and experiences. You can win over your colleagues and students by emphasizing your youth. People like a fresh outlook and if you’re younger, the kids all want to hang out with you and the older teachers are curious.
Find your work-life balance.
Keep yourself sane and learn when to step back. Teaching is a 24/7 profession. You’ll be talking about your students to all your friends and significant other all the time. They’ll know the names of your best and worst students. Your happy hour conversations will always come full circle back to school stuff, but you have to take a moment to separate yourself from work. Get a gym membership, plan little things to do for yourself after school, meet up with people you haven’t seen in a while, take a weekend trip away somewhere, or just splurge and pamper yourself with some shopping therapy.
Know when to ask for help.
Ask for help when you need it. Don’t avoid going to someone you can trust if you truly need it. You will not have all the answers and sometimes you’ll be overwhelmed and confused. It’s perfectly fine to have an honest conversation with an administrator or colleague and express your concerns.
Remind yourself of your “why”.
On stressful days when the paperwork piles up, a student talks back to you, or everything just seems to be going wrong, you’ll start doubting yourself as a teacher. It’s times like these you need to remind yourself why you chose this profession in the first place. Maybe it was a teacher you had or a passion for helping others. For me, it’s notes my students have given to me, the gracious thanks from parents at graduation, the coffee and donuts a student bought for me that morning, a compliment from my principal and other small things. It’s the kid who hangs out with you on Friday afternoon when you just want to go home and sleep through the weekend, but you stay anyway because your classroom is their safe haven. It’s the selfie requests from all your kids when you bring them to the art museum. It’s the fact that they knew the artwork at the museum in the first place and were actually excited to see it.
Your first year will be the most challenging and rewarding ten months of your life. You have years ahead of you and a passion for what you do. Our jobs are not like everyone else’s cubicle. We are on our feet all day long making sure that hundreds of young people in our care are given opportunities to succeed and grow into responsible citizens.