This is it! You’ve worked your butt off and graduated, scored a job, and now you’re about to begin the journey of an actual teacher. Congratulations!
So… now what?
In amongst the excitement and nervousness, the first few weeks of school might feel a little overwhelming for a beginning teacher. You have so much to learn (it never ends!) and are being thrown in the deep end. It is liberating though, to finally truly have your own classes and be really in charge without having to report every action to someone else. You can now begin to explore your teacher-self in reality and carve your own story in this dynamic profession.
If your first job happens to be at a school you did a prac in you’ll already be familiar with the place and that definitely takes some of the stress out. If, like me, you’re starting out somewhere completely new you have a lot of exploring to do!
Below are some of our top tips for making sure your first few weeks are as smooth and fun as they can be. Even if you’ve been teaching for a while, it’s helpful to remember these tips, especially if you’re starting out at a new school!
Know the school grounds
I’m horrible with directions, so it’s no wonder I spend half the year getting lost between rooms. It’s always a fun thing to walk around with a class of year 7s who are also new to the school, trying to find the room you’re supposed to be in…
During your first week when it’s all training and PD, take some time to get a school map and walk around familiarising yourself with the rooms you’re likely to be in and places you’ll need to go. You can always ask another teacher to show you around, or grab the other new teachers and explore together. If you’re self-conscious about this, stay back one afternoon or get there earlier in the morning so you have some time to yourself.
Know the rules, and stick to them
Unless the students are also new to the school, they will know the rules well. The less scrupulous students will be looking to see how well you know them, and how much they can get away with. Arm yourself with good knowledge of the school’s behaviour management and reward plans, and don’t be afraid to use them even in the very first lesson!
You might be concerned about being too harsh in the first few lessons, and that this will make the students hate you, but don’t worry about that. They need to be shown that you follow the rules too, and in my experience students end up respecting (and even liking) the teachers who are the firmest but fairest. No matter how nice or naughty they are, they like it best when they know the boundaries, exactly what is allowed, your expectations of them, and that you will always stick to that. Teenagers in particular are very fast to speak up against what they perceive as unfairness in the classroom, so stick to your guns!
If you go in too easy it becomes extremely hard to put the behaviour management plans in place later – a mistake I made in my first teaching job! The quicker you show you are willing to follow the rules, the quicker the students will know you’re not someone to mess with. And if you show you reward good behaviour, more are likely to follow along and be good. Be firm but fair and the students will quickly grow to respect you and the boundaries you put in place.
You are their teacher, not their friend or their parent
This one often goes along with the point above.
While it is so very important to build a good rapport with the students, remember that you are their teacher and not their friend. If you go in on the first day trying to be all cool and super friendly they will call you out on it and assume they can walk all over you. Going down this route won’t do you any favours in the long term. Yes you want them to like you, but that doesn’t mean being all buddy buddy with them. It is inappropriate (and often illegal) to make contact with the students outside the school grounds and school email, including on social media, no matter how well you get along. Sometimes you will just click with a student or a class and get along like a house on fire, especially with the older students in high school who are closer to your own age (particularly if you’ve gone from high school to your teaching degree and straight back into high school again as a teacher). You need to retain an appropriate level of professionalism to protect yourself. Remember, it will always be your word against theirs, and it would be awful to have false accusations arising. If you’re ever unsure about something make sure document what’s happening and ask someone at your school for advice.
You also need to remember that you are not their parent. This can be a particularly hard thing to do if you work with low socio-economic students and get to know their struggles. Sometimes all you want to do is give them a big hug, or even adopt them as your own. It’s the most natural thing in the world to want to help them, but make sure you do so professionally. Refer them to the guidance councillor or equivalent at your school, talk to their head of year or pastoral teacher. There will be child protection rules in place at your school, and a correct way to help them without putting yourself at risk personally and professionally. Find out what these ways are and use them. Don’t worry about losing the trust of the student – if they’ve chosen you as their person to trust make sure you are explicit that any information they divulge has to be passed on, but that you do care and want to help them (in the right ways). From personal experience they will sometimes resent the interference from others in the school, but will forgive you when they are in a better frame of mind and more often then not they respect you more.
On the flip side, showing them your own personality and that you’re interested in them as people goes a long way to getting that rapport. There is absolutely nothing wrong with having a chat in the classroom or around the playground when you see them, having in-class jokes and getting to know their lives. Don’t be afraid to chat about their hobbies and interests when the timing is right, and tailoring lessons to suit the class is the best way to get everyone engaged. Use something like this Getting to Know You survey in the first week so you can start to build on the relationships, but as hard as it may be, always remember you are their teacher and not their friend or parent.
Don’t plan the whole term in advance
If you’re anything like me you like to be organised and have things all planned out nicely. It can be tempting to have a whole unit or more planned down to the last T, but this is rarely a good idea. Things change, including your timetable that you thought was finalised. It’s happened to me every single year – you end the holidays with a fair chunk of things planned for the classes you thought you were going to have, only to turn up on the first day and see that they’ve been swapped around and half the work you’ve done isn’t really relevant any more. It’s so disheartening, but that’s a reality of the profession.
It is definitely a good idea to have a week or so planned, but I wouldn’t go beyond that. There will be a heap of admin things you’ll need to do with your classes in the first lesson or so (including safety things if you will be working in a practical space). Your first content lesson might even be more focused on getting to know them better, so don’t stress if you’re a bit behind where you thought you’d be in the beginning. You’ll just end up changing things around once you get to know your class anyway! Having a basic skeleton of the unit and the concepts you need to cover is a great idea, along with some ideas of how you’d like to present them, but keep flexible so you can adapt as you go. Be prepared to even change the next lesson once you’ve taught one, once you see how it’s gone and what worked/didn’t work.
Always have with you some backup activities for when students finish work faster than planned, have a great lesson and you want to reward them (or the reverse and you just need to break up a bad lesson), or technology fails. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a lesson go exactly to plan, so come prepared!
Ask around for what other teachers do for a backup and maybe create a list of activities and resources for yourself. You don’t need to physically carry them around with you – keep them in your classroom (if you have your own) or your staff room and send a student to collect if necessary.
Musingsonteachings always carries around Boggle Slam and Poetry Uno with her, along with generic activity sheets that can be applied to any topic, just in case.
I like to also have generic worksheets and some of those adult colouring in pages on hand, as well as some pages of the text book if needed. Don’t assume a backup powerpoint will be enough – I recently had a lesson where that failed too.
A quick, simple activity you can give to the students while you sort yourself out is to get them to think of all the implications of (insert controversial topic here, e.g. cloning), plan what they’d need for a trip to (inset place here, I like to do the moon) including a budget, or drawing a comic/writing a silly story about a concept they learned last lesson. You can draw out these activities as long as needed by getting the students in groups and having them tell the class their response.
If you have the space in your classroom, set up a box or folder stuck to the wall with generic extension questions. The type of thing to get the students critically think about the topic they’re learning and can be applied to any topic. Questions could include ‘how does this topic relate to the environment’, ‘how would you explain this topic to a year 4 student’ or ‘draw a picture to represent this topic’.
Don’t reinvent the wheel
I’ve been told this by almost every single experienced teacher I’ve come across, and it’s a hard truth to learn sometimes.
There are thousands of great resources already, you can find them easily online or ask your colleagues for tried and tested ways to present the content to your classes. Make use of what’s already out there instead of creating everything from scratch, and adjust to suit your class and your own way of teaching. Don’t spend all your energy making things that are already there when you don’t need to. Bookmark resource websites you like, buy activity books you can photocopy from, and make use of the textbooks your students are given. Even something as simple as a literacy activity can come from the textbook!
In saying that, don’t hold back from making something new if you know exactly what you want to do! Diversity in teaching is part of what makes the profession so great, and you definitely should try out new and different things, just don’t get stuck thinking you need to make every single powerpoint or activity from scratch. Cut and paste slides together, re-word worksheets, or use whole lessons – what ever works for you! Just make sure you share your resources in return for anyone who has given some to you. There’s nothing worse than teachers who won’t share resources for no good reason.
Start collecting evidence right away
Had a great lesson, ran a successful activity, or marked an assessment piece and think they’d be good evidence for your teaching registration? Annotate them, photocopy them, and file them in a folder right away!
Chances are by the end of the year you’ll have to present a folio of evidence that you are following the teaching standards and are damn good at your job. Don’t leave this until the end of the year – you’ll have more than enough to do with end of year assessment pieces!
Collect pieces as you go, from individual activities to whole unit plans. You can always make it pretty and assign specific standards later, but make sure you have them all in a folder ready to go at the drop of a hat. It will save you a lot of stress and worry later. It’s also handy to have this together if you find yourself in the position of applying for a new job.
Ask for help
This is the single more important piece of advice I can offer.
Never, ever be afraid to ask for help or advice from your colleagues.
Your school should give you a mentor (if they don’t, make sure you ask for one), but you can definitely ask others. Trust them to tell you if you’re asking too many questions (something beginning teachers are always worried about), but chances are they remember their own first jobs and will be more than willing to help you out. You don’t appear weak or silly for asking questions, instead it shows you are taking things seriously and really considering your job. Remember what we tell the students – there are no stupid questions. Even though we know that’s not true, try to believe it for yourself in the first few months of teaching. You can’t possibly know everything you need to yet, so call on help when you need it!
I remember my own first few days of teaching. I was at a completely new school and had a roll class, and was supposed to lead them through a workbook all about the school and the teachers/senior leadership. Things like when the library was open, who to go to about various issues, details of the school rules, etc. I had been employed only a week before and didn’t know the answers to 90% of the questions myself, so I asked the Head of Art (who was my staff room leader) to help out. She ended up leading the students through the booklet while I watched on and learned too! I felt silly, but was so grateful that she helped out because I would have looked even sillier if I’d try to run the activity myself.
About the Author:
Emily is a secondary science and math teacher in Australia. She enjoys blogging about her experiences, facilitating the ‘light bulb’ moment in her students, and drinking tea and wine. Emily is currently on maternity leave with her first child. You can read more teaching articles from Emily here, or about her life as a new mum over at Actual Mums.