Ask any teacher about something they’d never want to repeat. Chances are you’ll get many responses about the first year of teaching among other things. As a matter of fact, some may actually want to have a root canal instead. OK, so it’s not THAT bad. But, it is tough. While college courses, practicum observations, and student teaching do the best they can to prepare first year teachers, nothing can adequately simulate the actual experience of having your own classroom.
Due to this, the first year teaching can be stressful, emotional, and overwhelming. There are some days that you may even ask yourself, “Is becoming a teacher a mistake?” Thankfully, you are not alone in feeling like this! Surprisingly, I had these very same thoughts along with tons of other new teachers. Since so many have the same struggle, here are 7 common mistakes that many beginning teachers deal with and my advice about what to do instead. Hopefully, these tips will help you to avoid these struggles altogether.
1. Not Having Clear Expectations for Student Behavior
If you haven’t read First Days of School by Harry Wong, purchase it immediately. Read it and then read it again! It has so much valuable information regarding, well… the first few days of school. He actually addresses the first several weeks of school. Furthermore, it will help you to understand the importance of teaching, modeling, practicing, and reteaching procedures until they become routine.
Additionally, it also helps you, as a first year teacher, to have a clear plan in place for each procedure that needs to develop into a classroom routine. Actually writing down what your expectations of students are for each procedure really helps with this. If you’re a teacher of very young children, consider providing additional proactive approaches. It must be remembered that no one wants to be constantly called out or corrected.
Visuals are Great for Students & First Year Teachers
For example, this How to Be a Good Listener Poster provides a great visual reference for students so they can self-monitor and adjust their own behavior to meet your expectations! In many ways, the posters serve as excellent reminders on expectations. Ultimately, it’s important to remember that new elementary teachers are learning just as elementary students are. It’s understandable that they need time and reminders to learn expectations. These posters will help you to remember exactly what to say to your students in the moment.
2. Not Being Consistent with Classroom Management
This perfectly aligns with the above mistake for many new teachers. If you’ve written down your expectations for classroom procedures, then you’ll know exactly what you expect of students every single time. You shouldn’t allow one student to get up and sharpen pencils in the middle of class, but not another. Don’t allow one to jump and run to the door when a visitor knocks if you’ve instructed your students that only the teacher opens the door for guests. Consistency is key.
In fact, it’s important to address undesired behaviors immediately. Don’t let it go on and on until you just can’t take it anymore and then you get super frustrated with everyone and snap. In order to stop these behaviors, there also has to be consistency in correcting them without showing emotion. To do this, state your expectation and reteach the desired behavior. When students are not meeting the expectation, model and practice the expected behaviors. Yes, the correct behaviors need to be re-taught whenever the undesired behaviors happen. In the beginning this needs to happen Every. Single. Time.
The Perils of Inconsistency
In short, if you fail to nip the misbehavior in the bud, you have made a big mistake. If you don’t address it, then the annoying, undesired, or otherwise bad behaviors are going to plague your entire year. Truly, it will make it miserable for everyone, not just you. On the other hand, if you are consistent with classroom management and behavior expectations, your classroom will practically run itself. There will come a time for planned ignoring, but that is an entirely different concept and strategy for behavior management.
Consistency is Key
Ultimately, your students will respect you because you have a well-managed classroom that they feel safe in because there is consistency. They know what you expect of them. Furthermore, they know how you will react when the expectation isn’t met. While you may feel bad correcting behavior, it will certainly pay. You will yield dividends as students adjust to the structure of the classroom routines and expectations!
With this in mind, you can be firm and assertive without being mean. Your students will know that you care about them if you have high expectations for them and hold them accountable. For that reason, this FREE Class Rules Poster may be helpful to hang up!
3. Missing Out on Classroom Design
One of the most exciting things for first year elementary teachers involves designing and setting up their classrooms. At these ages, students are so excited to see a well-decorated and organized room. With that said, your room does NOT have to be a Pinterest-Perfect classroom… but, your room does have to flow. This means that there is thought behind the teacher desk placement, the student seating arrangements, access to materials, traffic patterns, and so much more!
Here are just a few questions to ask yourself:
❔ Can you see everything that’s going on if you happen to sit down for 5 minutes to respond to an email while your students are working?
❔ Will you be able to quickly get to any child in your classroom in case of a medical emergency or a behavior issue that needs to be immediately addressed?
❔ Is your computer cart right next to the student who is easily distracted?
❔ Are students spending 10 minutes getting their reading books out of cubbies everyday when they could be kept at a desk to save precious instructional time?
❔ If your students sit in groups, are they diverse with a mix of gender, ethnicity, and ability levels?
There are literally a million different questions a first year teacher could ask when setting up a classroom. Take time to really plan this out. Trust me, your year will go much smoother with a well thought out classroom design!
4. Only Making Negative Parent Contact
Building relationships with parents is so important! Therefore, no matter if you’re a first year teacher or a fifteenth year teacher, you need to work diligently and purposefully at the beginning of the year to build positive relationships with families. To do this, focus on LOTS of positive parent contact! It will be extremely beneficial to build relationships founded in trust and with all families versus only making contact for negative reasons.
The Case of Cameron
Think about it… The first time Cameron’s mom hears from you is the fourth week of school when you call to tell her that Cameron just won’t stop talking in class. How’s that going to go over? Mom is probably not going to want to hear from you again, right? To clarify, she’s made a negative association with your phone calls right from the start.
What if you had already called home the first week of school to tell Cameron’s mom how helpful Cameron had been when you dropped your stack of copies and Cameron rushed right over to help you pick them all up? Or, that Cameron had pushed his chair under his desk when he lined up for lunch. You share how you appreciated how responsible that was, because it wasn’t something that all of your students were doing routinely. Cameron was being a class leader.
If you’d already made that positive point of contact, then Cameron’s mom would be much more receptive to your corrective feedback for Cameron’s chattiness in class. She’s going to have more trust in your judgement because you not only call when it’s bad, but you call her when it’s good, too.
5. Sending an Email or Text Message When You Should Have Made a Phone Call
Now, this may sound surprising. However, think about how much you like to answer the phone. (I’m not a phone person. I know everyone is different, but it’s just not for me. Stay with me here.) People are so busy and it is simply more convenient to send an email or text message for all involved. Indeed, we think that we’re doing a service because of the time saved. We are saving ourselves time and we’re also saving the time of those we’re messaging. DO NOT MAKE THIS MISTAKE!
What's so bad about an electronic message?
I’m glad you asked! Emails and text messages do not clearly convey tone or mood, and they can oftentimes be “read into.” You know what I mean. In this situation, the receiving individual is trying to decipher what the sender REALLY intended to say in the message. This can happen even if there was actually nothing to be read into, and the message should have been taken at face value.
If it’s something important, make it personal with a phone call. Especially if it’s the first time you’re reaching out about a concerning behavior, make the phone call. By doing so, you show the parent that you care enough to take the time to call… because it DOES take time. However, it also builds a relationship. This applies to parents, administrators, and co-workers. Undoubtedly, you are more likely to get responses and build positive relationships.
6. Calling Instead of Meeting In-Person
It is important to remember that there will be times when the message needs to be delivered face-to-face. Parents may need to see your concern and facial expression, and this simply cannot be conveyed very well over the phone. Thus, reflect on what the issue is and then reach out to the parent with the best way to talk.
This may be about an on-going issue in the classroom with the student’s behavior, or it could be about a single occurrence that is just that important, or it could be about the student’s academic performance. There are many reasons why a first year teacher or a veteran teacher should meet with parents as partners. But, keep in mind that parents are busy and some may not be able to come in and meet. They may be working and not be able to meet during your contract hours. With this in mind, don’t assume that these parents “just don’t care.”
But, What Do I Say?
Now, as a first year teacher, it’s hard to know exactly what to say to parents. This is where your mentor teacher or instructional coach can help. Do you have a student in the MTSS process? Ask your instructional Coach to sit in on the MTSS meeting. By all means, ask to prepare with your Coach ahead of time! Doing so will help you know exactly what you want to share with the family. Write down talking points for the meeting and be prepared to answer questions the parent may have. I promise, your Coach is more than happy to help.
7. Trying to Do Everything Alone or Not Asking For Help
There are mentor teachers and instructional coaches for a reason. They understand how much is on the plate of a first year teacher because they’ve been there before. Remember, there are people around you who are more than willing to lend a helping hand. You don’t know what you don’t know. Ask them for their advice about your classroom setup. Ask them about how you want a specific classroom routine to run. See if they have an idea to manage the Back to School paperwork or school supplies that parents send in. Please do not hesitate to reach out to them! They will provide another set of eyes, a listening ear, and a caring heart.
In summary, these seven struggles are ones that I personally learned from. My goal is to make the transition from student-teacher to first year teacher a bit easier for you. There is no doubt, the first year of teaching is the hardest. It may be stressful in the beginning, but know that the career is really so rewarding! To be sure, the first year may not be all that you thought it would be. But, hang in there. Regardless of the tough times, teaching truly is the best job ever!
As with anything new, there is an adjustment phase where mistakes are made. Learn from these challenges. Remember that mistakes should be viewed as opportunities to grow. Use them as jumping points for new ideas. Enjoy the your students and know you are making a positive difference in their lives.