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A stressed teacher shows how important strategies are to help educators navigate their first year of teaching with success and enthusiasm

3 things I wish I knew my first year of teaching

An experienced educator outlines important strategies to help educators navigate their first year of teaching with success and enthusiasm

Each year, more than 3.7 million teachers step into the classroom. For most, the first day of school marks an annual return. But for thousands of teachers, this will be their first year leading a class of their very own. And standing in front of a room full of students with all eyes on you can be quite daunting—especially in your first year of teaching.

Even after serving as a teacher almost 20 years, I can still recall those first-day, and first-year, butterflies. Over the course of my career I’ve worked in brick-and-mortar schools and at online public schools, with students and colleagues from diverse backgrounds and experiences.

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Regardless of where and who they teach, every teacher can find ways to ensure student success in their first year of teaching. As the new school year begins, I want to share with new teachers the three things I wish I knew in my first year of teaching that can hopefully help ease your entrance into the new year.

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Make connections with the whole family

The importance of making connections with parents may sound obvious, but it’s often one of the most overlooked to-dos for first-year teachers. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed with leading a classroom that you become distanced from making connections with the key stakeholders in your role: students and their families.

When I first began teaching in the virtual environment at Wyoming Virtual Academy, I was surprised at how quickly I got to know my students in the online setting. By using a monthly call list, I talk to every single family at least one or twice a month — not only the students who struggle, but also those who are getting along fine and those who are excelling. All of my colleagues do this with their students, and we’re able to reach each family at least once a month for individual check-ins.

These calls are one of my favorite things to do because they give me time to make a genuine connection with families and to hear about their motivations, goals, and challenges. This has a huge impact on student learning and helps to make our parents feel involved and welcome in the learning process.

It’s also a reminder for everyone that we share the same goal – to see students succeed. Oftentimes, once back-to-school night or open houses are over, receiving a phone call or email from a teacher is treated with dread. It’s up to us as teachers to change this perception, so that parents and students know that they do not have to panic every time the teacher reaches out. You are partners in each student’s journey.

Find the right environment

Just as it’s important for a student to find the best learning environment for them, I believe it is equally important for educators to find the right place to teach. This is something that’s discussed more and more when it comes to meeting students’ needs, but I feel that teachers, especially when searching for their first opportunity, often overlook the importance of finding the “right fit for you” school setting.

Over my 20 years as a teacher, I have had the opportunity to teach at several different schools, and for me, the right place to teach is in the online classroom. As an online educator, I am surrounded by teachers who are passionate about what they do because of the extra steps we take to connect with students and families. My colleagues are self-motivated and creative, designing cutting-edge 21st century skill-centered lesson plans. Working in this type of environment every day has further fueled my passion for education and brought me closer to the personal goal I have of helping students succeed.

Of course, this type of classroom isn’t the best fit for everyone, and many teachers find these same types of connections and space for creativity in a traditional brick-in-mortar setting. As the education landscape continually evolves, new methods of reaching our students will emerge and teachers will need to not only lead those classrooms but have a passion and energy for whatever educational option best suits their students and their own career goals.

Now that I’m in an environment that truly works for me, my passion for teaching could not be stronger. This passion reflects in my interactions with students as I conduct lessons and help build a positive virtual learning community within our school culture. I wish the same for teachers in every setting.

Avoid burnout: Practice self-care

While it’s important to look after your students, the first year of teaching is often an overwhelming adjustment. It’s important that you also practice self-care to avoid burnout. I’ve seen far too many colleagues run head-first into the new year only to become weary with their new position. Make sure that you are finding ways to de-stress and savor some moments for yourself.

Within your first few weeks, establish boundaries for balancing work and your outside life. It’s important that you know when to stop working at the end of the day and week. I also like to emphasize to my first-year colleagues that it’s important to put their friends and family first. One thing that I do is make sure that the weekends are for myself and my family – this means I don’t check emails or review papers all weekend. Those tests you need to grade will still be there come Sunday evening or Monday morning – or whenever you set aside the time to get it done.

Another thing that can help you avoid burnout, especially in your first year of teaching, is to find a “Teacher BFF.” Finding a colleague at your school can do wonders to alleviate stress and to vent your frustrations. An experienced mentor – even if they’ve only got a year or two on you – can help you navigate tough situations with students, parents, colleagues and supervisors. Being able to call on someone with shared experiences will empower you throughout your first year and beyond.

I hope that these tips help to alleviate some of the worries first-year teachers may be facing – or worries that some of my returning colleagues are feeling after a restful summer break. There are lots of ways to ensure success and help students grow, while making sure that you are eager and ready to return to the front of the room next year. It can be scary at first, but it can also be the best year of your life.

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