Older and wiser: What I’d tell first-year teachers
As recent graduates and intrepid career-changers take their first steps as teachers, we thought it was the perfect moment to collect advice from more experienced colleagues. Our teachers come from diverse backgrounds—covering EFL, primary, secondary, and special education—and their tips will help set up new educators with good habits in preparation, classroom management, professional support, and well-being.
On preparation and classroom management
Tip: Establish a “clock out” time
It’s true that teachers often take their work home with them. However, if you blend your home and work lives without questioning it, your stress levels are likely to increase as work recovery suffers. Lessons must be prepared, that’s a given. But a completely empty inbox? Well, that’s not gonna happen, Anita Vee, a primary school teacher, says:
“Set yourself a time you’ll go home each day and leave the work at school. There’s an endless amount of things that need doing, so you have to be OK with not getting it all done.”
Try scheduling a block of lesson preparation time as if it were an appointment. Other teachers recommend not buying into the “constantly super-creative teacher” ideal and learning to be satisfied with delivering good, simple lessons that work to your strengths.
Tip: Start strong, then relax
Parents are often told to create boundaries, as children need them to feel safe. Teachers can use this in their classroom as well, particularly when working with children. Felicity Woods, a secondary school teacher, advises:
“Establish class rules and routines especially for primary school students. They like it!”
Having boundaries and rules gives students something to “bump up against.” They know where the limit is, and so can be challenged within it. To establish these limits, teachers overwhelmingly say start early. It’s far easier to loosen up several weeks into term than to increase discipline if your initial approach was too relaxed. Kristy Moore, a primary school teacher, learned this.
“I’ve learned to be firm but fair – tough love.”
This combination of firmness but fairness works well for many. When you feel the ship is flailing, focus on classroom management. If you are at a loss for how to proceed with a discipline issue, communicate.
Other teachers point out that good communication, in the case of primary and secondary education, includes parents. Tell parents what they need to know, not what they’d like to hear. Let parents know how they can help build their children’s confidence and support their learning at home.
On relating to students
Tip: Remember, students are people too
Most teachers pass through a period of feeling intimidated by their students or of getting up in front of a class. Whatever the cause of these nerves, experienced teachers have a lot of advice!
First thing’s first, memorize your students’ names stat. Depending on your class type you might like to play ice-breaker activities, find a funny way to mentally distinguish between the four Charlottes, create a seating plan, or just relish the daily roll call. Whatever you do, commit those names to memory quickly.
Mark Peirson, a freelance English teacher, advises calmness and positivity:
“From my experience, the very large majority of students are friendly, reasonable, and on your side. Try not to build them up as something scary, it’s not like a job interview or audition. Don’t be too hard on yourself. If something doesn’t go perfectly, or you don’t know something, just look the answer up and tell them in the next class. Try and enjoy it!”
Tip: Relax – it’s not you
There will be times when students hang on your every word and others when the day progresses as slowly as poured cement. Maybe your lesson bombs, you can’t find the correct answer to a student’s question, you could have presented something better, skipped a section, or found a typo in your worksheet – don’t beat yourself up. Reflect and learn from your mistake, but don’t take it personally. You can’t win them all!
Mandy Welfare, a business English teacher, suggests:
“Collect activities and tricks to use up time! This is very helpful when you’ve finished your plan but still have 15 minutes left.”
Another area some new teachers struggle with is the “to be or not to be their friend” question. Mandy continues:
“For adults, being friendly and understanding helps. Don’t try and be your teenagers’ or kids’ friend. Consistency is key.”
You are your students’ teacher, not their at-school mate. While this doesn’t mean you can’t be friendly, considerate, and “have their back,” it does mean that there are roles – and yours is not BBF.
On support and well-being
Tip: Find your people
Overwhelmed new teachers often feel like the only ones on Earth. Let go of that sensation. Right outside your classroom door, there are people whose job is to support you. Find them. To start, Karen Walton, a special needs head teacher, suggests:
“Get to know the leadership team people who you relate problems to or report to quickly. Know who your go-to person is: these people are your friends!”
Alex Shakhovskoy, a secondary teacher, agrees:
“Find a mentor.”
But who are these support people? Depending on your school type and size (and the problem or question you want to address), your support network might include your sector leader, head of department, deputy principal, director of studies, head of administration, parent/teacher coordinator, and school guidance counsellor. And, of course – the other teachers. Make friends with your colleagues, especially the creative, dedicated, or loved-by-the-students teachers. They have an endless stream of tips, tricks, and hacks up their sleeves and will be your on-site partners in crime and shoulders to cry on.
Put on your own oxygen mask first, say our airlines – and for good reason. You can’t help others if your own reserves are drying up. Bridget Pearce, a secondary teacher, points out that your well-being benefits everyone:
“Take care of yourself first. You will be infinitely more patient and capable of staying on top of everything if you eat well and go to bed early. And drink coffee.”
There’ll be tough days and simple days – but take them in stride. Karen adds:
“Make a habit of leaving school remembering something good that happened that day,” while Bridget continues, “Thank yourself for whatever part of you wanted to be a teacher in the first place. Most people know it’s a tough gig and do it anyway because of a desire to improve the lives of others.”
Like wine, cheese, and memories, teaching gets better with time. Your first semester will be an intense time of change. To thrive, surround yourself with the support of your colleagues, develop good preparation practices, collect resources, tips, tricks, and hacks, and implement strategies for your own well-being.