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Ask the teacher: What I wish I had known in my first year of teaching

The teachers on the Quizalize team
The teachers on the Quizalize team

The teachers on the Quizalize team (L-R): Heather, Chris, Sean and Margot.

Heather, Chris and I are all teachers. Each of us has taught in different schools, teaching different subjects and in different countries.

So we thought we would try and answer some of the age-old questions about your first year of teaching. You will see that our responses couldn’t be more different — just like our environments and personalities. You are never going to be the strong disciplinarian if you aren’t capable of intimidating students, stick to your strengths and you will be just dandy!

1. What would be the most important thing to do on the first day?

Margot: Learn where the toilets are (and everything else)! Before the kids start, make sure you know your routes to class and timings of lessons. You will have new students to the school too and they will be relying on you to know!

Chris: Establish rapport with your students and get them excited about what you want to accomplish together. Don’t be afraid to break the mold and get away from the traditional “rules and expectations” lecture on the first day. Get them engaged, moving around, interacting, etc. 

Heather: Get to school early so you’re not frazzled, take deep breaths, mentally run through what you’ve planned for your classes and remember that you’ll be more than fine. Nerves are normal and happen to even the most experienced teachers — the anxiety that leads up to a class is often 1000x worse than the actual class itself! 

In class, the most important thing to do on the first day is definitely to set your top two or three rules and expectations. You want to get this into your students’ heads before the fun begins, or it won’t stick! Also, any more than two or three solid rules and I find that students tend not to remember or disregard them.

2. How did you learn all your student’s names?

Chris: Oof! To be honest I was absolutely terrible at this. I made an effort to repeat back their names each time I spoke to them and to not take it personally if I got the name wrong. I also made a point of saying “Hi _____________ “ each time I saw them outside of class.

Heather: There are some students whose names you get to know immediately, while others’ take a longer time to stick. Your brain is doing you a favour with the easy-to-remember ones, so make sure you never forget them! With the others, I set myself weekly targets of 5-10 names per class to memorize each week. Building on memorizing their names bit by bit is much more effective than trying to remember a whole list at once, and also minimizes confusion on your part! It also helps if you make it a point to call on a few of those students whose names you’re trying to memorize to answer questions in class.

Margot: I printed out headshots of each student in my class and revised the names each night (all 400 of them). I asked students to say their names as they answered a question and I would repeat their name back to them with my response. I learned about 5 names per class per lesson, slowly tailing off as the last few evaded me. Ultimately, you learn your trouble makers first, then the kids that answer all the questions, with the rest being filled in as you go.  Most students don’t mind repetitive asking in the first few weeks and the odd slip up after a few months.  I did find using student names an essential tool for behavior management but don’t stress too much.  It is the teaching that matters most!

3. Who is the best person to get pally with in the school?

Margot: The receptionist, she was always my best friend in the school.  She keeps out unwanted calls and visitors, has an ear on the ground for any student issues and will help you out whenever needed. She was my life saver on more than one occasion!

Chris: Your students! You are going to spend a vast majority of your time with them so it’s important they see you as a human being and not a robot that needs plugging in after the day is over. But of course, you still need adult companionship so my advice is to gravitate toward those you enjoy being around. You should maintain a professional relationship with everyone you work with (especially veterans in your PLC/department) and endeavor to ask for advice and support, but having people you enjoy being around is also critical.

Heather: Having the more experienced teachers who’ve been at the school for years on your side is always a plus. They’re pros at what they do, know the ins and outs of the school, and always have the best advice! I used to have a few “work moms” at school who always looked out for me and were always on hand to reassure me and offer me advice when I was stressed out or uncertain. They made a huge difference when I was a fledgling teacher. (Bonus: They were often amazing cooks who were generous with food as well! 😋 )

4. What three pieces of advice would you give a new teacher?

Heather: 1. Trust yourself — you’re doing your best, and you’re more capable than you give yourself credit for.

2. When it gets to be too much, remember that you’re doing this for your students.

3. Take care of yourself! 

Chris: 1. Be yourself. If you are not a “strict” teacher by nature, don’t try to be. Being a teacher is very much an acting job but if you’re playing someone you don’t feel comfortable playing then you will exhaust yourself quickly.

2. Don’t reinvent the wheel. There are so many resources already at your disposal from the internet to your colleagues. You don’t have to create everything from scratch.

3. Practice what you preach. Every day you ask students to go outside their comfort zone and try new things. Don’t be a hypocrite. There are tools and resources available that may take some work to learn how to use in the beginning but have huge payoffs in the long-term. Be open to adapting new things into your lessons and routines.

Margot: 1. Sweat the small stuff.  This is said a lot and it does depend on your school, but if there is a strict uniform policy, follow it.  You let Tommy into your lesson without his tie on and he will think you don’t mind homework being 2 days late too!

2. Prepare.  It is true what they say fail to prepare, then prepare to fail.  With teaching, there is so much technology available that you are able to plan lessons in advance and use the data to inform future planning.  Use these to prep for the upcoming week and always have a backup.

3. Attend Friday staff drinks.  Trust me, everyone is in the same situation as you.  If you are having problems with Carole, other teachers will be too.  They may even offer up some tips on how to manage Carole in your lessons.

5. Don’t smile till Christmas, is this true?

Heather: It couldn’t be true for me even if I tried — my default expression is a smile! I was initially worried about this, but if you win the trust and respect of your class in other ways and make sure to set ground rules and expectations early on in the year, you don’t always have to be super strict and uptight to manage a class.

Margot: I love this one, I was certainly told this before my first teaching job. I actually see that it can be useful to some. But I smile all the time so definitely couldn’t manage till Christmas without. I prefer to manage my classes by getting them to enjoy the learning they are doing — then behavior just falls into line. However, first years do get a few very serious lessons the first time they meet me!!

Chris: If it was appropriate to cuss in this setting I would do it now. I COULDN’T DISAGREE WITH THIS SAYING MORE. Create a positive and welcoming environment from Day 1. You can’t do that without being empathetic, open, honest, and kind, and I can’t imagine you being able to do any of that without smiling.

6. What item is most valuable to you as a teacher?

Margot: My watch! I use it to wake me in the morning, get me into school on time, pace my lesson, stopwatch timings of student races and handing it out to students to give them responsibility in the lesson (behavior management). But failing that probably the interactive whiteboard, thousands of web applications ready for me to use 😍.

Heather: My planner! I use my planner religiously. It has all my to-dos, reminders, lesson plans and important dates (not just for myself but also my students and classes — and trust me, there are many of these when you’re a teacher). I had a heavier-than-usual number of classes to teach because of a staff shortage, and my planner helped me keep on top of things and make sure I didn’t compromise my teaching or the quality of my lessons. Without my planner, my classes and I couldn’t function! 

Chris: Your computer. Organize your folders and files early, use the internet to continue to find resources and lesson plans, and find ways to automate your tasks as much as possible (e.g. digital formative assessment, online tutorials/games, simulations, digital labs, etc.). You will thank yourself later.

7. What do you use your prep time for?

Chris: Checking my fantasy football team. Seriously, don’t feel guilty about relaxing in the middle of the day. It’s not the end of the world if every minute of your lesson isn’t micromanaged and you’re a little behind on grading.

Margot: Planning lessons, reading, grading, report writing, phoning parents, gossiping, catching up with colleagues, organizing sports fixtures.  The list is endless.  There is not enough prep time for the work to be completed.  I once tried to explain it to my non-teacher friends: It’s like having a day full of meetings, every day, now still complete your full workload, follow up from today’s meetings and plan tomorrows full day of meetings 🤯. Seriously though, using technology, self-marking assessments, and preplanned lessons will take some of the strain. Use your prep time to do things that may be difficult after school eg. Calling parents is often easier when students aren’t around.

Heather: Marking and non-stop grading of work! This often boils over in to weekend time as well, unfortunately. I also plan lessons and create my own worksheets and practice questions tailored specifically to my classes. This is very time-consuming, but so worth it. Our school also had a weekly lecture system that teachers in a grade took turns giving, so planning lectures and slides were also a big part of prep time. Oh, and of course, scarfing down snacks because some days you barely have any time to eat!

8. How often do you grade your books?

Heather: Very often, because for me it’s such an important part of really getting to know your students’ learning disposition and level of understanding. I need to know how my students are doing so I can best help them and know how to plan my lessons and learning materials. At the same time, as my workload and number of classes increased, I had to remind myself not to beat myself up if I couldn’t keep up a consistently high level of marking and grading. Sometimes you want to be a superhero and do it all, but you can’t — you just have to do your best with the time and resources you have.

Chris: The most obvious answer is as soon as it’s completed by the students, but that’s 100% unrealistic and you shouldn’t hold yourself to that standard. Definitely explore digital formative assessment platforms like Quizalize so that a system does your grading for you and provides in-depth analysis of the results. Whenever you do receive student feedback that cannot be automatically graded by a computer, take your time getting it back to the students so the feedback is as meaningful as possible.

Margot: For me, when I think they need it.  For my school, at least every two weeks. Marking student books can be a great way to diagnose any gaps in learning. But don’t worry if you miss a week, use students to peer mark and I am sure you will get away with it!

9. How do you create a love of learning in your students?

Margot: Set work at the right level, differentiation is everything.  It is human nature to want to achieve, if you make that accessible for every student they will want to learn more and you will see huge class progress! If work is too easy for a student they switch off, bored they will find something more mentally stimulating (like chatting with their neighbor). Work too hard, they can’t understand and will find something else to do.  On top of this, let students lead their learning, be creative and most of all fun!

Chris: I can’t force them to love anything but I can create an environment where learning results in positive outcomes. The key is to show evidence of learning and acknowledge when learning has been achieved, especially outside the classroom. Keep an eye on their extracurriculars, their interests, and current events. As much as you can, make connections between your lessons and what they are passionate about.

Heather: By being excited about what I’m teaching! If you know me, you know I’m the most easily excitable and overly enthusiastic person, and I think this worked in my favor as a teacher. Excitement is contagious, after all! I also put myself in the shoes of my students to find things relevant and interesting to them. As an English teacher, this meant finding news items that really affected them, or poems that spoke about universal truths about being human. Once your students see that they have a responsibility — to each other, themselves, and the planet — as members of the human race, and you can link the things you teach to that, they’ll see that there is so much to learn, and love learning in the process. Being honest in talking about my own experiences as a student also helped, because students love it when they see you are a human being with flaws and weaknesses just like them.

10. What behavior management system/ tools did you use?

Heather: I am not a naturally domineering person, so a big part of classroom management for me was building strong relationships with my students. Winning their trust and respect meant that they were more likely to listen to me because they wanted to, not just because they had to, which was important for me. At the same time, I always made it clear that I held myself and my students to high standards, and they’d be sorry when they disappointed them!

Margot: I would predominantly prepare well for lessons with differentiated activities to create a stimulating lesson. I often had students moaning when the lesson ended, if they are enjoying it, on the most part, behavior doesn’t become an issue. However, if students stepped out of line, non-verbal clues such as tapping their desk or hand on their shoulder. Verbal warnings and following through if there had been major issues. I have worked at some very difficult schools and found if a school tried to implement a whole-school policy, teachers found it obtrusive as it may not fit in with their way of teaching.

Chris: This is such a tough question. I personally thrived in a classroom built on chaos, but of course, that’s part of my personality. I think mutual respect is the most important part of a functioning classroom. Try not to be punitive and arbitrary. I don’t care how young your students are, they deserve an explanation and to be part of the discussion regarding rules and expectations. If you can’t adequately explain why a rule is important, then you might need to rethink the rule or how you are enforcing it.

11. How do you unwind/deal with the stresses that come with working in a school?

Heather: By ranting to my colleagues, ha! Truly, there are some things that only fellow teachers will be able to empathize with. At the same time, though, it’s important to hang out with non-teacher friends and family, so that you’re reminded that there is life outside school, as it can be so easy to get caught up in the bubble of school life. I also have a really close teacher pal in another school, and we’d make it a point to go for yoga and exercise classes on weekdays after school to relieve stress! 

Chris: Focus on the little wins. There are so many little moments that make being a teacher worth it. Not everything is going to break your way and it may even seem sometimes like the bad outweighs the good. Dwelling on the positive impact you are having on your students will get you through to the light at the end of the tunnel.

Margot: I play a lot of sport, I find it is helpful to get those frustrations out on the pitch so as not to bring it into work and lose my temper with the students. Podcasts are great too, hearing other teachers making fun of the school system helps you remember you are not alone. And of course, that Friday glass of wine with the rest of the staff!

So there it is! A bunch of mixed responses.  I hope this settles your nerves and gives you some new ideas for the school year.

Can you guess where and what each of us taught?

1 thought on “Ask the teacher: What I wish I had known in my first year of teaching”

  1. I have no idea what subjects you teach. But I think Heather works in elementary school and the rest in middle or high school.
    Thank you, it was interesting to read about the real teaching experience. Pretty soon I’ll be a teacher, too, when I get my diploma. I’m already waiting for this moment, with anticipation and a little fear)))

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