Advice for a First Year Teacher

Some how I blinked, and 12 months have gone by. This time last year, I was finishing up my last assignments to complete my MASTERS degree in special education. I had just been hired for my first ever teaching assignment. I was equal parts excited and terrified. 
Being a first year teacher has been everything I thought it would be and so much more. Going in, I thought I knew what I was getting into, but oh boy. It was a whirlwind of information and trying new things and questioning everything I ever learned in college. 
After starting my teacher Instagram account last summer, I reached out asking for advice for a first year teacher. I originally compiled them in a blog post back in July, but now after a year of teaching, I wanted to re-share them and add my two-sense as to how the advice held up after a year in the classroom. 
So here are the top 5 pieces of advice for first year teachers (in no particular order):

  1. It’s okay to take a mental health day.
Teaching is supposedly a more stressful job than being a brain surgeon. I was never good at science, and I don’t like blood, so I’ll never know for sure, but I can see how it could be. We are responsible for future generations, y’all! Think about it: One of us has taught the future president of the United States. We may have even told him or her to “flush the potty!” But no pressure, guys!
We have to be teachers, planners, organizers, counselors, parents, nurses, technology experts, coaches, judges, police officers… the list doesn’t end. It will be overwhelming at times. That’s why self-care is SO important. You can’t pour from an empty bucket. Need a mental health day? Take a mental health day.  Need a mental health five minute break? Take a mental health five minute break. Do what you need to do for yourself to make sure you’re given your best self to your class.
Post first-year thoughts: SO. MUCH. YES. I didn't fully realize exactly just how stressed out I would be. Just how much thoughts of my students would overtake my brain. I wish I could say I handled it all with grace, but.....  However, I definitely did take this advice. My lunch period was exactly that. I turned on music and ate my lunch, regrouping for the rest of the day. And I did take some personal days. That's what they're there for! 
My husband and I took a personal day in September to attend my cousin's wedding in Asheville, North Carolina.

2. It’s okay to turn off your teacher brain at least one day a week.
This ties into #1, but it’s a little different. The teacher who recommended this says she takes every Saturday to turn off her teacher brain. This might look like unplugging from your cell phone and emails. It might look like letting that paper work sit a little while longer in your teacher bag. It might look lots of different ways. But it SHOULD look like you being you for a day. For me, that means I will focus on my family. I will watch a movie. I will go for a walk or do yoga. I will take that time for myself and know that “teacher mode” will be ready and waiting when I am ready to return.
Post first-year thoughts: This was so much more difficult than I imagined it would be. I'm some what of a work-a-holic. I get ideas and run with them and want them done and perfect ASAP! Turning off my teacher brain was a conscious decision I had to make. I had to CHOOSE to leave things at work. I had to CHOOSE to leave my phone in another room, or at the very least turn off notifications. And sometimes, it wasn't for a whole day. But it could at least be after my daughter went to bed or after we'd had some quality family time. I need to work on this some more next year. 
I went home after this and wrote an IEP. But that was the last thing on my mind when this picture was taken.
Family first. Always.

3. It’s okay to not know everything.
Be vulnerable. Ask for help. This is not a sign of weakness; it is a sign that you want to learn and grow in your profession. When I interviewed, the teacher helping in the conference room told me, “We don’t expect you to know everything. We don’t expect everything to go perfectly. What we DO expect is that when you don’t know something, and things aren’t going right, that you ask for help. That’s what we’re here for.” One person wrote to me, “I was so scared to ask questions my first year; I thought I was going to look unprofessional or unprepared, but I ended up looking worse for not asking questions.”
We’d like to believe that we are going to enter our classrooms like Mary Poppins descending from a cloud. I’m imagining it’s going to be more like when Dumbo loses that “magic feather” and starts careening toward the ground. But Dumbo does learn to fly, with the help of his friend. Use those teacher friends to help you your first year. They won’t mind.
Post first-year thoughts: I think I might have asked more questions of my fellow teachers than my students asked of my. I kind of took this advice to heart. And you know what, it totally paid off. I learned enough to now be able to explain it to others. My brain hurts from all the info, but it's so amazing to realize how much I have grown as a teacher in just a year.
When an interesting Professional Development opportunity came my way, I asked my principal if I could attend. I'll be giving a turn-around training to my co-workers next month!

4. It’s okay not to be Pinterest-perfect.
We’ve all seen them. The gorgeous rainbow rooms filled with flexible seating and classroom libraries to die for. We think, “Oh, if I had THAT room…” Wanna know a secret? The teachers in “that” room know it doesn’t look like that in real life. One of my favorite accounts posted an IG vs. Real Life picture of her classroom. The IG post was swoon-worthy. The real life post was relatable. It was her classroom library, previously organized and labeled, currently strewn all over the classroom with the bookshelf turned to face the wall because one of the students tried to climb it and hide inside the top shelf. Classrooms are for the students; not for “likes.” Does that mean we shouldn’t spend time decorating? Of course not! My classroom is my happy place; I want it to be inviting for my students. I WANT to decorate it. But I WON’T use it to compare myself as unworthy to others.
Post first-year thoughts: Be real. That's what builds relationships. No one is perfect, and people like to know they're not alone in their struggles, their messes, their imperfections. So embrace the mess and focus on the wonderful.
My room last summer while I was getting it ready. I have rearranged. Added and removed items.
It's covered in student art and paperwork and real life. I like it so much more now!

5. It’s okay if nothing goes according to plan.
Student needs come first. Always prioritize your students’ needs above your lesson plan. I can have the most well-written lesson plan that has ever been written. But if my students are not learning, then I have failed. Don’t be so stuck in following a plan that you miss out on an opportunity to teach. It might be that you need to reteach an idea or concept. It might be that you can skip ahead. As long as the students’ needs are being met, everything else will fall into place. Another person said, “Live in the moment. Every lesson will not go perfectly. You will make mistakes. As teachers, we never stop learning.”
Post first-year thoughts: Here's a hint. Virtually nothing will go according to plan. And if it's looking like it might, brace yourself. There's probably about to be a fire drill. But that's ok! The biggest part of my job has been learning to adapt. And that's not just a special education term. Changing activities on the fly because that's what's best for the students is TOTALLY FINE. So many times, my carefully planned activity turned out not at all like I imagined, but the kids still learned! So it was still a success.
By throwing the plan out the window, these precious children had the opportunity to work together to help their friend with her addition. One kept her hand as a divider between the two addend groups. The other helped count with one-to-one correspondence to make sure she got the right answer. It took a while, and we weren't able to get everything finished, but what happened was so much more important than what I had planned.

Here’s one more piece of advice. A bonus, if you will. One that really stuck out to me.
Find teachers who share your passion and fire for teaching. They will be the teachers who help hold you up on hard days and help you become better educators.
A negative attitude can be toxic. Don’t allow yourself to be brought down. If you can’t find a passionate teacher, BE a passionate teacher. Stay positive. Stay in love with the teaching field. Be that light that draws people in, students and teachers alike. Remember why you became a teacher. Remember how excited you are to begin this journey. And remember…
It’s okay!

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