Advice to New Teachers From a 20-Year Veteran (Opinion)

This school year marks my 20th year as a teacher. Looking back, I learned some important lessons in my teaching career that I would have given any new teacher. These lessons are especially important during the ongoing disruptions of the pandemic, but they will continue to serve you throughout the rest of your career.

  • Take care of yourself first. In teaching, most of our instincts tell us to be selfless, and to be giving. And while this is a noble set of motives, burnout is a real danger to good teachers, especially during this late stage of a pandemic that has created so much uncertainty. You can’t give your best to your work and your students if you can barely stick to it. If you’re sleep-deprived or tired, it’s hard to be patient and understanding. The best teachers are those who take the time to fill themselves with joy and curiosity outside the classroom so that they can give it back to their students.
  • Looking for a mentor. There is no better way to navigate the world of teaching than by using a mentor. The best way to find a good teacher is to observe. See what other teachers are doing in their classrooms. Which ones have meaningful connections with students? Which of them is still energized by the job and can always find humor in any situation but isn’t sarcastic? What class did you like to be in when you were a student? This is the teacher you want to ask to be your teacher. The sooner you can form a relationship with a role model, the better you will be able to deal with the day-to-day challenges of first-year teaching.
  • Consider your reputation. Your professionalism, teaching methodology, collaborative spirit, and willingness to build meaningful relationships are all assets to your teaching career. A colleague always refers to the four math departments by saying that it’s “four live shows a day”. Students always keep a close eye on you – they respond to your energy. Students feel that you are cheating, and they can sense if you care about them. If you are open and honest, you will earn a reputation as someone other teachers can go to for help and advice. If you work hard to build relationships with your students, your colleagues and the community will know about it, too.
  • Mental health is physical health. Teaching can be a stressful endeavor — not in the way you would handle a good night’s sleep. Working with children is fun, enriching and purposeful. But it also means students who make rash decisions, students who lead a precarious home life, or a student whose parents may have cancer. After a year and a half of uncertainty caused by the pandemic, educators are dealing with mental health challenges like never before. The most important part of mental wellness is making room to process what you do, feel, and interact with. Just as teachers work on the social and emotional aspects of student development, we also need to make sure we model good mental health hygiene as well.
  • Get to know your officials. Teaching can sometimes feel like a recluse in a crowd. For most of my school day, I’m the only person over 12 in my class. That is why I confirm my point of view for lunch with my sixth-graders. This is also why I am keen to develop strong relationships with those responsible in my building, in my department, and in my central office. Officials are not a force far behind the scenes. Maintaining clear lines of communication means that you can have an open dialogue with supervisors and that you can ask them to be clear with you about their expectations.
  • Get to know your students and their community. COVID-19 has shown us that schools are often at the heart of the community. They offer education, yes, but also meals for many students, a place for civic participation, extracurricular activities, town meetings, and polling places. Many families have experienced the shock of disease and even death, along with job losses, the eviction crisis, and the slow hardship of the pandemic. Knowing the challenges and celebrations of the community you teach is an important aspect of getting to know your students.
  • Let your students know you This is sometimes the hardest tip to follow. I had older teachers early in my career saying things like, “Don’t let them see you smile until November.” This advice is clearly stupid. and he dose not work. Instead, the students want to get to know you – what your topic is. They care when you talk about your hobbies, travels, or even your own experience as a student. I have a picture of me, my dad, and the 2011 Stanley Cup on a billboard surrounded by Boston Bruins memorabilia, and this little display sparked a lot of great conversations with the kids. I love talking to them about my travels in Greece and Italy and my archaeological excavations. I talk about my husband and how he finds museums boring, while I want to spend hours on one exhibition. I told my students about my seventh grade Latin teacher who taught every class as if he was a great actor on stage and how he lit my love of ancient history. You will find that if you give your students a peek at who you are, they will reciprocate.

I hope that my fellow teachers, especially those new to the profession, can find the right balance between great teaching and self-care. But I also want to be clear: We veteran teachers struggle, too. This pandemic has really rocked us, but we’ve also seen the job get more difficult and complex. Since March 2020, nothing has been clearer to me than that we are all in this together, in our classrooms, in our schools, and in our communities. I wish you a lot of happiness and success this school year, but I want you to allow for growth and reflections too. Over time, all of them make you stronger.

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