I walked away from international schools and education in 2019 after 35 years, five schools, and thousands of miles! I involved myself in a mentor program between Seniors (yes that’s me, the 65-year-old variety) and student-athletes at the University of North Carolina, Asheville, USA. Hannah, a volleyball athlete, English major, and aspiring middle school/high school English teacher was my mentee. She graduated in May 2022 and was hired shortly thereafter to teach Grade 7 Language Arts in her home state of Illinois. I decided to present her with a graduation gift to jump start her thinking about her first year as a teacher. I posted a request from my many educator friends on Facebook seeking their advice for a first year teacher. What I received back was a well-articulated and personally inspiring collection of advice from several dozen veteran educators. The advice broke neatly into four categories: Building Relationships, Establishing Structures and Expectations, Self-Care, and the Learning Environment. I presented the graduation present to Hannah a couple of weeks ago. I’m certain there are nuggets within the document that will help her be a better first year teacher. I’m equally certain that the advice is applicable to veterans and rookies alike and, in particular, to those who are switching positions or schools as a new school year begins.
The most common piece of advice was about building relationships. Schools are all about people and healthy relationships are at the core of the business of education.
Advice about building relationships:
- Every child wants to be seen.
- Each day a child shows up with their individual back story. It’s a story that should be unlocked.
- Demonstrate interest in your students and build individual connections.
- Recognize that each moment you spend with a student is ripe for creating short-term connections and possible lifelong memories. Even in the most benign seeming moments, a connection can be found and a child can feel seen.
- As challenging as it might be, spend extra time with kids who annoy you the most. As a colleague noted, remember that “their job is to push the envelope and challenge you.” A strategy noted by a friend is to “send positive messages (emails) about your challenging students to their parents. Often they only hear bad news, a positive message goes a long way.”
One former colleague wrote “get to know as much as possible about them individually. Greet them each day with a unique message (i.e., you did a great job at the volleyball game yesterday, your writing is ready to be published, etc.)." Students also recognize when you are insincere. In building relationships, be fair and consistent. Students see through discrepancies and if you are not genuine, students will see through you. Middle school kids are refining their “B.S. Detectors.”
A schoolhouse has layers upon layers of relationships. As a new teacher, or as a teacher in a new school, building connections with colleagues is critical. Another former colleague advised, “Build relationships with colleagues, admin, and school staff – custodians, secretaries, and other non-teacher personnel. To your colleagues and students, strive to demonstrate hunger, humility, and intelligence.” Your colleagues will appreciate and respect such an approach. You can learn a great deal from your experienced colleagues. Having said that, an expression I’ve carried with me for years is “don’t water the rocks.” In other words, don’t put excessive energy into an energy trap and be dragged down by negative or cynical energy.
Above all, give yourself and your students grace. Be kind as they will always remember kindness. Be authentic as students want to know you are a real person. And do not forget to have fun, laugh, and smile.
Celebrate and Look After Yourself
A significant number of responses referenced self-care and celebration. Teaching is an exhausting, frustrating, challenging, and rewarding profession. It’s hard work on a day-to-day basis. Taking care of oneself, mentally, emotionally, and professionally, is essential. Expect to be pushed to your limits. Along the way, ensure that you make time for yourself, as a colleague wrote, “to rest, restore, and rejoice.”
Advice about self-care:
- Have outlets for yourself. Remember everything you are makes you a better teacher
- Many times, it will not go as planned. Plan, plan, and plan, and then be ready to throw out plans and wing it!
- Keep an open mind and be flexible.
- Find tools to exercise your curiosity and bring inspiration (journals, podcasts, articles).
- It can be exhilarating one moment and completely crushing the next. Remember you are human, and your students are human.
- Charge forward!
- Don’t take things personally. Trust your instincts.
- Everyone screws up sometimes. Treat yourself with kindness, forgiveness, acceptance, encouragement, and love... especially when rough patches hit.
- One colleague wrote, “Remember your 7th grade self and the selves of the kids you just couldn’t understand when you were in 7th grade? Well, they are with you every day in every class as are you!” It’s a good exercise to recall your own middle school experiences.
- Always look for the gold nuggets in your class.
- Be kind, don’t fear failure, and challenge yourself!
Finally, a colleague I watched for 15 years summed up her advice with this nugget, “The 1st year is hardest, you will have self-doubt, make mistakes, and spend a lot of time on lesson plans. Some of them won’t work (this is also true for your last year to be honest). But don’t be hard on yourself, ask for advice, and remember that you are human.”
Establish Structures and Expectations
Structures and clear expectations are important in classrooms. Students want structure and fairness. Establishing class norms and expectations that are built collaboratively with students is a good first step.
Comments about structures and expectations:
- Include student voices in building expectations. Have periodic class meetings to review and edit as needed. Be sure everyone’s voice is part of the expectations.
- Keep expectations around structure simple with words. Avoid overused words that tend to have little meaning (i.e., respect). That’s a word/expression that is always used. Try to capture respect with what it looks like, feels like, and perhaps in other words.
- Nurture a safe learning environment in which to inquire.
- Bring two ears for listening.
- Be transparent. Students follow your lead. They want fairness, transparency, and care.
Learning Is at the Core
A healthy learning environment is the ultimate goal. Strong relationships, clear structures and expectations, and a sense of personal efficacy are foundational to establishing a learning environment.
Comments about the learning environment:
- Be playful, learning should be fun.
- Find unusual or provocative ways to approach a new concept. Recognize when amusing things happen. Seventh-grade kids are hilarious without even knowing it.
- Provide as many opportunities as possible for students to work together, and to approach projects in a variety of creative ways.
- Make “active learning” the foundation for your shared learning journey. Every student has something to contribute. Establish this as an expectation and aspiration
- Kids connect better when they see a teacher “moved” by issues featured in books and being brave to show it. The laughter, tears, and perils of our characters become our own as we devour stories.
- Don’t be afraid to answer a question with “I don’t know, let’s find out.”
- Watch other teachers and borrow anything that looks like it might be worth trying.
- Recognize the effort of your students and find a way for everyone to contribute.
- Seek to be non-judgmental.
- Critical thinking is central to everything.
- Give them your heart. They can read you and know when you are being true. What you can teach them about language arts is far less important than what you teach them about life, through being open and honest.
When I shared this list with Hannah, I challenged her to read through it and identify a few comments that stood out. She told me that it was a difficult task because there were so many useful ideas! I hope she finds the list and re-reads it after six weeks and six months and six years. I’m certain it is timeless advice!
Geoff Smith is a veteran of 35 years as an overseas educator in India, Israel, Indonesia, Ghana, and South Africa. He spent three years as a tech coordinator at American Embassy School, Delhi, four years as a vice principal at the American International School, Israel, 17 years as a tech coordinator and vice principal/principal at Jakarta Intercultural School, Indonesia, five years at Lincoln Community School in Accra, Ghana, and four years as a high school principal at the American International School of Johannesburg, South Africa. He holds a B.S. from the University of Michigan and an Ed.M. from Harvard. He retired in 2019 and still considers his Principles Training Center experiences of the early 90s as outstanding professional development!