Your first year teaching is going to be one of the hardest years of your career. I frequently went home near tears thinking "I just can't do this. It is too hard." But I promise you, it gets easier! I'm in my 10th year teaching and I spend a lot less time planning and preparing than I used to. I write a lot fewer referrals than I used to. Overall everything just gets easier. Looking back, here is a list of 10 things I wish I could have told my first-year-teacher self:
1. Find a mentor teacher
This is one thing I was superbly blessed with. My first job was at a middle school and there was only one other science teacher besides myself. He is nearing retirement, but I've been lucky to teach with him the past 10 years. He is incredibly knowledgeable about all things science and is always happy to explain things to me when I need some clarification before a lesson. Don't be afraid to admit you don't understand something! Because you can't teach it well unless you understand it well.
Mentor teachers can help with content knowledge, share ideas of what labs work and what labs don't work, give you classroom management tips, and be a shoulder to cry on when your spouse just doesn't get what you are going through (because if your spouse isn't a teacher, they won't get it). If you aren't sure where to find one, or what to ask, check out this blog post.
2. Don't re-create the wheel
There is a wealth of science lessons out on the internet for free. Take advantage! Scour the internet before a new unit and find everything you can. Look for facebook groups of middle school or high school science teachers. Read blog posts. Look for interactive websites that students can learn on. Check out Teachers pay Teachers. Don't spend your weekends making powerpoints and worksheets when someone else has already done the work for you.
3. Always do the lab first
There is nothing worse than spending hours prepping a lab, getting the kids excited, and by the end of the lab the data is awful and the lab was an utter failure. The easiest way to avoid this is by doing the lab yourself before you try it with students. As you do the lab, try and identify places students might get confused or make mistakes. Make sure to clarify those things and model the lab procedures to your students before beginning.
4. Predict the pacing of the lesson
One of the hardest things for me my first few years was pacing. I didn't want my lessons to end early, and I didn't want to run out of time. One piece of advice my mentor teacher gave me during student teaching was this: Complete the worksheet or activity on your own and time yourself. Take that time and multiply it by 3 to predict about how long it will take the students to complete. Obviously this will vary, especially depending on how much practice students have already had on the topic. But it was a good starting point and I could plan an extension activity just in case we finished early. (Check out this blog post on what you can do if you are left with 5 minutes at the end of the class).
5. Don't panic over SDS
Maybe it was just my college experience, but my professors put the fear of God in us about SDS (MSDS when I was in school) forms. They told us horror stories about how we would lose our jobs if the fire marshall showed up and we didn't have all our forms in a binder ready to go. Now don't get me wrong- these forms are important. But I was so paranoid about having an SDS form for every chemical in my classroom, including hand sanitizer and whiteboard cleaner.
Long story short: Keep the SDS forms for your chemical inventory, but don't panic over the little stuff like the vinegar you bought at the grocery store. When your chemical orders arrive, don't throw out the SDS forms. Put them in a binder and keep them in the chemical storage room. Many sites such as Flinn Scientific even have an online inventory resource where it will keep track of the chemicals you have on hand and the SDS forms for each chemical. Talk to your colleagues and find a method that works for everyone.
6. Don't grade everything
Oh how I wish someone had told me this sooner! Grading can take over your life if you let it. So stop grading everything (but don't tell this to your students). Different teachers have different methods of grading and saving their sanity, so talk to your colleagues and pick what works for you. Here are a few ideas:
7. As a new teacher without management experience, use labs as incentives.
Classroom management is something that can take years to master. And as soon as you think you have it down, you get a new group of students that rock your world (and not in a good way). One way I've found to keep students in line is to use lab experiments as incentives. If classes are well behaved for the week, they get to do a lab on Friday. If they have been off task, noisy, constantly tardy, or disrespectful then they do a book work assignment instead. Once they hear they will miss out on a fun lab experiment that other class periods got to complete, they will quickly toe the line.
8. Don't be afraid to admit when you mess up
We are human. We all mess up. Don't be afraid to admit it to your students. One year I was teaching surface area to volume ratio in my cells unit and totally screwed up the math. I knew I was teaching it wrong when I had a really bright student saying "Miss, I don't think this answer is making sense." So I went home, reviewed the lesson, figured out where I was going wrong, and came back the next day ready to re-teach. If you are too prideful to admit your mistakes it is only hurting the students. They will also respect you a lot more when you admit your mistakes and show that you are human too.
9. Prep for the following day before you go home
Sometimes this one is hard to follow, but it is something I feel is important. I make sure I don't leave for the day unless I am ready to go for the following day. Yes, this includes Fridays too! Have your objective written on the board, copies ready to go, powerpoint or activity reviewed, and answer key ready. Your day will go so much smoother when you come in to an organized classroom instead of waiting in the copy machine line 5 minutes before the bell behind the teacher making 1000 copies. Just don't risk it.
10. Take an occasional mental health day
Making sub plans sucks. Often times it feels easier to just come in to work sick than have to get a sub plan ready. But your mental health is super important. If you are tired, worn out, sick, or have other things going on in your life that is affecting your teaching- take a day off. Find a high interest article for the students to read and take a breather. (You can find free articles on newsela.com or check out my free close reading article on botox in my TpT store).
Sometimes I even make the sub assignments extra credit because many students think when there is a sub they have a free day. It is a small bonus for the students that really did work on the assignment. Anyway- you can't be there for your students when you haven't taken care of yourself. Plan one day a quarter that is a day you can rest and recoup.
Good luck in your new teaching career! Remember- it gets easier. Yes, you will work 70 hours per week that first year. But by year 3 you will have everything down and teach like a pro. And when students write you letters about the impact you made on their life all those hours will be worth it. If you have questions leave them in the comments!