First-Year Teacher: Your Questions, Answered!

Congratulations on your new teaching job! I’m guessing that if you’re reading this, you’re in the “What the heck do I do now?” phase of overwhelming joy and sheer panic! You were probably ecstatic when you received the keys to your first classroom, but now that you can see the first day of school circled on your calendar, you don’t even know where to start.

The good news: It’s normal. You’re normal. We’ve all been there. You can be thrilled and absolutely terrified at the same time. Happy about school but sad about the end of summer. Excited to meet your students but stressed about filling your 45-minute class period. I get it!

To give you the answers I needed as a nervous first-year teacher, I asked new teachers to submit questions over on my Instagram. My inbox was flooded within minutes, so this first-year teacher Q&A endeavor is going to take more than one blog post! This one will focus on the most immediate concerns and the “big picture” of teaching, and the following posts will address lesson planning, teaching, grading, etc. I hope that my advice will at least help you calm your nerves and give you a chance to start thinking ahead to your first year. Good luck, and let me know what other questions you have in the comments!

1. What should I do the summer before my first teaching job?

Before I give you any specific suggestions, here’s my best piece of advice: Try to RELAX! Rest and recharge, read books for fun, spend time with family and friends, and do whatever makes you happy. You will need to be mentally prepared for the whirlwind that is your first year of teaching, so take care of yourself. Invest in yourself this summer so that you are fully ready to take on the challenge of teaching in the fall.

That being said, if you feeling inspired and want to “work,” I would recommend a little bit of PD on your own time. Read blogs and professional development books! (My preferred method is reading by the pool.) If you’re an ELA teacher, I recommend anything by Kelly Gallagher, Kylene Beers, Jeff Anderson, and Penny Kittle. If you want specific recommendations, I’ve compiled my favorite PD books on this Amazon list. Listen to podcasts like Cult of Pedagogy and Truth for Teachers! Attend free virtual conferences, and if you can make an investment, consider an online workshop like Keeping the Wonder.

As far as planning goes, plan the first few days of school (more on this in a few questions), draft your expectations & routines, and maybe outline the rest of your units. Whatever you do, do NOT over-plan. You won’t really know how to teach until you meet your specific group of kiddos. I remember I did too much planning the summer before my first year. I didn’t use a lot of it and some of the stuff I forced myself to use (only because I had spent hours creating it during the summer) did not work out well. 

2. How should I decorate my first classroom?

It’s exhilarating and intimidating to get the keys to your very first classroom, and many of us feel compelled to go crazy decorating it! That feeling is only amplified when we scroll through Instagram and Pinterest and see picture-perfect classrooms. If you’re looking at my classroom now, please rest assured that it did not look ANYTHING like that my first year of teaching. In fact, I started my first year with some blank bulletin boards; they had paper and borders but nothing actually on them.

My first classroom
My first classroom: It was simple, but I adored it. Those flowers and file folders made me so happy!

My best advice for approaching classroom decorations as a first-year teacher is this: Do what you can. Do what you have the time, money, and patience for, but don’t overdo it. Do what feels natural to you, and don’t compare your classroom to others’. Your classroom does not have to be perfect on Day 1, or ever. You have 10 other months of the school year to add to your classroom decor. You can do a little at a time. That’s what I did my first year and every year after that.

If you want some practical ideas for decorating your first classroom, I’m working on another blog post on easy, affordable decor “hacks.” In the meantime, here’s what I recommend (based on what I did as a first-year teacher). 

  • Find or design a set of posters and throw them up on your walls so that your room feels welcoming! ( I have a few poster sets here.)
  • Set up your bulletin boards with paper/borders but feel free to leave them blank or add a “Student work coming soon!” sign.
  • Add a few things that make you happy. Maybe this means photos of you and your loved ones, some fake flowers from the Dollar Tree, or a few teacher-y trinkets for your desk.

3. What are must-buys for my classroom, and what can wait until my second year?

For your first year, focus on the functionality of your classroom. What will directly help your students learn? What will improve procedures and help you stay organized? Prioritize functional, organizational supplies that serve a purpose.

My desk calendar is a LIFE-SAVER and this 2-drawer organizer is perfect as a catch-all for papers that pile up.
  • Must-Buys: First, a PSA: Don’t buy too much stuff, because you don’t know what will work, what won’t work, and what you need. You can buy as you go, too. Nothing has to be perfect on Day 1. Here’s what helped me:
    • Desk calendar to jot down important dates, meetings, and deadlines
    • Pen/pencil caddy
    • Drawers/a tray/something to organize the inevitable pile of random papers that will accumulate on your desk
    • A planner, whether it’s a paper-and-pencil or digital (You can check out my favorite digital planning app here, and see how I use my paper planners here)
    • Turn-in-trays/drawers/some kind of organizational system for students to turn in work
    • If you are an ELA teacher: BOOKS! I actually spent a lot of time thrifting books for my mini classroom library because I wanted to foster a love of reading from the start. As a first-year teacher, this was a priority of mine, even though it meant staking out Goodwill and Half Price Books’ clearance section that summer!

Anything that is not directly related to the functionality of your classroom can wait until your second year or even later. If you can’t quickly determine the purpose of something, you probably don’t need it.

The pretty Year 5 classroom you see here is a result of years of waiting! I did not have almost any of this stuff my first year or two of teaching.
  • Can Wait: Here are a few examples of things that I love but I definitely waited to purchase/do because I did not have the time or money my first year of teaching:
    • The cutesy wood-grain wallpaper
    • Flexible seating (Before you implement flex seating, check out this post)
    • Extra decoration and all of those trinkets from the Target Dollar spot that we all want but don’t need
    • Additional lighting
    • A nice 10-drawer cart for student work/copies (I made do with some cheap trays my first year)
    • Elaborate bulletin boards

4. What should I include on a syllabus?

I remember asking myself the same thing as a first-year teacher! I thought I needed to have every last routine, consequence, and detail on my syllabus, as if it was some legal, binding document that would set the tone for the entire year. Ridiculous, I know! But it is intimidating! Over the years, I’ve learned that a) you can’t include EVERYTHING on a syllabus & b) the kids won’t want to read it and you’ll probably find more than one on your floor or in your recycling bin. I’ve always realized that starting the school year with the syllabus on the first day of school is BO-RING and I will never do that again (but more on that in a minute).

After realizing this my first year of teaching, I redesigned my syllabus and created an infographic syllabus my second year. This forced me to simplify my syllabus, cut the fluff, and keep only the essentials. Last year, I took it one step further and created a syllabus brochure that combined the infographic elements and added my Bitmoji.

This is what I included:

  • Teacher contact info
  • Brief course description
  • Expectations
  • Grading policies
  • Materials & technology requirements
  • Plagiarism warning & consequences
  • Summary of learning goals/course objectives

5. What should I do the first few days of school?

Build relationships and set expectations! This is going to be my short-and-sweet answer to this question, but for the full version, check out this blog post that outlines my first few days back to school.

  • First Day: As a first-year teacher, I made the mistake of boring my students with a “Get to Know Miss G” slideshow, but a few years ago, I found a solution that is much more engaging: my “Investigate the Teacher” Activity! Now, I make my students do the hard work of getting to know me by “investigating” my classroom for clues about me! This activity engaging and kinesthetic, but it’s also a great way to take the spotlight off me, which makes for a more enjoyable first day of school.
  • Second Day: I hate going over the syllabus in front of the whole class, so I don’t. Instead, I use Back-to-School Learning Stations to cover the syllabus and expectations in a more engaging way, gather student info, facilitate goal-setting, and incorporate some fun get-to-know-you stuff.
  • Third Day: My goal for the first few days of school is always simple: Get to know my students! Learning can’t happen until I know their names, their interests, and their dreams. I want to get to know them as human beings, and my Personality Test & Reflection is my favorite way to do that. This activity helps me understand my students, but it also helps them better understand themselves!

6. Did you experience any nervousness or anxiety about speaking in front of the class?

Absolutely! As a first-year teacher, I was SO nervous for my first day of school. I still get nervous, and I’ve been teaching for 5 years! I’ve talked to other educators about it, and it sounds like it’s something that gets easier year by year, but it might not ever go away (unless you’re just a natural speaker; I’m not). Rest assured it’s completely normal.

I remember being so nervous just because I was so overwhelmed by the idea of first impressions. I was worried I would forget what to say or say the wrong thing. And yes, my first day of teaching, I talked too fast, I stumbled over my words, and I forgot some things, but I had fun and I knew I was in the right place. That nervousness, my bad habit of talking too fast, the times I stumbled over my words…it just made me human. I remember leaving my classroom on the first day and feeling so genuinely happy and fulfilled. Sure, it was a whirlwind, and it wasn’t perfect, but it didn’t have to be. Nobody should be expecting perfection from a first-year teacher! Your administration, students, and fellow colleagues should only be expecting your best.

7. When will I start feeling confident?

This is a great question! I think once you start to really get to know your kids, you feel more confident. If you work hard at building relationships, you’ll start to hit your groove a few months in. Better relationships lead to trust, and that helps you immensely as a teacher. You’ll be less afraid of “messing up” and you can be more vulnerable with your students and tell them, “Hey, we are trying something new today!” 

Even though you reach that level of comfort a couple of months in, it does take a long time to feel fully confident in your teaching practices. I know you didn’t ask for a brief history of my evolution as a teacher, but I think it might help. Here’s what I remember:

  • Year 1: Survival mode and the stress of “What the heck am I going to teach tomorrow?” and “How in the world will I fill a whole class period?” I remember counting the good days and the bad days and just hoping I had some sort of equilibrium.
  • Year 2: A little less stress, better coping strategies, and a stronger sense of what works and what doesn’t. It was challenging, but I finally felt like my head was above water.
  • Year 3: This was the first year that I remember feeling confident, less stressed, and more balanced. I also had the chance to dissect my pedagogy and revise my curriculum. But I knew enough about what I was doing to know that I still had a lot to learn!
  • Year 4: After refining my curriculum in Year 3, Year 4 gave me a chance to focus more on student engagement. I had so many ideas my first 3 years, but I lacked the time to actually implement them. Many of these ideas came to fruition in year 4: a mock trial, an escape room, flexible seating, and more!
  • Year 5: This was a year of personal growth and renewed balance. After years of always answering “yes,” I started saying “no” to extra commitments because I realized my workload was not sustainable. I tackled personal boundaries and started leaving school earlier.

8. What are the most important things to prioritize as a first-year teacher?

  1. YOUR PHYSICAL & MENTAL HEALTH
  2. Your pedagogy & growth as an educator

Seriously, I know we’ve all heard the echos of “self-care” on social media, but I cannot stress this enough: Take care of yourself! I am someone who didn’t always listen to that advice, so I learned it the hard way. I was a workaholic my first year, and while I slowed down a bit after that, it wasn’t until last year that I realized I absolutely had to prioritize my own health and well-being. When I took a step back and significantly reduced my workload out of self-preservation, I realized that everything was just fine. I was still teaching, and my students were still learning. In fact, when I reduced my hours, it forced me to be more innovative, creative, and experimental in my approach to teaching.

First-year teachers, here’s the deal: Nobody is going to tell you to stop lesson-planning. Nobody is going to knock on your classroom door and tell you to go home. They are not going to stop you from burning out. You have to do that yourself.

But on to #2: Your pedagogy and growth as an educator. Year 1 is going to feel like someone put you on a bicycle without giving you training wheels first. You’ll be learning how to ride the bicycle as you actually ride it. Yes, your official title is “teacher,” but you’re a learner. Take the time to learn, reflect, and grow as an educator. Find a mentor, and learn as much as you can from them! Nobody is expecting you to be a master of your content your first year, so embrace a mindset of growth and give yourself grace.

I’ve always said that I don’t know how to teach something until I’ve already taught it, and there is nothing more true for your first year of teaching. Reflect on your lessons, ask your students for feedback, collaborate with your colleagues, and jot down all of your notes and goals for your following years. You WILL get to where you want to be, but it takes time.

That’s all for now!

I hope you found these answers helpful. If any of my answers sparked some follow-up questions, be sure to ask them in the comments below. I’ll be back soon with round 2 of first-year teacher Q&A, but in the meantime, enjoy the rest of your summer and good luck with any planning you decide to do!

First-Year Teacher Questions: What should I do the summer before my first teaching job? What are must-buys for my first classroom, and what can wait? What should I include on my syllabus? What should I prioritize my first year of teaching?
Feel free to pin this image. 🙂

2 Comments

  1. Celeste
    July 23, 2019 / 4:55 pm

    I purchased your Investigate the Teacher from TPT because I LOVE the idea, but I’m not sure how to use it as a first year teacher. I think because my classroom will be pretty bare, how are the students supposed to find out about me if there isn’t much to investigate? I’ve been stressing about this for weeks! And thank you for the blog post, it makes me feel normal for freaking out 🙂

  2. Ireland
    August 2, 2019 / 7:55 pm

    I am a first year CTE teacher and I am ABSOLUTELY terrified. I’m so glad I found this randomly scrolling through Pinterest! Definitely taking some notes!

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