Sometimes I smile when I reminisce on my very first year of teaching: my undying optimism, cozy little windowless classroom, the sweetest, most special group of students, and all of the smiles and laughter we shared together. And then my nostalgia is usually interrupted with cringing when I remember everything else: imposter syndrome, the flopped lessons, the lack of sleep, life in survival mode, and the endless mistakes. Sound familiar? While I absolutely loved teaching, it was the most difficult, exhausting, and daunting thing I had ever done. Surviving Year 1 was a challenge, and I only made it through because I knew there had to be better days ahead. Thankfully, I was right.
But here’s my point: Too many teachers just barely survive that first year, hanging on by a thread and wondering if they’re alone in their struggle. Meanwhile, the rest of us who have graduated to the “better days” talk very little about that first year or how we have grown since. Although I try to be transparent about the challenges of teaching, I’ve realized I haven’t talked enough about the struggle of the first-year teacher. But that changes today. I want to support new teachers by openly discussing the immense amount of work, mental fortitude, trial-and-error, continuous reflection, and personal growth that Year 1 takes. We need to remember the mistakes we made as first-year teachers and remind new teachers that they are not alone and their mistakes are normal. We’ve all been there.
Before you read this litany of my first-year teacher mistakes, please know that just because I am reflecting on these mistakes does NOT mean I have mastered all of these areas. Do not read this as a holier-than-thou “I have solved all of these problems” list! Because I haven’t, and I’m still working on all of these things. #8? Always a work in progress. #10? Still actively pushing these internalized belief systems aside every day. I am not a perfect teacher, and I never will be. But here goes nothing: an admission of the top 10 mistakes I made as a first-year teacher and what I learned from them!
MISTAKE #1: I planned too much before I met my first students.
I remember how thrilled I was to accept my first teaching job! I felt an overwhelming urge to plan, plan, plan during the summer. So that’s exactly how I spent the last month or so of my summer. Unfortunately, I ended up not using a lot of what I had planned and wasting the final precious days of my post-college summer. The stuff that I did use (only because I felt like I had to) was forced and didn’t work out well. My time could have been better spent relaxing before the stressful whirlwind of my first year or even being semi-productive reading some pedagogical books by the pool.
I learned that it’s incredibly difficult to plan lessons for students you don’t know, so if you feel this urge, recognize it for what it is and resist it a bit. I’m not saying don’t do any planning; just don’t go overboard like I did. If you want to know what to do instead of planning, I actually answered this question in my new teacher Q&A blog post.
MISTAKE #2: My instruction was teacher-centered.
If you’ve been following me for some time, you know I am all about student-centered learning, but I couldn’t say the same about my first-year self. While I appreciated student-centered learning in theory, I didn’t exactly implement it in reality. As a newbie teacher, giving students more control of the classroom was intimidating, and I didn’t have much time to figure out how I could flip my plans to be more student-centered. I know I did some creative activities and tried out some student-centered strategies, but it was nothing like what I do now.
I used more lectures than learning stations, more chapter reading guides than Socratic Seminars, and more multiple-choice assessments than creative choice-based projects. My style was definitely more “sage on the stage” than “guide on the side,” and although I wanted to graduate to student-centered learning, I lacked the time and the tools. And you know what? It was okay. I was the best teacher I could be at that time. I am thankful for those lectures, worksheets, and lackluster lessons from that first year because they gave me something to build upon the next year and they helped me get to where I am today.
If you’re hoping to switch to student-centered teaching, check out this blog post on my favorite engaging ELA activities. For inspiration and a glimpse into my lesson-planning process, check out this post on how to plan more creative lessons.
MISTAKE #3: I was “too nice” and lacked strong classroom management skills.
Essentially, my first year of classroom management consisted of “building relationships,” but not much else. Rapport with your students is crucial to effective classroom management, and I even think it’s the #1 factor in it, but “building relationships” can’t be your only classroom management strategy. Relationships need to be paired with rock-solid routines and procedures, high expectations, student accountability, and clear, reasonable consequences. Being nice will help, but it won’t solve your classroom problems.
Sometimes, kids need some tough love; they need to know a teacher cares enough to be kind but firm. I like to think that’s the type of teacher I am now. My students would definitely still describe me as kind, but they would also say that I hold them accountable and “don’t mess around.” During my first year, I was a little afraid of confrontation and discipline; now, I am not afraid to enforce consequences and address student apathy or behavior issues.
MISTAKE #4: I assigned writing, but didn’t do a great job teaching it.
A crime with a name like “Write on with Miss G,” right? I know! My writing instruction definitely wasn’t “right on” as a first-year teacher. I had read all of the writing instruction books from Kelly Gallagher, Kylene Beers, and others, and I knew that my students needed to be doing lots of writing. So I assigned a lot of it: daily quick-writes, chapter reflections, timed writing, essays, etc. I did a lot of assigning, but not enough actual teaching.
But it wasn’t because I was lazy; I remember feeling like I didn’t even know where to start with writing instruction and thinking I didn’t have the time to create the resources that might help students. I found myself looking at student writing, recognizing the issues and errors, and not knowing how to address them. Writing had always been natural for me, and it occurred to me I didn’t really know how to teach it.
Thankfully, when I reflected on my first year of teaching, I recognized this flaw. Improving my writing instruction was my #1 goal for my second and third years of teaching. It wasn’t until I adopted a writing workshop approach that I began to feel more confident in teaching writing. Slowly but surely, I added to my collection of writing workshop minilessons and resources, implemented writing conferences, improved my feedback during the writing process, and trained students to peer-edit and self-evaluate. My strengthened writing pedagogy, combined with technology (Google docs & Google Classroom), revolutionized the writing game in my classroom.
MISTAKE #5: I taught whole-class novels chapter by chapter, without a focused approach.
I remember attempting the backwards planning that I had learned in college but feeling overwhelmed with 3 different classes. Because of my limited time, my novel unit planning was not as methodical as it should have been. Unfortunately, I ended up teaching whole-class novels chapter by chapter, without clear focus standards and goals. It was difficult to get ahead enough in reading and planning to effectively map out focus standards, goals, and end-of-unit assessments. I genuinely was learning alongside my students. In retrospect, it wasn’t best practice, but I learned a lot from my mistakes. After getting my feet wet my first year, I was able to sit down the summer before my second year and do some serious standards-based curriculum-mapping, which was much needed.
I’m working on another blog post that outlines how I plan novel units, but in the meantime, this post will give you some insight on my planning process. If you’re looking for engaging novel study activities, check out this blog post of creative ideas, this collection of student-centered activities, and this novel study for any text resource.
MISTAKE #6: I reinvented the wheel.
As a creative person, I inherently love reinventing the wheel and putting my own unique twist on everything. Heading into my first year of teaching, I knew deep down that this would not be sustainable, but I ignored it and hoped for the best. I remember feeling “guilty” or “lazy” about using another teacher’s lesson plans and resources, whether that teacher was down the hall or on Teachers Pay Teachers. Why did I think this way?! I don’t know for sure, but it was probably me internalizing the damaging stereotypes of this profession. Unfortunately, I assumed all teachers were supposed to be original creative geniuses 24/7 and sacrifice themselves “for the kids.” Because of this belief, I resigned to a life of slaving away and reinventing the wheel because I thought that’s what good teachers did.
While I did occasionally rely on others’ resources to lighten my workload, I did the bulk of creation and lesson planning on my own, often from scratch. I spent hours and hours creating when I could have saved some precious time, time that I could have used to sleep, take better care of myself, or enjoy my life with family or friends. I’ll never get that time back, and now I wish I wouldn’t have been so stubborn about creating everything on my own as a first-year teacher. If I had given myself permission to trust other teachers’ work, I would have been a more energized, well-rested, balanced, healthier, and happier teacher. After all, I wasn’t experienced, and I probably could have learned a lot from using expert teachers’ materials.
So if you need permission, here it is. If it’s 8 at night and you’d rather just crawl in bed and sleep instead of plan, buy that unit. Maybe you’re dreading the weekend because you have to work but you’d rather spend time with your friends and family…ask a coworker to share plans. If you found some resources online during your prep but you don’t have time to tweak them, let them be. It will be okay. Your students won’t know the difference between an activity that took you hours to create and a bundle that took you one minute to download. You don’t have to be a superhero, but you do have to give yourself grace and time to be a human. Reinventing the wheel can be fun, but not at the expense of your time, energy, or mental health. Don’t let yourself learn this the hard way!
MISTAKE #7: I tried to grade All of The Things!
I LOL at this now, but the struggle was real. New teachers, you most likely will battle some guilt with this at first. You will feel compelled to grade All of The Things! If I don’t grade it, the students won’t want to do it, you’ll think. I understand. I’ve been there. But here’s a solution: Don’t grade everything. And when kids ask the dreaded question of “Is this going in the gradebook?” respond with: “I don’t know! Maybe.” Tell them that anything can be graded, but not everything will be graded. It’s up to your discretion.
Here are a few more tips for the realistic first-year teacher. These won’t show up in your pedagogy textbooks, but I feel obligated to keep it real with you:
- I usually like to grade more during the first few weeks of school, at least to give students the illusion that I might grade everything. I obviously won’t grade everything, but it keeps students on their toes.
- It’s okay to occasionally delete an assignment from the gradebook if you never get around to grading it. In my experience, that empty column in the gradebook can mean a couple of things. a) The assignment wasn’t purposeful in the first place and I put off grading it because deep down, I didn’t value it enough. In this case, I treat it as a learning opportunity and a chance to be more deliberate in what I assign and grade. b) The time frame for meaningful feedback has passed. If students have already been assessed on the skill, I’ve missed the window, and the grade no longer has a purpose. I’m not recommending that deleting assignments should be your MO, but if you realize that you’re just grading something to grade it, reevaluate. c) I genuinely procrastinated. I should have graded it, but I just didn’t. When this happens, I make a decision based on the following question: Will grading this be the best, most impactful use of my time right? If it’s not, I give myself grace and promise to be better next time. Usually, I am!
MISTAKE #8: I didn’t prioritize or manage my time well.
I’m sure you’ve already realized this (see #6 & #7), but I did not know how to prioritize or manage my time during my first year of teaching. It’s not that I was actively wasting my time, being lazy, or even procrastinating my work, but that I lacked a clear sense of my priorities.
It wasn’t until my second or third year of teaching that I began prioritizing my to-do lists and asking myself, “What is the best use of my time right now? What will have the most impact on student learning?” These questions force you to be deliberate. If you have the choice of redecorating your bulletin boards, grading month-old assignments that no longer matter, or creating a standards-based unit plan, then you should have your answer. It’s not always that easy, but it is always that simple. Think of YOU and your time. Then, consider your STUDENTS and their learning. How can you minimize your time and maximize their learning? Keep this equation in your mind. While you might not solve it or ever reach a true sense of equilibrium, it will help you determine how you spend your time in a profession that demands a disproportionate amount of it.
MISTAKE #9: I didn’t take care of myself.
Once again, I bet you saw this one coming, huh? True story: One Friday night, I stayed at school grading and planning until an ungodly hour. It was 8 or 9 pm when my SUPERINTENDENT knocked on my door and said, “Go home!” I quickly scurried out the door, because after all, my boss’s boss was telling me to quit working so much! This is an extreme example, but it wasn’t uncommon for me to stay at school until dinnertime. (My favorite custodian sometimes brought me dinner or desserts, too. Whoops.) I would stay at school late, only to cuddle up on my couch and grade or lesson plan again. I cringe at the thought of doing this now.
It was so unhealthy and unsustainable, and even though I knew it, I continued it. I worked on weekends and on every single one of my 2-week breaks (fall, winter, and spring). I defended my choice to do this, arguing “But I genuinely enjoy it!” And I did. But what I didn’t genuinely enjoy was the sleep deprivation, getting sick, the lack of exercise, the frozen meals I ate, the weight I gained, and just how miserable I felt at the end of that first year. My mental and physical health suffered at the hands of a job that I loved. I willingly did this to myself because I was blinded by love for teaching and workaholic tendencies. I have no idea how I didn’t burn out. Once again, I learned this the hard way…but you don’t have to.
MISTAKE #10: I thought I had to do it all.
Like I mentioned earlier, I prescribed to the belief of the self-sacrificing, overworked and underpaid teacher, the one who “does it for the kids,” at the expense of her own well-being. I put enormous pressure on myself as a first-year teacher. Having high standards for yourself isn’t a bad thing…until it is. Y’all, I legitimately did not learn how to say “no” until Year 4, when I was teaching 3-4 different classes, coaching varsity soccer, advising the school newspaper, co-leading Student Council, serving on a technology committee, and on the fast track to burn-out. Once I learned I could say “no,” relax my own personal standards, and do a little less, I opened up a whole new world of balance, growth, and fulfillment.
I also realized this paradox of teaching: When you do a little less, you force your students to do more. Good teachers work harder than their students, but great teachers make sure that their students are doing the hard work. That’s when the real learning happens.
The best part of all of this is that despite these mistakes, I had an incredible year within the 4 walls of E104 that first year. I taught, laughed, cried, learned, and grew as an first-year teacher and human being.
You’re going to make mistakes as a first-year teacher. LOTS of them. Give yourself grace, and remember: You don’t know how to teach something until you’ve already taught it. Nobody is expecting a first-year teacher to be a master of their craft yet! It takes lots of experience, failure, and reflection to grow as an educator, and you will get there eventually. I promise.
If you’re a first-year teacher, please let me know what you’re struggling with or what questions you have. I would love to continue this conversation and help you out. I have a first-year teacher Q&A post, but I plan to do a second round of Q&A, so drop any questions in the comments. Seasoned teachers, I would love to hear what mistakes you made as a first-year teacher.