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Whether you are a new teacher graduating in December, coming back from maternity leave, or making a mid-year move, picking up a teaching position after the school year has begun is challenging.
I personally took over a teaching position after the first quarter of a school year, following a parade of substitutes. The previous teacher left only a couple of weeks into the year and the school tried desperately to get a long-term sub. I was student teaching at another school, set to graduate in December, and concerned about finding a job midyear. I applied to the position in hopes of setting something up for post-grad, but they were motivated to get a permanent solution in that classroom and helped me work with my university to transfer my student teaching.
In the span of two weeks, I went from finding the position, interviewing, going through the transfer paperwork, and starting my first day right after fall break. It was extremely exciting but also incredibly overwhelming. I badly wanted my own classroom and thought I knew the best way to do everything and deserved to start my teaching career. Like many other new teachers, I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed – and my first year was difficult as expected. I hope that my experience and lessons learned can provide others with some help if they find themselves in this position.
The most important thing about picking up a teaching position after the year has begun is to start as strong as possible. This means regardless of what time of year you start, treat your first-week teaching as if it is your first week of school. If that means icebreakers, doing an overview of the course content, practicing procedures, etc. then that is exactly what you should do.
It is also important to start strong in terms of holding students to high standards and waiting to back down or let the little things go. You can always be more lenient later, but if you get too lenient too early, then you have already lost those battles. For example, if you have a rule about no phones, then you need to consistently take phones when you see them – not sometimes or on certain days, every. single. time. I speak from unfortunate experience.
Be Upfront With Expectations
Another important aspect of taking over a classroom is that your expectations may be totally different than the previous teacher or substitutes. Therefore, your priority is to make sure you communicate explicitly and frequently what your expectations are as you start in the new position. This is obviously something that you need to cover when you do your first week in the classroom but remember that students will need reminders too.
It also goes without saying, that consistency in your expectations is critical to students making the effort to meet them. This means be consistent with expectations day today, as well as student to student, and make sure you try to maintain them when there is a substitute by giving the substitute the information as well.
When starting a new teaching position, especially as a first-year teacher, there are so many things to do. Teaching in general is an overwhelming profession where your work is never really done, and being new makes it even harder to keep up. My best advice to maintain your sanity is to plan ahead. At the very least, before starting any teaching position or school year, you need to have a pacing outline of your class with some resources to pull from. That way, when things do get chaotic between meetings, emails, grading, PD, etc. you already have something in place.
I take this to the extreme and it is the way I did it in my first position and continue to do things. Before I start my first week, I plan my entire year. When I was a first-year teacher that meant spending days collecting worksheets and readings, creating my pacing guide, and writing up basic lesson plans. Now that I am no longer a first-year teacher I have a lot to pull from, but I constantly revise my pacing and resources for my classes. I also like to do preliminary lesson plans ahead of time so if I fall behind, I have something to show admin. Having said all this – you should still be flexible! I do all of this work knowing that a lot of things will change over the course of the year – but at least I do not start from 0 at any point of the year.
Find Teacher Buddies
Having teachers around you who you can lean on, turn to for advice, and pull resources from is extremely important. Teacher buddies when you start a position can give you the low down on the school culture and politics before you make those mistakes (of course, make sure you are talking to a reliable and trustworthy teacher). Teacher buddies in your department can also be a great lifeline throughout the year.
I credit my department teacher buddies with getting me through my first year of teaching. The people I worked with were so supportive and helpful all the time. Sometimes they would just walk into my classroom and put papers on my desk and say “made you some copies of what I am doing with my class this week – if you are interested in doing the same.” Those times when my lessons fell apart or I changed my mind on what I wanted to implement, those copies saved my life. They also gave me so many resources to use for years to come, that I would never have found on my own.
Reflect and Stay Positive
When you are a new teacher or in a new environment, you will mess up. And that’s okay! The important part of our growth is that we make those mistakes and then reflect on how we can improve for next time. Another part of this reflection and improving, is not letting critiques or mistakes bring you down. You will never be a perfect teacher, and there will be times you are frustrated. However, we cannot get better until we accept the things we do not know.
I kept a reflection notebook for my first year. As a student teacher, I wrote in it almost every day. Once I got more comfortable in my own classroom, I filled it out about once a week or when something came up. I would write what I liked that I did, things I would change, or what I was frustrated about. It really helped me think about my experiences in the classroom past just the “this sucks” mentality. It was also something I looked back on when I was planning for the following year so I could remember what did not work out.
I am going to tell you some bad news – your first year is not going to go as you plan, and you are probably not fully prepared to have your own classroom. The truth is that no certification program can truly prepare you, and most student teaching programs don’t either because you still have a veteran teacher to fall back on. When it is your own classroom, it entirely sinks or swims.
This is not to scare you aware, this is to give you realistic expectations. This is why it is so important to be flexible! If you are set in teaching exactly as you paced out your year before you even met your kids, you will fall apart. If you need to do your lessons in a specific format and your admin wants something completely different, then you will need to make adjustments. There will be times you are outside of your comfort zone, but that is how we grow! The more flexible you are, the easier it will be to let these little frustrations go. No matter where you teach or how many years of experience you have, things will change and you will have to find ways to adjust. So start practicing!