Hey there, New Teacher,
So you got your first teaching job! Congratulations! Wondering what you need to prepare before those first busy days can be pretty stressful. That’s why I wanted to write you this letter. So you wouldn’t have to wonder what would be most helpful to do in advance, and what it’s really OK to wait on.
Now of course, this is my opinion, based on my own experience in several schools and working with a lot of teachers. You may know of some specific other requirements of your job. But if you can consider what I’m going to share with you here, my guess is you’re going to be in good shape.
CHOOSE YOUR SYSTEMS
The biggest thing that will help you this year is giving thought now to what systems you want to have in place. Let me give you some examples.
Do you want a consistent way to work on writing with students? Again, you may wish to choose one or two systems you can use to approach writing throughout the year. Perhaps it’s writing workshop, using elements of Angela Stockman’s writing makerspace concept, or a simple choice like consistent journaling.
Do you want discussion to be a quality part of each week? It really helps to talk with your students early on about effective discussion participation and active listening, and to make it clear that their opinions and ideas in discussion are just as important to the course as yours. You may wish to choose a form of discussion that you can teach and then consistently rely on. I love the Harkness method, and have always used it in my classes, but there are plenty of options out there to choose from.
Do you want your students to have their cell phones put away in class? Figure out your policy up front so cell phones won’t present a distraction throughout the year. This post can help you consider the options and choose something you like.
Do you hope to get to know your students as people? A few simple systems can help with that. You might want to plan to do attendance questions as you take attendance in the first term, asking each student to respond to a fun question with a yes or no answer to show you that they are present instead of simply saying “here.” You might want to try Dave Stuart Jr’s concept of “moments of genuine connection,” where you make an effort over time to have a quick and simple chat with each kid you teach about something outside of your classroom, helping them feel connected to you and your class, and less apathetic.
Do you want your grading load to be reasonable? This is such an important one! How you set up when and what you grade is going to have a huge impact on your year. It will make a big difference to your happiness if you read through some of the ways English teachers lighten their grading load before diving into grading every single piece of paper that hits your students’ hands.
Do you want to find unique ways to approach your material so you can keep things creative? Consider choosing a few dynamic project ideas (like this or this) now that you know you’d like to try this year. This is one you can come back to later, setting an intention and choosing one or two is probably enough. You might want to subscribe to a couple of good teaching podcasts and plan to listen in once a week during a workout (yes, make time for this!) or a commute.
Do you want to feel supported by a strong community of teachers? You might want to join my Facebook group, Creative High School English. Inside, you’ll find thousands of wonderful teachers ready to help you when you have questions, share materials when you’re stressed, and cheer for you when you share your wins.
PREP YOUR FIRST FEW ACTIVITIES
It’s also really helpful to have things pretty lined up for your first weeks of school. That means you’ll want to have your syllabi ready, some activities for the first days, and your first unit laid out. There is no need to lesson plan for the entire year. Having about six weeks worth of activities is plenty. For one thing, you may quickly find that the needs and interests of your students push you in new directions, and you want to be flexible to respond to those things.
Now is a great time to start slowly building your classroom library on a bookshelf or two, keeping an eye out for flexible seating options at thrift stores or garage sales, searching out some fabric or nice paper to serve as backgrounds on bulletin boards, and finding some organizers, drawers, folders, etc. that you like for keeping your papers and materials in order. You might want some classroom art supplies for one-pagers and sketchnotes and some random costumes and wigs for acting out theater. This could be a good time to print out some lovely free posters for your walls too.
You might want a small chocolate stash in your top drawer. I had a fairly full top drawer of spearmint lifesavers in my desk my first year, and I sure did appreciate them.
FIND SOME CLOTHES AND SHOES YOU WILL LIKE TEACHING IN
Yeah, this seems kind of obvious. But really, shoes feel very different after you walk around your classroom in them for eight hours. Check out this thread in Creative High School English with ninety-eight comments about the best classroom shoes. It’s a thing.
Clothes feel very different in class too, like when you’re leaning over a student’s desk to help them with their writing, or sitting down on the floor with a group that’s outside your classroom in the hall. Ann Taylor Loft is my favorite store for buying work clothes, and I’ve also signed up with Stitch Fix to have clothes delivered to me because it’s hard to find time to go shopping (here’s my affiliate link so you and I both get $25 off if you decide to try it out).
Finding clothes that are super comfortable AND reflect your personal style is a fun part of starting out as a professional, and I’d definitely give it a little summer attention.
PLAN TO HAVE BOUNDARIES
Sounds a little weird, right? It might, but that doesn’t mean it’s not SUPER important. Going into your first year of teaching, you really need to think through the fact that this job can take everything you have if you let it. Do you want to work from seven a.m. to ten p.m. every day? You easily could.
If you don’t, now’s the time to think about what you do and do not want to say yes to. Sure, advise a student club. But maybe not five. Be on one committee, maybe. But not all of them. Will you need to work in the evening sometimes? Yes, but not every evening. Make yourself a few rules.
Maybe you want to commit now to two yoga classes a week or spending every Friday night with your friends that don’t teach. Or maybe you should book that trip to Florida for Christmas now, so you don’t end up deciding just to stay in your pajamas and work during all of winter vacation. Seriously.
You need to think about yourself and your happiness and not just your students’ happiness. You’ll be a better teacher if you’re not chronically exhausted and feeling like a martyr all the time. You’ll also be way more likely to stay in the profession. Take it from someone who sat on her back steps sobbing after her first year of teaching and wondered if there was any way she could do it again the next year, then made herself a list of twenty boundaries to live by. It really does matter. (No one wrote me a letter like this before I started out).
If you think boundaries are going to be really difficult for you, let me recommend you binge listen this summer to The Chalk Full of Life Podcast with my friend Kelli Wise. It can really help you get onto the right track with taking care of yourself while being a good teacher too.
Honestly, my friend, I think that’s enough. If you have some boundaries and a plan for taking care of yourself, some work clothes you like, a room you enjoy being in, systems that will set you up for a good year, and a unit to get going with, you’re ready to rhumba.
And I’ll be here, waiting to support you along the way. You’re going to rock this.
Betsy (from Spark Creativity)
Hi Betsy, Thanks so much for sharing your ideas. So helpful as I go back to full time teaching after homeschooling my kids for the past 20 years.
My pleasure, Jeanie! I’m so glad they’re helpful.
My first feeling after reading this was, to my surprise, relief. I signed a contract almost a month ago for my first High School English teaching position, and I’ve been equal parts thrilled and terrified ever since. I’m also finishing my master’s degree in Scotland right now, which means both that I’ll be moving home roughly 3 weeks before I start teaching and that my dissertation is due quite literally the day before students arrive. I’ve been so eager to make sure I stay focused on my degree, but also think through everything I can to prepare for the coming school year, and it seems that tension has weighed me down much more than I realized. So yes, I most definitely felt relief from reading your post, especially when realizing that it was written by an English teacher who knows exactly what I’m walking into, even if I don’t. Since you posted this about a year ago and you have a whole blog up and running, I’m sure you might not think about the impact of every little post you make. But I want you to know, this one has made a difference for me. So thank you.
I’m so happy that this post was able to help you feel some relief leading into this new season! I so desperately wanted to do something to prepare before my first year and I was so confused about what would be helpful. Thank you for your kind note, it means a lot! I hope I’ll be able to share more ideas with you going forward to help support your work. Did you sign up for any of the resources on the free resources page? If you do, then you’ll be able to get the teaching ideas I send out each week. I believe they would help! All the best, Betsy