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My Greatest First-Yr Instructing Errors

April 6, 2023
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I have a special little pasture fenced off in my heart for first-year teachers. Is it because they’re taking on a profession they know is hard and are bravely walking in anyway? Is it because they teach me all the new technology and pretend to not get annoyed when I need help with it every five seconds?

Yes. Both. But it’s also because I really struggled my first year. And if I hadn’t kept with it, I would have missed out on the single-most transformative experience of my life.

Once I was out of my first years, I’ve made it my mission to write about what makes this job hard and how we can fix it, including the transition of leading a classroom for the first time.

Here are some big mistakes I made my first year of teaching, and what I wish I’d known.

1. I didn’t ask for help

I felt like asking for help from other teachers—especially longtime teachers who were experts in their craft—would annoy them. I definitely didn’t want to ask my administrators for help either, as I didn’t want to be seen as weak or incapable. As a result, I spent my first semester wandering around like a lost kitten. I probably taught about as effectively as a kitten too.

What I wish I’d known:

  • If you don’t feel comfortable asking your own team for help for some reason, there is a wealth of knowledge in other parts of the school. Librarians, teachers on other teams, specialists, and counselors can be super helpful in answering questions or directing you to the right person for help.
  • Ask your district what supports are in place for first-year teachers. Some have virtual or in-person groups and special PD sessions for first-years.
  • If you have questions you want to ask to a broader audience (especially if you’d prefer to remain anonymous), you can get additional support through Twitter, Facebook groups (check out ours for first-year teachers!), Reddit, and other social platforms.

Keep this in mind: If you’re struggling with classroom management, your administrators will be much more understanding if you come to them first and are honest about your struggles than if they have to find out themselves.

2. I thought that creating and honoring boundaries with my students was “mean”

Before teaching, I’d never been in the position where I’d had to either earn a child’s respect or deal with people not listening to me. I had so much to learn, and it all felt overwhelming.

One day after school during my first year, I was on the verge of tears and venting to my fellow teachers about the disrespect from my students. A brilliant fellow teacher came up to me and put her hands on my shoulders. She said, “I think you are afraid to show them they’ve crossed the line because you think it’s the same as being mean. Think about the kids in your class who are trying to learn but can’t because it’s so disruptive or unsafe. Order in your room has to mean more than the way you’re perceived.” It was the kindest way I’ve ever had my heinie totally handed to me.

What I wish I’d known:

  • Learning to create and enforce boundaries wasn’t easy, and definitely wasn’t immediate. I expected perfection from myself right away, which is a surefire path to disappointment.
  • Far worse than being perceived as “mean” is a class full of students who don’t feel secure and comfortable in class.
  • My students and I were all happier and more productive when they were clear on our classroom norms and boundaries.

3. I didn’t know it was OK to leave my to-do list unfinished at the end of the day

One of the hardest things about teaching is the knowledge that there’s always so much more you could be doing. During my first year, I regularly stayed at school late into the evening because I felt like I had to complete my to-do list. I was both overworking myself and stressing myself out feeling (incorrectly) like I wasn’t doing enough.

What I wish I’d known:

  • Prioritizing my to-do list was a game-changer. Instead of one giant list, I separated it into three columns; what had to get done that day, by the end of the week, and when I had time. By prioritizing my tasks, I could feel better about having a smaller workload and not lose sight of future goals.
  • It’s OK to create a workday for yourself. A few times a year, I would give students a reading day, workday, or a day to work on projects. Then I would use that entire day to prep and plan the next quarter or semester. When districts won’t give you the time, sometimes you have to do it yourself. (Note: If you teach younger grades, work with a partner teacher or your team to trade off combining classes for a day or half day to accomplish the same thing.)
  • Unless it’s immediately time-sensitive or a student safety issue, nothing on a teacher’s to-do list is an emergency. What may seem like a crisis you have to deal with ASAP may be far more manageable after feedback from peers (or just time to reflect).

4. I spent too much money

This wasn’t my fault, since we don’t pay teachers enough or fund our schools. But still, I wish I hadn’t fed into the idea that my classroom had to look Instagram-perfect or that I had to “match” whatever the teacher down the hall was buying for her classroom/students.

What I wish I’d known:

  • Ask around before buying something yourself. Chances are somebody has what you need, knows a good place for you to get what you need at a discount, or knows about a secret supply closet somewhere.
  • Many districts have their own grants you can apply for—one year I got an entire set of podcasting microphones!
  • People want to help. Many of my family and friends were more than happy to donate supplies or money when I asked, especially because it felt like a tangible way to make an impact in the classroom. Creating an Amazon wish list is a good way to organize what’s still needed all in one place.

5. I worried too much

Some of the worrying I did my first year of teaching was valid. I worried that I had zero control over my second-period class (true). I was concerned that the vocabulary game I made up was actually very boring (true). I fretted that my caffeine intake was approaching unhealthy territory (true). But I also worried about things that were ridiculous. I convinced myself I was the world’s worst teacher. Any time I was called into the office, I knew it was because I was about to get fired. I was also sure that I would be the first teacher in the state’s history to have a standardized testing average of 0%. 

But here’s the bottom line, first-year teacher friends: If you are investing in your students, designing reasonably effective lessons (even if they aren’t as effective as they were in your head), and being diligent about identifying and fixing the things that truly aren’t working, they will learn. Struggling and failing are not the same.

6. I believed harmful narratives about teaching

In one of our first faculty meetings my first year, my principal made what felt like a half-hour speech about her “top” teacher. She talked about how that teacher rarely left the building before the custodians at the end of the day. How she was at every game, every musical, every concert. How she never took any personal days and showed up to teach even when sick. How she held tutorials every day after school, and even on Saturdays when asked. I immediately internalized her message. I equated good teaching with staying late, always saying yes, and putting my own needs last. It took years for me to unlearn this and other toxic narratives about teaching.

What I wish I’d known:

  • The system relies on and exploits the unpaid labor and kindness of teachers—of course they’re going to glorify teachers who don’t take care of themselves!
  • Our students deserve examples of healthy teachers who take care of themselves, not teachers who destroy themselves for a system that doesn’t take care of them in return.
  • Take all your personal and sick days. I said what I said. Every year, you will have more than enough opportunities to pour into new students. You will not get back missed time with your family, kids, friends. You will not undo the stress your body is under or the rest you need by working more. Take your days and don’t be sheepish about it! There may be a new teacher looking to you as an example.

Other mistakes I made that didn’t quite make the list: not taping down cords/wires to the floor and thereby tripping over them in front of class; accidentally writing my own name instead of a student’s on an office referral and having to endure weeks of shaming reminders from my students; wearing a dress backwards unintentionally; and lending Expo markers to other teachers with the expectation that they will actually remember to return them to me.

What was one of your first-year teaching mistakes? Please share in the comments!

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