“The highest reward for a man’s toil is not what he gets for it but what he becomes by it.”
21 Tips to help you survive your first year in teaching
Daunting, exhilarating, incredibly rewarding – your NQT year is quite a ride.
And one thing’s for sure: you’ll be bombarded with advice.
It will all be well intentioned. Much of it will be useful. Some of it will be brilliant.
Here are Milk’s top 21 tips, whether you’re new to teaching in schools and colleges, or you’ve got the mug, the bump in your favourite Common Room armchair, and the scars and war stories to prove it.
1. Write things down
You will receive so much advice, much of it will be forgotten in the fray. Avoid cognitive overwhelm and write those gems down. Get jotting in your journal so you don’t have to remember everything.
2. Add a touch of class … to your classroom
If you are lucky enough to have your own classroom, make it a pleasant place to live in. You’ll probably spend more time there than your newly painted living room.
Make your classroom your home from home.
Little changes, like getting posters and a few plants, can make the world of difference – to you AND your students.
Have a little fun. I remember one teacher who used to hide fluffy toys and sweets in her classroom plants.
3. Pace yourself
It’s a marathon not a sprint. This cliché holds for this year more than any other.
You want to be in the profession for the long haul.
You’re not a machine. If you throw time at every problem that comes your way, you’ll soon have very little time.
Resist the overwhelming urge to put in every hour. Don’t overwork.
“What is the best way to prepare without exhausting yourself before teaching that first lesson?” we asked in our blog “Back to school – already?”
4. Be your most productive self
Clearly you want to bring your A game to your first year of teaching.
Whether it’s “finding your marking sweet spot”, as we discussed in “Top ten time-saving tips for teachers”, or learning to keep emails “short and sweet”, and knowing which ones to leave till the dust settles on an issue.
5. Manage expectations
Not just other people’s, but your own.
You want every lesson to be brilliant, but life sometimes has other plans.
Not all your lessons can be all-singing and all-dancing.
Some of them will be just okay, and that’s okay.
6. Beware perfectionism
Sometimes good enough is, just that, good enough.
The best lessons lift the spirits, but, as with the seasons, there’s a rhythm to the school day, week, term, and year.
Not everything can be high-energy. Enthusiasm flags as each term nears its close.
Watch and learn from older, wiser colleagues; those more experienced hands know to pace themselves in the long term.
Perfectionism is a dangerous thing.
“Have no fear of perfection – you’ll never reach it.”
7. Beware control freakery
Similarly, control freakery, perfectionism’s demanding partner, is a common ailment for teachers.
Your pupils are not programmable computers.
You want the very best for them. You want them to do brilliantly.
But you can only do so much. Concentrate your efforts on what you can do and can control.
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”
Care but not too much, because you can only do so much.
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.
8. Keep your sense of humour and perspective
Don’t take things too seriously. Least of all yourself.
Teaching is the best and most important job in the world. It is one of the noble professions. A pleasure and a privilege. And the profession is lucky to have people like you entering into its ranks every year.
But learn to laugh at yourself. Don’t take it personally when your students do so.
Developing a thick skin is easier said than done, but it will happen with time.
Make the most of all those things that are there to support you.
9. Use systems and processes
Don’t reinvent the wheel, to use another time-honoured cliché.
Every school has a detailed sanctions policy. Learn it and use it.
Such policies may be lengthy, but they’re invaluable.
10. Make the most of those around you
Remember that you are joining a community.
The school or college will have assigned someone to advise you. Ideally, weekly or biweekly meetings should be in place and timetabled to facilitate one-to-one guidance.
Your mentor should be your shield and protector. They will help you tackle issues as and when they arise.
I’d add that asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness. It’s integral to continued professional development, or CPD.
11. Focus on your why
Focus on your teaching philosophies and rationale.
What sort of teacher do you want to be?
If your teaching is rooted in your values and your desire to do the right thing, you’ll be fine.
12. Are you sure you can tackle that elephant on the horizon?
“You can do anything, but not everything.”
You can’t take every opportunity to run extra-curricular activities.
Learn the power of “no” or “not yet”.
Decline politely but diplomatically, and colleagues will respect your clarity.
Saying yes to one thing means declining something else.
Elephants in the distance seem harmless, just like thoughtlessly saying yes to a school commitment a few pages further in the calendar. Doing so means losing time you may not have.
Remember: there are other ways of helping.
13. Share and borrow resources
As someone fresh out of teacher training, you often have the most up-to-date ideas, resources, and approaches.
This is the perfect way to show your worth and feel you’re making a real difference to your department and the wider school community.
And one good turn deserves another. As we wrote in “Top ten time-saving tips for teachers”:
“You’ll find colleagues are more forthcoming if you’ve volunteered your own resources in the past. Never underestimate the persuasive power of reciprocity.”
What’s more, the Milk Student Planner app makes sharing resources quick and easy.
14. Find friends outside your department
Find people with whom you can let off steam and share concerns.
Find people who share your can-do optimism and enthusiasm.
Colleagues from other departments will give you another perspective on how the school operates.
Find your tribe online: on Facebook groups, and amongst Tweeters and YouTubers.
15. Don’t forget the caretakers and secretaries
It’s the support staff who really run the school. And they’re often the ones who have been at the school longest and have the best stories.
Don’t ignore the caretaker and then wonder why no one responded to an email complaining that your classroom window won’t open and it’s boiling hot in the summer term.
16. Don’t lose touch with friends outside school
It’s important to spend time with those who don’t want to talk shop at every available opportunity.
They will keep you grounded.
They will remind you that school is not the world, and the world will go on spinning even after a disappointing lesson.
17. Make your health your top priority
Self-care – sleeping, eating and exercising well – has never been more vital.
Don’t burn the candle at both ends. You can’t pour from an empty vessel.
18. Resist the temptation to ditch hobbies
Don’t give up sports and hobbies and all those things that make you YOU.
Just as canny students know to schedule fun stuff in their revision timetables, you should make time for those pursuits which enable flow and allow you to take a break from work worries.
We’ve written before about the importance of setting boundaries and properly switching off:
19. Celebrate every little success
The best advice I can give any teacher is “Enjoy the ride.” In our diligence and perfectionism, we forget to.
Savour your successes.
Savour every sandwich.
Make the most of every moment.
Successes will silence your inner critic and carry you through those moments of self-doubt.
20. Learn from your mistakes
Don’t obsess over them. Don’t beat yourself up. Learn the lesson and then move on.
And remember, everyone else is making mistakes, and the best teachers are honest about them. They often turn them into the funniest anecdotes.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
21. Embrace tech
Delegate. Technology is there to help you.
Use apps as your very own teaching assistant.
Avoid overwhelm and cognitive overload.
I remember my first year of teaching with great fondness.
I also recall how it passed in a flash.
Take each lesson, each day, each week, each half-term as it comes.
I’m sure you’re more than ready for the challenge, and the profession is very lucky to have you. What young teachers lack in experience, they make up for in energy and enthusiasm, which is why schools welcome youth with open arms.
At the end of your first year, you’ll find you emerge stronger, wiser and better prepared than ever.
And ready for a holiday that friends in other professions may well envy.
“It is not a self-indulgence, but a plain duty, for teachers to keep themselves fresh and active-minded; and the spirit in which a teacher allows himself to be carried helplessly down a stream of mechanical duties is not only not praiseworthy, but highly reprehensible.”
C. Benson, 1902