An Open Letter to the First Year Teacher


Dear First Year Teachers,
I am so happy YOU stumbled upon my blogpost and hope you stick with me throughout the post because I think that this message is very important for you to hear. With Pinterest, Instagram and Facebook absolutely exploding right now with perfect classrooms that have every flexible seating option and beautiful library that you could imagine, I think it is important to note that those things are NOT what you need to be successful teaching. Whether you are fresh out of college or are making a career switch, teaching is NOT a high-paying job that is going to make attaining a beautiful classroom a super easy feat, and it is also not necessary to have a successful year with your kiddos.

Now, I am going to be the first to admit that having a cohesive, colorful, classroom environment makes me happy and I do think it in turn makes my kiddos happy, but it is in NO way necessary to be a great teacher. As a first year teacher, you are going to have many pressures on you, put on from many various sources, but do NOT let social media be one of them. You do NOT need to have flexible seating, you do not need to have everything from the Target Dollar Spot, you do not need to have 48029310 books, the kiddos just need one thing… and that is for you to be the best teacher that you can possibly be.

Thinking back to my first classroom actually makes me laugh. I had CHALKboards, an overhead projector, mold up the wazoo, mis-matching sizes and colors of desks and I essentially never changed my bulletin boards in my classroom. I had a “sports” theme, which really meant that I had made a behavior chart on poster board that I had drawn and I bought a few soccer ball borders from Office Depot. I had been given a classroom totally depleted of supplies that had functioned as many different things besides a classroom in the years previously, and every desirable table, bookshelf or piece of functional furniture had been stripped from the room from other teachers that were desperate to furnish their own classrooms on a budget. But, thinking back on my years of being a teacher, this first classroom, those first set of students, and that year was BY far my absolute favorite year of teaching.

I won’t lie. It was hard. I cried a lot. I worked with hard students that threw things and destroyed my room many times. My students had extremely tough home lives and it was hard for me to go home and not be worried if my students had meals on the table or supervision at home. I worked under an administration that was as corrupt as administration could possibly be. The classroom next to me went through 5 different teachers due to the difficulties that this job brought upon us, and my other teammate and I had to help try to piece things together for that classroom and our own classes as well throughout the year. When I started, my school had little curriculum that was all printed before I had even been born. Common Core and rigor were both expected with help that was not able to be provided. Midway through the year, we received a new curriculum with very little thought or training put into us getting it, and very little advice from our district on how to use it. It was an absolute disaster, but I loved every single second of it.

As a first year teacher, here is how I prioritized, and what I believe you should prioritize too:

1. Relationships
My entire life I wanted to be a teacher. This may or may not be true for you, but SOMETHING drew you to this career and you need to keep that close to your heart. For all of us, it has to do with the kids. They need to be your number one reason for being at school everyday or your heart is not in the right place. Your number one focus must be to create and maintain the best possible relationship with the students that you possibly can. This can be as simple as get to know you activities on day one, and as frequent as daily morning meetings. It can be attending school functions after school, being a member of the community, or just being yourself in your classrooms. The possibilities are endless but the message is the same every time: kids come first. Then, you can worry about everything else. Your kiddos need YOU and they need you to be the best you that you can possibly be. It sounds corny, but it is true. “Kids don’t learn from people they don’t like” is one of my FAVORITE quotes because it is SO true. Make the time and effort that is necessary to get to know the kiddos, and when applicable, try to get to know their parents as well. No matter what type of environment you work in, it IS possible to get to know your parents on some level and building this relationship with them will make all of the difference. As a young, first year teacher, this can be scary, however, I promise you it will be totally worth it.

2. Yourself
Are you exhausted yet? If not, you sure are going to be. You cannot fully be present to teach the kids unless you are taking care of yourself as well. At some point, you need to find a way to leave work at work. Just like any job, you are going to have bad days. Unlike every other job out there, it is easy to hyper-focus on scary situations that your students may tell you about or to stress about test scores and student growth BUT you are not going to be able to change any of that if you are not sleeping, not taking care of yourself or are grouchy because you are unsure of how to fix it. You cannot and should not be living in your classroom all the time or working all the time, and you should have some fixed and consistent ways to take care of yourself. If you love manicures or coffee or running or reading or whatever it is, then you need to make time to do this for yourself. You need to maintain relationships with friends that are in and outside of your school. You need to do all of this to help fulfill you as a whole person, or you are going to get burnt out and that is not good for anybody.

3. Content
Are you surprised that I am putting this third? But this is truly where it belongs. Above all the decor and other fun things, but after relationships. You need to be sure that you are finding and presenting the best possible content to your students. This could be curriculum, or your curriculum might be terrible with a print date that predates your birthdate and you’ll need to find a way to supplement it. It doesn’t have to be pretty or perfect, but find functional things that you are going to be able to teach these kiddos. Your first year, focus on being consistent. Don’t confuse your kiddos by changing things up to much, and don’t be afraid to use something because it is not Pinterest perfect or because other people in your school are not using it. If you are worried about it looking perfect, you are worried about the wrong things. The kids do not care what it looks like and a pretty piece of paper with little content is much less helpful than a piece of loose leaf paper you have written tons of content on and copied for your students.

Also make sure you have some type of plan to make sure you are teaching everything that you need to teach, and be sure to stick to it. There are many things available to help you with this that are pre-made, and sometimes it is worth spending money on these things. I will be the first to admit that was the queen of downloading freebies on TPT my first year of teaching. I probably had every freebie on the website and they were all amazing. However, when I finally spent my first few dollars on TPT, I was blown away by how much more amazing and intentional the content on there was when I actually spent a little bit of cash. Now, do your research, and you don’t have to be spending all your money on curriculum online or at Lakeshore or wherever it is you decide to look, but a little bit of money can go a long way in the teaching world.

4. Staff Members
UTILIZE other school staff members to help you. I always think I have been fortunate enough to work in two separate buildings with AMAZING staff where I literally felt comfortable walking up to any person to ask for help, but in reality, that’s just what teachers are… helpers. There is definitely someone where you work who will be able to help you through anything you need and many teachers who are willing to share ideas and tips with you. Most teachers by nature love to talk and love to help. Utilize those people and be sure to build those relationships, because on a bad day, there is nothing like having an amazing staff to get you through it. **Shout out to all of my old and current staff members in this part, because I truly think that at both schools I have taught at, I have been lucky enough to teach with the best of the best.**

5. Your Classroom
Finally, as if I didn’t just put enough on your plate already, it is time for you to think about your classroom. This space can be whatever you want it to be. If you WANT the beautiful Pinterest classroom.. good for you, go for it! But please just note, this is not necessary and should NOT be your first priority. You need to build a space that is an environment kids can be the most successful in. Depending on your grade level and depending on what you want your room to look like, the time and effort you spend on this is going to vary vastly. However, this IS a place you are going to be spending more time at than your house for most of the year, so make sure you have some personal touches that are going to make you smile and make sure it is functional for your kiddos. Ask for help from friends or parents when possible to help improve this space. You’d be surprised what people might donate or ideas that they might be willing to help you with in your classroom.

If you are interested in having some more extravagant things like nice classroom libraries, flexible seating, computers or other academic items, try a classroom crowdfunding to help expend some of the cost. This is how I have finally, after all these years, been able to put together a classroom that the first-year teacher in me would have never dreamed of. I’ve gotten thousands of books donated to my classroom, Chrombooks, flexible seats and more donated to my kids and my classroom and you can easily do this for your kids too. You can read more about that on my crowdfunding blogpost here.

On a final note, please just remember that this career called you for some reason, and first and foremost, you need to have fun with it and build those relationships. Teaching is one of the most rewarding yet stressful jobs that often goes thankless. However, YOU have the power to make a huge difference in many kids lives. That power is amazing, it is life-changing for kiddos and it is your responsibility to handle that power in a way that is best for them. Good luck, HAVE fun, and remember, it truly does get easier every single year. Also remember that you have a community of supporters if you ever need it.

I am going to leave you with one of my favorite back to school videos to watch as a wonderful reminder of what we do and why we do it:

Are you are first year teacher? Feel free to drop any questions below. I am happy to answer what I can. Are you a veteran teacher? Feel free to drop advice below for the newbies.

Emily - The Mountain Teacher

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