I have had two times in my life I felt like a first year teacher. The first time was my first year out of college and I was teaching middle school. The second time was after 11 years of teaching middle school, I went to first grade. That was such a large jump in grades that I felt like a new teacher. I had to relearn how to teach for a different audience. It was the toughest year of my life, but has become my favorite grade to teach. Here’s a letter to myself, from now to then.
Dear First Year Teacher,
Hey there. It’s me! The “you” that you will become. This is you just many years into your teaching career. It’s been a very long time since I’ve thought about you, but you’ve been on my mind lately. I remember how you felt. You just graduated and was so very excited and anxious. You didn’t have any money, but you felt as if you needed to get ready for your classroom.
I remember when you were a first-year middle school teacher. That was right out of college. It was alright that you only had a few motivational posters on your wall. The kids still learned that year. You just bought a new set of bulletin board borders and put one of the largest posters in the middle of the bulletin board. Everything else you added was printed, cut and stapled to the board. It was cute! You were pretty proud of yourself. You learned to use what you had. You had one wooden, handmade shelf in the back of the room. It was a bright blue. It was the cheeriest thing in your room. You went to thrift shops all over, trying to find books for your classroom. You even found a few seasonal decorations to put up that year. You didn’t have a lot of money with paying back student loans and your new apartment. It was alright. You just enjoyed being around the students and teaching was exciting and new!
Your excitement helped you get through those long evenings working at school. You didn’t have a system to plan ahead, so you worked on planning day to day. It was fun to be a teacher! You were doing what you were meant to do in life! You felt overwhelm, exhausted but totally fulfilled. You would spend long days in your classroom that didn’t have any windows. It was alright for the first few years. You made sure to go outside for lunch to breath fresh air and to see what the weather was like each day.
After 11 years at the middle school, you were a first-year teacher again. You were teaching first grade. It felt like you were relearning teaching all over again. That was the most difficult year you’d ever taught. You were determined to make it. You had behaviors in your classroom that you’d not dealt with all day long, because before (in middle school) you only saw each class for 50 minutes every day. Now students were with you all day long. You needed a better class management system. You went looking and found it in Whole Brain Teaching.
The summer before, you went to every Target and dollar store to find all the bins you needed—or so you thought. By the way, you didn’t need 26 colorful paper bins. You didn’t use them all and, today, they are still sitting in your cupboard. You hate to get rid of them because you searched within a 30-mile radius to find all those bins. If you’d only known then what you know now. You spent way more money that summer before moving to first grade than you should have. You didn’t really know what you needed, so you coped by just buying “things” you saw others buying. I wish I had all that money back, but hindsight is…well, you know.
The best thing you did was organize your closet of math manipulatives you inherited from the teacher before you. You needed to know what you had and how to find it when you needed it. Thank goodness for the grad school student up at Kent State University that you found. She needed to get rid of her plastic storage drawers because she was moving across the country, from Ohio to California. She gave those to you for a steal, and you used every one of them to sort out your math manipulatives. It took many days in that hot, sweaty summer heat but you were ready for math that year! Seven years later, you still use that organizational system inspired by Debbie Diller's books.
Another thing you found helpful was having a “Teacher Bin” and a “Lost and Found” bin. You’ve taught your students to turn things in by putting them in the Teacher bin. In the morning when they come in, they learn to put their homework folders into the Teacher bin. When they finish an activity page, it goes into the Teacher bin. Whenever you need to collect something but you don’t want it just put on your desk, you tell them it goes into the Teacher bin. That goes for the Lost and Found bin. If you find something on the floor, just put it into the Lost and Found bin. We aren’t going to announce to the whole class anytime we find something on the floor by yelling, “Whose is this?” No. It just goes into the Lost and Found bin.
You got smart and started taking better care of yourself this year. You realized self-care is so important even when you feel like you don’t have the time to do it. You made appointments for yourself, to recharge you! It started with getting a pedicure. Remember getting a massage for the first time? That was such a help. Also, listening to ocean sounds at night to calm your brain from all the thinking you were doing. Thinking about lessons, kids, parents, administration, other teachers. Sometimes your brain needed help to stop and rest.
Above all else, do what feels right to you, not what you see others doing on Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook or Snapchat. Take what you see and hear with a grain of salt. Be picky and choosy to buy, create and set-up your classroom this year. It isn’t about what your room looks like, it’s about the students. You’ll find that the best classroom décor is what your students create to put up on the wall. That’s really what the students, parents and administration want to see anyway. If you really want to make your classroom cute, go for it. If you don’t have the money, it’s alright. Just pin it, bookmark it, and put it on your wish list so that you can look at it again next year. It’ll be okay. You may even change your mind on how you want to decorate your classroom after living in it for the year anyway!
You doubted you would make it through those first years, but you did it! Was it easy? No. Did you make it look easy? Lol, probably not! However, you made it. And now, look at you. You have things more in control and organized, but teaching isn’t about that. Teaching is about going with the flow and accepting change, even when it’s hard. A lot has become easier, but some things are still a challenge. It’s alright, though. You found out it was worth it, and I’m so proud of you. You’ve grown so much and there’s still more room to grow. That’s what you have in common with all teachers, first year or last year. Keep that in mind as you prepare before, during and after this first year. And don’t forget, whatever happens, enjoy this fun, wild, crazy year!
If you are a first year teacher or not, I'd like to wish you luck entering to win a $100 gift card to Amazon, Teachers Pay Teachers, or Target! Whether it's back to school time or not, we teachers can always use some extra cash. Make sure to share with your other teacher friends too!