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Looking Back: Reflections from First-Year Teachers

A teacher thinks about the topics she covered over the previous year.

Teachers grow a lot between their first and second years.

No matter how much you prepare, your first year teaching will be harder, more exhausting, and more emotional than you ever thought it could be. The end of the school year is a time to celebrate accomplishments, reflect on lessons learned, and consider how you should do things differently going forward. It's also a time when many teachers find themselves questioning their teaching abilities, especially if they're still new to the profession.

Further Reading: What Makes a Teacher Memorable?

Here are some insightful lessons and honest reflections from three first-year teachers.

Expect to Be Surprised

"I'm so brand-new, tenured teachers can smell the grad school on me," said Wilmina Sainbert, a first-year English as a new language teacher in New York. A first-generation Haitian-American, Sainbert wanted to become a teacher because of all the fantastic teachers she had growing up. She thought she knew what teaching would be like, but quickly learned that there are always surprises.


"For me, the most different thing I couldn't have expected was the amount of life experience the children bring to the classroom," Sainbert said. "As a novice teacher, it still catches me off guard. The challenge has been aligning that knowledge with the academic goals."

In addition to making school relevant for her students, Sainbert, who works with elementary and middle school students, has learned that planning and reflection are key to preparing for the unexpected.

"Two things I've learned very fast: have a backup to your backup plan, and take bad days as opportunities to reflect and grow."

Build Rapport to Engage Students

Looking back on her first year, Sainbert wishes she could go back and do a few things differently.

"The advice I would give to new teachers is to take the time to build rapport with your students and set a routine," she said. "If I could, I would have let my students get to know me more. There were so many ways, in hindsight, that I could have used their questions to enhance particular lessons. Now I try to use that to engage them because it allows them to learn about me, engage with the lesson, and learn all at the same time."

Seek Help and Ask Questions

Kristin Jaklitsch teaches high school Spanish in New York. As a first-year teacher, she found that seeking support and asking a lot of questions were essential to her success. "There are no stupid questions to ask," she said. "If you can't figure something out, ask someone. Every teacher was in your shoes at one point, so they know how you feel." She also said she recommends that new teachers seek out a mentor in their level or department.

Plan, Plan, Plan

Like Sainbert, Jaklitsch quickly learned that planning too much is better than planning too little. "Something I realized this year that is different from what I expected is that some things you think are a breeze will take longer, and others will take less time than you thought. Always overplan and have a variety of activities to keep kids engaged."

Learn to Manage Stress

Sarah Richard is a high school biology teacher in New York. She became a teacher to help close racial, socioeconomic, and immigrant-status achievement gaps. But Richard found her first year teaching to be extremely stressful. "Teaching is a lot harder than it seems," she said. "During my first year, I was a deer in headlights every day. My health was very compromised. I passed out a few times and had excessive migraines that resulted in constant nausea and dizziness. I was very stressed, to say the least."

To get through the year, Richard learned to listen to her body and took mental health days when she needed to. She also learned not to compare herself to others and reminded herself she was doing the best she could. "I did a lot of meditating and watching YouTube videos on how to think positively," she said. "I did hobbies that I enjoy like indoor skydiving and playing pool."

Be Open to Change

Balancing philosophical motivations for teaching with the day-to-day reality of the job can be challenging for many teachers. At the end of the school year, Richard found herself feeling discouraged and disillusioned. "It's hard to help students who do not want to be helped," she said.

Richard also struggled with a lack of support at her school. "I was surprised to discover that many administrators are not as encouraging as they believe," she said. "It's discouraging to be in a workplace when the support isn't there. It feels like you're battling a war on your own."

Not every school will be a fit, and it's rare for teachers to stay in one position their entire career. If you find yourself miserable, there's nothing wrong with exploring new schools or different positions until you find one that works for you. Finding the right school or position may take a few tries, but knowing what you don't want can help you get closer to what you do.

Further Reading: The Moment of Impact: Small Efforts Can Create Big Changes

No one will tell you the first year teaching is easy, but getting through it is a rite of passage all teachers go through. What are the lessons you would share with first-year teachers?