Professional Development

From Failure to Success: My 3 Big Takeaways from my First-Year Teaching

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As education students, we hear the unsolicited advice proclaimed loudly and frequently:

“Your first year of teaching will be a train wreck.”

“It’s hard, it’s impossible, and you’re going to drown.”

… and my favourite piece of unhelpful advice: “Good luck!”

Yet, like many defiant young teachers entering their first year, I rolled my eyes and ignored the cautions. When I received advice, I’d nod but think to myself: “It was hard for others, but I got this.”

I mean, classroom management isn’t that hard– it was a cakewalk during my student teaching. Being creative is easy for me, and all of my lessons will be unique and mind-blowing. In fact, it’s totally possible to plan, grade, teach, exercise, maintain a healthy relationship, and have a vibrant social life. I am going to prove all of those first-year teaching stereotypes wrong!

Visions of my students working harmoniously, busily solving new problems and producing novel lab reports, and whispering how fun of a teacher I was in the hallways buzzed in my head. I outlined my “Outstanding New Teacher of the Year” acceptance speech.

At last, Day 1 came, and much like a new diet, I felt inspired, empowered. The school I was at began with a 10-day backpacking trip, which I had heaps of experience doing, and I was confident. The 10 days passed easily. I built rapport with my 12 new students, established firm boundaries, yet showcased my fun side. “Next week in the classroom was going to be cake! Only 6 hours a day with students PLUS daily showers and ample toilet paper? Cakewalk,” I thought.

Then, the real Day 1 came, and it didn’t e x a c t l y live up to my fantasy where students were dying to enter my classroom and exploded to their desks with attentive bliss, eager to see the new teacher and start their learning journey as a community of motivated, excited young souls. In fact, in those first 90 minutes, there were a lot of students glancing at the clock… and one student asked if I was a student (at the time, I looked 16. Actually I still do.).

But… all good! My class wasn’t that engaged because my classroom had no windows! That was the missing ingredient! No problem- I’d take my students outside for class. I’d be such a creative teacher! All was definitely not lost. At least I’d established my authority on Day 1.

Day 2 came, and the outdoor lesson was okay… at least students seemed to be engaged! I think. Probably. Maybe.

Day 3 came, and having had to use most of Day 2’s content, I borrowed from Day 4. I’ll catch up over the weekend and wing it on Friday. No problem. I hope…

Day 4: The day of discipline! Today, I’ll show a Powerpoint that will show my expertise. I know I need to garner authority, and today will be my Authority-Of-Science Day, as compared to my Fun Teaching Day the day before. Not all the students were engaged, so I’ll go over the stuff they seem to be missing.

….and from Day 5 into winter holidays, it continued to be a slow drip in motivation on my students end. Nothing seemed to work, I struggled to establish authority, I was constantly emotional, began to Google “education jobs that aren’t teaching” at 2 A.M. after another sleepless night worrying about how my lesson might flop, and needless to say all of my fantasies of balance and harmony were thrown out the window.

I still get heart palpitations and garner severe second-hand embarrassment, complete with reflexive shudders and instinctive eye-rolls when I think about that first week, first month, and even entire first semester. I’m cringing now. AHHH! The horror!

 

To be direct, my first year of teaching was characterized most consistently and poignantly by my own failures.

 

Yet, to say my first year teaching was a complete failure is inaccurate. Call it cliche, but to fail means that you’ve tried, and fail I did; subsequently, try I did even more. So rarely do we fail without a valuable lesson there to pat us on the back whilst lying face-down in the mud of shame, and my first-year of teaching was no different.

Having had time (and therapy) to process and reflect on my first year, I see that it was merely 9 months of mostly failing every day while planting a couple of secret seeds of learning that wouldn’t actually sprout the following year. It was awful. It was hard. I lived to see the other side and can look back and nervously laugh on it.

Here’s a list of my three favorite fails that I managed to turn into my strengths that now define me as an educator: 

 

⊗ FAIL #1: INCONSISTENT INSTRUCTION

My students were never sure if I was going to be super hands-on or super didactic (ie: sage on the stage) or if I was going to flip the onus to them. I wrongly mistook didactic instruction as a surefire way to establish my authority and expertise as the teacher in the classroom and would bore my students with lectures. Then, it would be modelling geologic layers with food the next day, followed by a random guest speaker the next day discussing something for which the kids weren’t prepped. We’d use a textbook for 2 days and then I’d abandon it for 7 weeks, then we’d use it again. I’d make students engage in round-table discussions with little practice and scold them for their lack of thoughtful participation. I was so inconsistent that even when we did something truly inquiry-based or student-led, they were so disinterested and disengaged because together we’d seen so little success as a community and me as a trustworthy figure.

√ SEED OF SUCCESS #1: CHOOSE 5 HABITS & COMMIT

Structure is important. It establishes trust, anchors students to their learning community. Variety is also critical, and the takeaway is not “find the one thing that works and never deviate”… nor is it “try everything and hope something sticks sometimes” (looking at you, First-Year Sara). The magic is in in the middle. Not every strategy is going to work for every student, but if students are always left wondering what’s next, they’re far less likely to engage. I now oscillate between 5 habits I can use consistently over the semester. Why 5? It gives variety while remaining predictable in a healthy way. My go-to habits (typically introduced to my students in this order) include:  

    • 5 Es Lessons: a time where I’m in the driver’s seat and is exceptionally appropriate when introducing a new topic, concept, skill, or unit. I frequently use 5 Es instruction, as it breaks up direct instruction with direct application and experimentation for students. This may include slides, an anchor chart, multimedia element (song, podcast, video clip)– whatever it is, I cap it at 15 minutes.
    • Inquiry-based Project: a time for students to explore, tinker, question, and start seeing ideas (including possibilities and limits) in action. This may be an experiment or lab, a hands-on activity, a secondary research search, and so on. This is typically associated with a graded final product.
    • In-Class Discussions: a time for students to engage with one another as scholars. This includes asking questions, defending opinions, hearing other points of view, and practice using evidence to back up their ideas. The format may change slightly (small groups vs. whole class vs. pairs), but the strategy is expected.
    • Field Experience or Expert: a time for students to connect with someone who has direct, tangible experience with what we are studying, or will visit a place that provides a richer, holistic perspective outside of articles and reading. This might involve a trip out of the classroom or have someone come in to the classroom.
    • Individual Journaling and/or Reflections: a time for students to reflect meaningfully on their learning or experience, draw connections, tie together key learnings, and articulate their major takeaways. This often serves as a cumulative assessment of learning.

It’s important to be explicit about your strategies with students. Let them know early on what habits they can expect. Put them in the syllabus. Say them. Show them. Train to them. Practice them. Refine them. Resist changing them if things don’t seem to be “working” right away. Once your set habits have had an honest chance to run with the class, evaluate what isn’t working and what could improve.

 

FAIL #2: INCONSISTENT AUTHORITY

I student-taught at a boarding school, which has a decidedly more casual community than a day school, and I was used to chatting with students about their weekends, making jokes, and generally serving as a cool-aunt figure outside of the classroom. Coupled with my unpredictable instructional strategies, my second first-year mistake was also rooted in inconsistency (do we see a theme?), and I was constantly oscillating between being strict and uncompromising in class and then overcompensating for crappy instruction by being too cheery, too inauthentically social, and generally over-eager to seem likeable.  In retrospect, I was likely looking for some type of validation that I was not completely failing. Not the right move.

SEED OF SUCCESS # 2: VALIDATION COMES FROM WITHIN

Teaching is a one-way street. You mentor and validate your students– you do not, should not, can not receive this from your students in return, and if you try to, they will see through it and lose respect for you. Period. And good on them because what they need isn’t another friend- it’s a guide.

What I eventually learned a few months in is that validation can come from colleague observations and are fantastic opportunities for feedback and insight into your teaching successes and failures. When I felt utterly hopeless (hello, October), I started to ask my co-teacher for feedback. He watched my lessons, gave me feedback, and suggested I film myself teaching (not as terrifying as it sounds). I was surprised by the things he noted that were going well in my classroom, as I was so focused on the failures. I learned to foster the good and navigate for the pitfalls– clumsily and unrefined, of course, but it was a start. It took a semester, but by January, I was able to understand what it meant to practice consistency. I also changed my perception of student rapport, abandoning any hope of them “liking” me and finally understanding how that different from my new expectation- respecting me.

 

⊗ FAIL #3: DOING IT ALL ON MY OWN

I’m not proud to admit it, but I was stupidly stubbornly independent, convinced I’d be the exception to all of the first-year teaching rules. Teaching is a trial-by-fire experience every single day, where your failures, insecurities, and shortcomings are on display for all to see. Until you really find your groove, it’s painfully, defeatingly hard. Once you get the groove, it’s satisfyingly hard. Doing it alone, however, is suffocating, as you play your failure reel over and over and get paralyzed by fear on how to make forward.

SEED OF SUCCESS #3: ACCEPTING MENTORSHIP

As mentioned in my second failure, working with another teacher in my school was invaluable. I was lucky enough to have a colegial coaching program at my first school, which involved triads of teachers posing a problem or need, asking questions, brainstorming solutions, practicing a solution, and evaluating. The process, though self-regulated, was formulaic and helped us be solution-oriented and resist falling into a complain session. I was doubtful of the process at first, as my triad had an art and English teacher, while I taught science. I wasn’t sure how their feedback would translate, as our subjects are so different, but the value of this mentorship cannot be understated. They saw patterns in my instruction I was blind to, patterns in my students’ engagement, and creative solutions. The diversity of ideas wouldn’t have been as rich or productive if I’d only sought ideas from fellow science faculty. Now, I consistently reach out to a diverse set of colleagues and former classmates for advice. I still film myself, I still ask for feedback, even if I know a lesson has flopped and even if I think it’s landed. Never stop learning about yourself and your blindspots– you never know who you might be reaching (or not).

Phew! That’s about all of memory lane I can tolerate at the moment.

Jokes aside, there’s few moments in life that you’re given where you can make a choice to define the person you’ll become, and being a first-year teacher provides this chance under no uncertain terms. You either have to work your tail off, try, fail, and repeat… or quit. There’s no coasting and there’s no hiding, and for that chance to prove myself alone made all of those cringe-worthy fails worth it.

If you’re a first-year teacher, we see you. We need you. We believe in you. Keep going. It’s an impossibly hard journey, but the view is spectacular on the other side.

[Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash]

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