First Year Teacher: It's OK to Not Know How To Plan Right Now

Heading into a brand-new teaching career in Fall 2020 will be a test of your resolve, flexibility, and patience. Veteran teacher Mikaela has some suggestions for how to thrive despite the chaos and uncertainty of a most unusual school year.

Updated on: August 25, 2020

First year teachers bracing for Fall 2020 with optimism

Dear First Year Teacher,

How are you doing? If I bring myself back to my first year of teaching I can imagine that you are excited, nervous, full of ideas, a little terrified and incredibly overwhelmed. There are so many new things you are about to experience, even without the incredible weight and uncertainty of a pandemic. Whatever you are feeling, it is valid. 

It is a strange time to begin the teaching journey because all those veteran teachers around you have also become, in many senses, new teachers. All of us are re-learning how best to serve our students, how to plan and re-plan and how to adapt to a whole new environment. Use this to your advantage. Ask for help and seek experienced teacher’s advice, but also know that we are all going to be facing the same challenges and navigating new territory together! You also come with a perspective that does not rely on the practices and traditions that many of us have become comfortable with. You can provide new ideas and are more adaptable than we, who have been teaching longer, might be! 

If you’re feeling anything like me, the most stressful part of going back is being able to imagine what it will look like. My school leaders have gone from an in-person plan to hybrid, as well as planning for an inevitable return to remote learning. I’ve had time to think about each option and will share my own tips, as well as tips from others. As you read them, start to imagine yourself in the classroom (virtual or physical) with your new students. I’ll break it down into the 3 possibilities for the 2020-2021 school year. 

In Person Teaching & Learning

1. Capitalize On Team Building 

I’m going to say this for every section. The benefit of being in person is that students can more easily connect with one another. Take advantage of this time and prioritize team building. These are the skills students need and want to practice, and it will help you get to know your class better. Whether you are teaching elementary, middle or high school, community building is going to be the most important thing you do this year. Ask the returning teachers what types of structures your school already has in place for team building, for example, morning meetings. 

2. Scaffold Remote Learning Practices While You’re In the Classroom

 Unfortunately, it seems as though remote learning will be an inevitable reality at some point this school year. Use your time in person to help scaffold the transition back so you and your students feel prepared. If you are going online and using a platform like Google Classroom, incorporate Google Classroom use and assignments into your in person days. The more practice students have with the resources that will be used remotely, the more time you are creating for high quality learning. 

3. Set Aside Time to Talk About the “Why” 

Being in person means that there will also be lots of new guidelines and safety precautions. Set aside time to let students ask questions and understand the reason for all guidelines (old or new). This will help students buy into the expectations and it will give them a space to express their concerns, confusions and anxieties. This is not a typical school year, so there is no reason you need to pretend it is. If you don’t know a reason why for something, be honest and then follow up by asking your administration, leaders, or a fellow teacher help you with the why. 

Hybrid Teaching & Learning 

1. Capitalize on Team Building During Time Together 

I’m not kidding, I’ll say this every time. There is nothing more important this year than building community among your class. The sense of belongingness that comes with being a part of a team will help you and your class face the many challenges that come with a year of learning and a year during a pandemic. When you are in person, designate time and structures that focus on team building. 

2. Build Community Across Pods and Groups 

Many hybrid plans involve splitting students up. The challenge here is going from two classes to having four different classes. Brainstorm ways (or research because you don’t need to reinvent the wheel) to bring remote students and in person students together. You could do this virtually, or through letters and notes. But it’s important for students to feel like they belong and are moving forward together this year. 

3. Scaffold Independent Work for Asynchronous Learning/Remote Learning 

Many hybrid plans also involve students completing work independently during their remote days. Whether they will be doing work virtually or on paper, scaffold this process. Even for high-schoolers, it is helpful to have a plan and steps that will provide students with structure and support when they are on their own. For your planning, it may also be helpful to follow the same format when students are remote. For example, remote days are always a mini-independent project or a research day. That way both you and students know what to expect and you can focus on refining skills, rather than coming up with something new every day or week.

Remote Teaching & Learning 

1. Start with Team Building 

Have I mentioned how important team building is? Remote team building poses distinct challenges. If your students are equipped with computers and reliable technology then having virtual team building sessions is a great way to start. There are many ideas online from companies who have done virtual team building in the past. If your students are without technology, the next best thing is writing letters, postcards and making each other small gifts. If you’re able to organize a safe outdoor meeting once a week or month, that can also provide an opportunity for students to be with each other. No matter what, keep community building on the top of your priority list. It will be what students remember far more than what they were able to accomplish in math class. 

2. Designate Time for One on One or Small Group Check-ins 

Check-ins can be by phone, video, or even stopping by 6 feet away (depending on how small or geographically close your school community is). Remote learning takes away many of the important pieces of in person learning, like seeing your students each day and recognizing when there might be something going on outside of school. Check-ins (hopefully weekly or more if you feel comfortable) can provide a space where students can share how they are doing, ask for help or just talk with you. Of course, it will take time to build relationships with students, so ease into these check-ins and don’t take it personally when students don’t want to share. If your check-ins are consistent then students will know they can rely on the meeting and rely on you.

3. Have an End of Day Ritual 

This is key. When you are remote, you are probably in your own home and the line between work and home is gone. Still, you can redraw that line by creating an end of day ritual to mark the end of school. This can be a walk, making yourself a cup of tea, calling a friend, anything that will help you transition from working to being home and relaxing. This is especially hard during the first year of teaching. I remember staying at school far too late and trying to plan every single thing. You will need discipline to make this happen, and it’s helpful to have someone who will hold you accountable to your plan to stop working. Trust me, teachers can work forever, but you’ll never feel like you’re done. Set a time and step away. You’ll still do just fine! 

Advice for Every Option 

1. Get to Know Your Co-workers 

This will be more challenging this year because it’s not as easy to go to a restaurant after school on Friday or have teacher get-togethers. If you can, make time to hang out with your co-workers or ask to set aside a “coffee date” to ask for advice and learn more about the school. Just like your class needs to feel a sense of belongingness, you do too! It is so much better when you have teammates helping you face all of the challenges that teaching will bring this year. Still, try to avoid teacher gossip. That can break down a sense of belongingness and pit others against each other. Focus on building strong relationships! 

2. Make Time for You

I probably should not have put this second because this is so important. I’m sure you’ve heard that you can’t pour from an empty cup. It’s true. This year is going to exhaust you in ways you never could have predicted. Again, it’s going to take discipline at first, but you need to set aside time for you. Hang out with friends on the weekdays, give yourself a spa day or “vacation” day. You will need this to be the best version of yourself for your students and your school. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

3. Do Not Reinvent the Wheel

You’ve probably heard this phrase before too, at least I hope you have. Do not reinvent the wheel. There are curricula and resources that teachers have created before you. It’s okay to rely on those while you get a better sense of what and how you want to teach. You can still be critical of the resources you’re using and work to ensure that a diverse group of experiences and voices are represented, but that does not mean you have to make everything yourself.

Lots of things are going to be different this year, not just for you. Some things will probably be the same as my first year teacher. You’ll be too hard on yourself at times, and you’ll feel like you’re failing. Maybe you are, but just like we teach our students, failing is a necessary part of learning. You will also never forget your first class. So, take a deep breath and get ready for a wild ride. You’re going to do incredible things, whether it feels like it or not and we’re going to make it through together. 

Happy first year of teaching!

A 6th year teacher 

Mikaela Prego is an elementary educator from Massachusetts. She spent the last 3 years teaching 4th grade in Colorado, now she is back teaching in Massachusetts. Her favorite subjects to teach are math, science and social studies and she is a huge fan of putting the students in charge of as much of their learning as possible. You can follow her classroom (@whoareweintheworld) on Instagram.

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