Ten Tips for First-Year Catholic School Teachers

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My first full year of teaching was a hot, hot mess. I sort of thought I knew what I was doing (rookie mistake), yet I was equally terrified of people finding out that I didn’t know what I was doing. Unable to sleep the night before the first day of school, I read a cookbook, of all things, and finally drifted off…when I woke up, it was just hours before I was face-to-face with the tiny class of eighth graders I’d been assigned to teach. Somehow, I made it to the end of that year, but it was not without lots of grace, mercy, tears, and coffee. Here are a few things that I learned the hard way:

1. Kids have a TON on their minds besides you. Yes, you’re really important, but you have to start the year by assuming that they’re far less interested in you than you are in them.

2. Kids really don’t care about your credentials, nor do their parents. They care about whether you like them or not…and that’s pretty much it. Take time to get to know them, and they won’t care that you’re young and inexperienced.

3. Parents have no idea how hard you work as a first-year teacher, but you also (unless you’re a parent yourself) have no idea what it’s like to entrust your child to a system run by strangers with rules, consequences, and other parents (who are often really judge-y and clique-y!). Work on appreciating them for all they do after that 3 pm bell each afternoon, and you’ll discover that they’re very appreciative of what you do for their child, even if they don’t totally get it.

4. Teaching in a Catholic school is actually team-teaching with Jesus. He is the first teacher in your classroom, not you. And this is awesome, because it is obviously too big of a job and responsibility to do on your own. Talk to Him about your students, your problems, and the things that excite you. If you’re ever stuck in a meeting or situation that’s confusing or frustrating, get up the guts to ask everyone if they’re okay with you pausing to say a quick prayer out loud for help. It can be as simple as, “Jesus, thank you for [student.] I know that he/she is really struggling, and I’m struggling to know how to help him/her. Please give us your light and your peace.” Usually, you’re not the only one in the situation who feels powerless, and praying helps everyone to be honest about that fact.

5. Other teachers want to help you make this transition into teaching. You bring back lots of memories for them of their first year, for better or for worse. Sometimes this will come across the wrong way because they’ll give you too many suggestions or too much feedback; when that happens, remember that it comes from a really well-meaning place, and try to receive the kindness of the sentiment even if you aren’t ready to do what they’re suggesting. On the flip side, trying someone else’s suggestion does not mean that you’re “becoming them” as a teacher or that you’re not good enough to have your own game plan. You’re just trying something, that’s all, and it’s usually something that has worked before. I used to work with an amazing seventh-grade teacher who had the best way of offering suggestions without making me feel like her ideas were better than mine. (As it turns out, they were, but it was okay!)

6. There are going to be a lot of things that are just plain hard about this first year, so make a list of the things that bring you joy, and make those happen as much as you can. This might mean going out to recess when you’re not on duty and just playing soccer with the kids. Or maybe you love doing art projects even though you don’t teach art…that’s fine. Add a quick project into a History lesson. I discovered that I loved giving kids stickers, so that’s what I did.

7. Find things that both you and your students can laugh about. Laughter: an amazing bonder and stress releaser. I found that most middle school and high school kids aren’t that good at drawing but love drawing comic strips, and they make the most hilarious drawings. Even now, year nine of teaching, when I need to bond with a class, I will often incorporate a partner comic strip activity into a lesson and then walk around the room and point out all the silly things they’re sketching. They soak up the positive, humorous attention, and I delight in being able to take a break from monitoring behavior or comprehension.

8. You will definitely do dumb things as a new teacher, and they will probably really hurt. You wouldn’t be in this profession at all if you didn’t have high ideals and care about kids, and this is a super vulnerable role. It’s okay to take these mistakes hard, but be sure to pray about them so that you can get the Lord’s perspective. Let Him remind you that you are enough, just the way you are.

9. Make some good teacher friends. They want to help you learn the ropes and enjoy your job. It is not a waste of time to chitchat with them in the lounge if that fills you up or to stop by their room for a few minutes at the end of the day to vent or unwind. They also get it that you are just barely surviving and don’t have lots of time to talk, so if you have to duck out of a gathering early, know that no one is judging you.

10. If you impress your principal and coworkers this year, kudos to you. I’m going to be honest–I had so many meltdowns that I’m pretty sure no one was impressed by me by the end. Really, the only expectation that most principals have for you as a first-year teacher is that you finish the year. So just keep clocking in and trying…it’s pretty impressive in itself…and it glorifies the Lord.

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