Wednesday, August 1, 2012

For the Interns and the First-Years

It's August! A new school year is just around the corner! Huzzah!

I'm very excited for the school year. It will be my fourth year teaching math at New Tech High @ Zion-Benton East. I have great students and awesome colleagues who have become dear friends of mine. I also have some new ideas that I'm excited to try out in the classroom!

For many teachers, 2012-13 will be the first year of their careers. For many pre-service teachers, this year will see them taking on an internship in preparation for entering the profession.

I attended Michigan State University for my undergrad. Michigan State's teacher education program requires a year-long internship, as opposed to the standard ten weeks at many other colleges and universities. In many ways, my internship was like my first year of teaching.

If you're about to start your internship or your first year of teaching this year, you need to know: this is going to be a hard year. An exhausting year. For me, it was the most stressful year of my life.

"Thanks for the rosy outlook, Jeff," you might be thinking to yourself.

Look, I would be doing you a disservice by sugar-coating it and saying everything is going to go smoothly. I also think you're perceptive enough to know that things won't go smoothly. But there are some things I think you should hear/read now, before the school year begins.

This isn't a definitive "survival guide," and most of what I'm about to say really has little to do with actual teaching. These are just some lessons I picked up from my internship year. I hope you can take something away from this.

So, to the interns and the first-years, this is for you:

1. This year is not going to kill you.

That's probably far more dramatic than I needed to put it. But, you are going to survive this year.

You're going to work very hard, you're going to have some awesome moments along the way, and some not-so-awesome moments as well.

This is a year to discover who you are as a professional and as an adult.

You're not going to do everything right. New teachers never do. Veteran teachers never do.

There is so much to know about teaching; there's not a single teacher prep program out there that can teach everything there is to know about teaching before entering the profession, because nobody lives that long.

Just do your best.

2. Use your support systems.

There are going to be times when you feel very alone and overwhelmed. These are the times that you need to reach out to people.

I called my mom so many times during my internship.

I called, texted, and IMed other math ed students in my cohort. (They called, texted, and IMed me, too.)

I vented to my professor. I vented to other teachers.

I vented to my girlfriend (who somehow thought it was still a good idea to marry me later on).

If I hadn't had all of these people around to listen to me when I needed to talk to someone (or ask a panicked question about what the hell a "unit" was and how to plan it), I'd probably be locked up in a padded room right now.

Let your friends and family know that you might need to rely heavily on their emotional support this year. You're going to need people to listen to you and to advise you. Know that you have these people.

Whatever you do, however you do it, just use the hell out of your support network.

(Addendum: As noted in the comments section below, blogging is also a great way to get support and feedback, too!)

3. Leave school at school.

There are many times that teachers do have to take work home, particularly assignments to grade. That's just part of the job.

There are other times, though, when you can leave work, go home, and not have to worry about tomorrow until tomorrow. This is when you need to learn to leave school at school.

During my internship, I would stay at school until 4:00, sometimes 5:00, before packing up and going home. I spent this time grading, planning new lessons, creating assignments, and so on. I'd be reasonably prepared for the next day and decide it was time to head back to my apartment.

Upon getting home, my brain wouldn't shut off. I kept thinking about everything: wondering if I wasn't doing enough or if I was doing too much with my lesson plans; wondering if I was going to do a great job the next day, or totally bomb; wondering what other ways I could explain material to the students, or what other activities I could possibly have them do; and so on.

It drove me crazy and kept me awake many nights.

One way I found to cope with my inability to stop thinking about school 24/7 was to keep a notepad with me and write down ideas as they came. I also wrote incredibly detailed lesson plans, sometimes pacing things down to the minute. This let my brain have a chance to get everything out and wind down. Gradually, I was able to get to a point where I could leave school and flip off the "teacher switch."

You can't always leave school at school; but when you can, learn how to do it effectively.

4. Exercise.

I wish I'd done more of this during my internship.

As I mentioned in another blog post, I'm currently training for a marathon. I've actually been running regularly every week since this past February, and plan to run more races through next spring. I've lost weight, lowered my blood pressure, and lowered my cholesterol.

Exercising regularly can help you be more energetic and feel more positive during your pre-service experience or your first year of teaching. It also serves as a way to keep you in an established routine, which can be tremendously helpful in organizing the rest of your time.

How do you best like to exercise? Running? Biking? Swimming? Rollerblading? Basketball? Tennis? Tae Kwon Do? Find out your preferred method of staying active, and set aside time to do it at least 3-4 days a week. Some teachers prefer to work out before school, some prefer to work out after.

Find out what works best for you, do it, and stay active. (Even better, see if any of your colleagues or anyone from your cohort will exercise with you!)

5. Eat healthy (or eat, period).

I lived by myself during my internship, and I was God-awful at keeping my place stocked with food. I'd skip breakfast. I ordered out a lot. As I like to tell people, I was sustained by Pokey Stix and Insomnia Cookies during my internship year.

You'll definitely be busy this year. You may think you won't always have time to cook, let alone eat healthy. It's even more difficult if you happen to be living alone. But, there are ways to make it happen.

My advice: Plan out all of your meals for a week (or even two) ahead of time, put together a grocery list, and shop for everything at once. Do this on the weekend. For healthy recipes or recipes that don't take very long to put together, I highly recommend EatingWell.

Teaching makes you hungry. Eat three meals a day. Have some snacks handy, too. Just be sure to eat healthy and prepare your own meals whenever you can. (You'll even spend less money!)

6. GO. TO. BED.

You need to sleep. Seriously. Go bed at the same time, every night. Get at least 7 hours.

You won't be able to function at your best if you're up past midnight worrying about lesson plans or grading papers. Yes, the grading needs to get done, but you have to balance that with your health.

Pick a bedtime and stick to it consistently, with little or no exception.

You might actually save time by doing this. I got myself into a very messy pattern of staying up very late working on plans or grading, getting up at 5 AM (sometimes as early as 4 AM) the next morning, going to school all day, coming home and immediately napping for three hours on the couch out of sheer exhaustion. Sometimes I wouldn't wake back up until 8 or 9 PM, and I'd still have work to do. If I'd stayed awake, I'd probably have gotten all of my work done and then had the rest of the evening to myself.

Get into a regular bedtime routine and avoid naps if at all possible. Use daylight to work, nighttime to rest. 

7. Friday night is a "FUN ONLY" zone.

This may seem obvious now, but many of you may actually need to be reminded of this at some point during the year.

Just as important as learning how to turn off the "teacher switch" is taking some time during the week to have fun. For my money, Friday night is the holy sanctuary of "me time."

You may feel overwhelmed with work, even on Fridays. There may be a lot on your plate during the weekend. Give yourself permission to take a break. If you don't stop to enjoy the weekend, you're going to burn out in a hurry.

Designate Friday night as a "fun only" time. Go to a movie, go have drinks with friends, go on a date, whatever you want. Just make sure you're taking time every Friday to do something fun.

Just don't get too out of control on Friday nights, because...

8. Saturday morning is a great time to get some work done.

Yes, I said to leave school at school whenever possible. But as one week ends, you'll have an entirely new week to plan for.

By all means, sleep in on Saturday. You've earned it.

But don't wait until Sunday evening to start planning for the week ahead. You'll save yourself a lot of needless stress and worry by taking a couple of hours on Saturday mornings to get some work done.

I was masterful at the art of procrastination; having all of that work hanging over my head each weekend not only detracted from my ability to enjoy my free time, it had a cumulative effect throughout the year. I got to the point in March and April of my internship year when I was having a hard time falling asleep on Saturday nights, let alone Sunday nights.

You might not want to do it, but chances are you'll be able to enjoy your weekend a little more if you're proactive on Saturday mornings.

9. Year 2 will be better.

Ask just about anyone who is in the teaching profession.  When you've gone around the block once, things start to click. You feel more confident about your teaching during your second year because you have a sense of "I've done this before." You have something you didn't have in your first year: experience.

Your experience will inform your practice as you take time to reflect and make adjustments. You'll have a better idea of what works and what doesn't. You'll find ways to manage your classroom and engage your students that are better, more efficient.

(By the way, you can do yourself a great service during your first year by making notes of what works well and what needs changed. Take time to reflect on your practice as often as you can. Future you will thank past you for it.)

If the idea that your second year of teaching will be better than your first gets you through, then by all means hold onto it. I can tell you that the third year is even better than the second year. I imagine the fourth year will be better still than the third.

It gets better.

If teaching is your passion, that's all the truth you need this year.

Good luck. Be awesome.


  1. Great advice, Jeff. I will certainly pass this post on to our new teachers at training next week.

    1. Thanks, Charmaine! Absolutely, feel free to share. :)

  2. My advise is to only take home what your can carry in your hands as that well be the amount of stuff you will actually get graded, planned, or prepped..

    1. That's an awesome rule, Kevin - and so true.

  3. What a great collection of advice for new teachers! I particularly like the advice to leave school at school--it took me about three years to really even begin to get good at this, and there are days (and weeks) that I still struggle with separating my school from my home life. It can be enough to make you feel crazy if you are in school mode 24/7.

  4. It can definitely be crazy! I'm still not perfect at all of these (especially leaving school at school), but things definitely get much less stressful after surviving your first year. I love my job and wouldn't trade it for anything!

  5. I am with you on the Sunday night planning, not the best way to start the week. If only students knew that we go through the same procrastination as them on the weekends maybe we could get better at it together...but the secrets of teaching must never be talked about.

    Great advice here Jeff but you missed one other support system, blogs like this.

    1. Duly noted! I suppose I missed that one because I wasn't doing it myself at the time.

  6. My fellow first-year colleague (>30 years ago)was wise enough to put in extra time Thurs. evenings making sure she was ready for the following Monday as well. She was able to take most weekends off. Meanwhile ... I could be found at the school typing a Physics exam on the odd Friday evening!

  7. Solid. Every one of these is solid.
    I wish I could email (that is, print and mail) this to myself before my first year teaching, when I took notes that look a lot like this post.
    Well done.

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