Friday, August 9, 2013

For the Interns and the First-Years: 2013 Edition

It's almost time for another new school year to begin! Some of you have already started. Some of you start Monday. Some of you still have a few weeks left and are itching to go.

Last year, I wrote a post with some advice for new teachers and students entering their internship, and received many positive responses. I figured it might not be a bad idea to re-post it this year, with a few alterations based on comments I've received and my own newly-learned experiences.

Other teachers, please feel free to chime in with your own advice for first-years and interns in the comment box below! I would especially love to hear from second-year teachers with what advice they would give to a new teacher.

Without further ado, "For the Interns and the First-Years: 2013 Edition." Eleven pieces of advice that I have for interns and new teachers (that I never followed myself because I was more of an idiot then than I am now):

1. This year is not going to kill you.

This is the thing you need to know, first and foremost: you are going to survive this year. I mean, it's not really a life-or-death situation, but it sure as hell will feel like it sometimes.

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. What matters is that we try to improve, all the time.

We try new things. We refine old ideas. We reflect. We seek feedback from others. It's a process that continues long after you've left college. Some of us have been teaching for years and we're still just getting some things about this craft of ours figured out.

Your most important skill as an educator isn't your ability to teach; your most important skill as an educator is your ability to learn.

Learn what you can from this year. From yourself, from your colleagues, from your students. It's wonderful. It's possibly one of the most challenging and exhausting years you'll ever have, but it's worth it. All you can really do this year is your best, and grow from there. 

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 (this was in the AIM days, mind you) other math ed students in my cohort. (They called, texted, and IMed me, too.)

I vented to my professor (who I remain friends with to this day). 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.

Even reaching out to total strangers on the Internet (such as the mathtwitterblogosphere for instance) is an excellent way to lean on other teachers for support. Seriously, get a Twitter account. Find fellow teachers who are active in various online professional learning communities. Participate in weekly Twitter chats. Start a blog. You'd be amazed by the support and positivity you get from teachers you've never even met.

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

3. Leave school at school.

There are many times that teachers do have to take work home. Whether it's grading or spending extra time planning, we often end up working more than we probably should. That's just part of the job. But we do it.

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. It might take time (and experience), but it will come. 

4. Be realistic when you do take work home.

A couple of teachers gave me a great rule of thumb when it comes to taking work home: "only take what you can carry in your hands." Realistically -- unless you're feeling unusually energetic or having some kind of manic episode (kidding, kidding) -- you're not going to get terribly much done when you get home.

You're probably either going to be too tired to get much done, too busy with other after-school obligations, or just plain unmotivated. These are feelings that we refer to colloquially as "normal."

If you're anything like me, taking home everything will be self-defeating. You'll be staring at that huge pile of paperwork and just get to a point where you're like, "screw this."

I mean, there will be nights where a marathon grading session can't be avoided. It happens. But most nights, be realistic. Take home only what you can carry in your hands, and get that much done.

5. Exercise.

I wish I'd done more of this during my internship. Actually, I wish I'd done more of this my 20's entirely.

I love to run, and I'm currently training for the Chicago Marathon (because I'm out of my mind). I started doing long distance races a couple of years ago and have been doing a lot of running. 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.

Also, it's pretty freaking cool when your colleagues start to notice you've been losing weight. The compliments can be very uplifting, especially when you're in the doldrums of late winter/early spring.

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!)

6. 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. Thank goodness my wife started making me eat healthier when we moved in together, or I'd probably weigh eleventy billion pounds by now. Y'know, give or take.

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.

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 CleanEatingMag and EatingWell.

Bringing leftovers from last night's dinner for lunch is another great way to go with meal preparation. 

If you're really lucky (which I am) and have access to ample refrigerator and cupboard space at your school (which I do), then keep your own supply of breakfast and lunch items around. I keep milk and cereal for breakfast, and stuff to make sandwiches or salads for lunch. This way, I don't have to mess with making meals at home; I can just do it when I get to school.

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!)

7. GO. TO. BED.

You need to sleep. Seriously. Go bed at the same time, every night. Get at least 7-8 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. (This is another good reason to obey the wisdom of #4, above.)

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 (because I was stupid and brought everything home and didn't know how to turn off the "teacher mode" switch, all while not exercising or eating healthy and thus violating pretty much every piece of advice I'm giving you). 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. (I mean, not literal daylight, because the days are really short in the winter, but... well, you know what I'm getting at.)

8. But before you go to bed, be sure to unwind first.

Going to bed at a regular bedtime isn't quite as effective if you're working frantically on grading or planning lessons up until the last minute. You're probably more likely to have fits of insomnia if you do this.

Case in point: Just the other night, I was up working on a lesson for the upcoming school year. I worked until it was pretty late (hey, it's summer, the rules are different) and then went straight to bed.

That was a mistake; I lay awake half the night thinking about the lesson I was planning on, because it was the last thing I was doing immediately before going to bed.

Be sure to take at least an hour or so before bedtime to unwind and relax. Read a book. Play some video games. Netflix a TV show. A few months ago, my wife and I started watching Doctor Who, and we'll probably be continuing that as an evening ritual when the school year starts. It gives you time to relax before bed, and it gives your brain a chance to separate itself from work mode and sleep mode.

Go to bed at a regular time, but don't go to bed without distancing yourself from your work first. 

9. Choose one night as your "FUN ONLY" zone.

Just as important as learning how to turn off the "teacher switch" is taking some time during the week to have fun. You need one night during the week to be your inviolable holy sanctuary of "me time."

For me, this night was Friday. Most people pick Friday as this day, but some people prefer to use Friday to work ahead and enjoy the rest of the weekend (see #10, below). You may feel overwhelmed with work, even when the weekend is just kicking off. Give yourself permission to take a break. If you don't stop to enjoy some free time, you're going to burn out in a hurry.

Designate one night as a "fun only" time. Go to a movie, go on a date, go have drinks with friends (note: you should probably only do this at the end of the week), whatever you want. Just make sure you're taking time every week to do something fun.

But don't let yourself get too out of control before the weekend, because... 

10. "Early in the weekend" 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, go out on Friday night if you want to. Sleep in on Saturday if that's what you need to recharge. 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 earlier in the weekend to get some work done.

When I say "early in the weekend," I'm being a bit broad. When I posted about this last year, I was specifically talking about Saturday morning. However, a few teachers mentioned to me that they prefer to get extra work done on Friday nights and then enjoy the rest of the weekend. One teacher commented that a colleague would put in extra time on Thursday nights, so she could enjoy Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday. So really, if you're the forward-planning type, you can get started on "next week" before "this week" is over.

I never followed this advice during my internship. (Really, did I follow any of this advice? Damn you, past Jeff.)

I was masterful at the art of procrastination; but having all of that work hanging over my head each weekend not only detracted from my ability to enjoy my free time, it also 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. I would actually be curled into a fetal position around noon on Saturday. That's no way to spend your weekend.

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 during your weekend time (or if you're really ambitious, on Thursday night).

11. 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. In fact, this is another great reason to start a blog.)

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 just finished my fourth year, and it was by far and away my best year ever. I'm super-excited for my fifth year; in fact, I don't think I've ever been as excited to start a new school year as I am now.

It gets better.

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

Good luck. Be awesome.


Once again, veteran teachers, if you would like to add anything, please comment below!

Second-year teachers, if you have any advice, I'd love to hear from you too. :-)

First-year teachers and/or interns, join the conversation!


  1. Loved this. Here would be my additions:

    12. Be who you really are- kids, especially teenagers are able to tell when adults are presenting them with a false persona. There is nothing more helpful for a kid trying to figure out who they are, than having mentors who have fully embraced their own weirdness.

    13. Have fun with your kids. Especially in the world of high stakes testing and scripted curriculum, seize opportunities to be goofy with your students.

    14. If you're bored with this lesson, so are they.

    15. Find ways to say "Yes" to your students' ideas when ever you can.

    16. Learn what "good enough" looks like, and which of your million tasks only needs to be good enough.

    1. Kim, these are great! Thanks for sharing!

  2. Great list! I just wanted to let you know that I nominated you for a Liebster Award. For more information go to

    A Sea of Math

    1. Well thanks! I actually did that last month, though: