Much of what you learn in college about teaching is incredibly helpful, in a pedagogical sense. However, not much can compare with the school of hard knocks when it comes to successfully navigating your way through your first, second or third year of teaching. I certainly would have saved myself a few headaches and near panic attacks had someone taught me these very simple things:
#1: Keep an emergency kit in your classroom.
Now, I don’t mean an emergency kit for your students. Chances are your school has already provided you with the necessary package of bandaids, gloves and disinfecting wipes. So when I say emergency kit, I mean for you. It may sound like overkill, because what could possibly go wrong at work? Well, just about everything you can think of.
Stained work clothes, cramps, a surprise headache, indigestion, and a serious case of stank breath from the nachos at the staff potluck lunch. All of these things can be solved if you just have an emergency kit prepared. Here’s a quick list to get you started. Store all of this in a travel toiletry bag:
- Pain medication (your preferred OTC. I suggest keeping two types)
- Any other specialized medication that might help you with common health problems (like antacids, Prelief for acidic food intolerance, gas-x if you just love a good broccoli casserole at lunch, etc)
- Tide wipes for food or coffee accidents
- A hairbrush, hair elastics, hair pins etc.
- Toothbrush, toothpaste, floss and mouth wash
- Feminine products (bonus if you can store a separate bag in the women’s bathroom)
- Cotton swabs
- Tums or antacid
- Mints (I didn’t allow gum in my classroom, so it would be hypocritical to chew it myself)
- Concealer, lip tint, any kind of touchup makeup product you may need
By having these things in my desk, I’ve saved myself from a day that might otherwise have been ruined by having something stuck between my teeth, or sweating through a blouse because I rushed out the door without putting on antiperspirant. It sounds like overkill, but my survival kit has been the best thing I could do for myself.
#2: Store snacks in your desk.
What ever gets you through the day. Peanut butter crackers, granola bars, Dove chocolate… Sometimes you’ll forget your lunch, and that granola bar is going to keep you fueled until you can get home and eat. I also stored a few boxes of my favorite teas. I didn’t like the varies in the teacher’s lounge.
#3: Treat your students like mockingbirds.
What they hear in class, they will repeat to other teachers, administrators and their parents. They will twist your words. They will exaggerate. So by the time something makes its way to another teacher, or worse, an administrator, your seemingly innocent comment turns into the worst-sounding insult you could have ever leveled against another person.
If you teach older kids, it can be really easy to fall into certain speech patterns around them. You’re young, you want to connect with them, you want them to like you… I’ve heard too many stories when students have said that their teacher curses or swears in front of them. Not only is it unprofessional, but it sets a bad example.
#4: Read your staff handbook.
It will most likely be available in the HR department, or online, so read it. You need to know those weird, quirky rules that vary from school to school and state to state. Your husband booked a trip that falls in the last 10 days of the semester? Good luck taking that trip! My school wouldn’t allow us to use personal days in the last 10 school days. I had to get special permission from the superintendent to use a personal day to pick up my husband from his military base after he’d been deployed. Overseas. I had to ask permission for that. And even then, the superintendent asked if it was possible that I only use a half day. Yeah… no.
#5: Don’t take it home.
I’m a strict believer of this one. Grading, workplace drama, a particularly bad exchange between you and a student… leave it at work. I have gotten through three years of teaching without taking home more than one assignment to grade per semester. I am given a plan period specifically for this reason. As a high school teacher, if you’re assigning so much homework that you have to take stacks of it home every night, maybe you need to revisit whether or not you are over-assigning.
Also, there’s nothing wrong with the odd completion grade here and there.
You can’t take the stress home with you because you will burn out. Quickly. You also can’t have it affecting your family. At the end of the day, family is more important than work. Respect that.
#6: Understand that students have lives outside of your classroom.
This includes lives they live at home, and lives spent in other classrooms.
I teach on-level history to 9th graders. I’m realistic about what I can expect my students to do. The most homework I assign is reading a chapter, and even then they’re given a few days to do it. Math and science classes tend to overload students with work. So, I save their backs from an extra 8 lb textbook, and I save them precious time they could be using for literally any of their other important obligations.
Sometimes, what goes on at home affects a student’s performance and attitude in your class. You can’t assume that a student’s bad attitude is a reflection of how they feel about you. After all, they don’t know you. All they know is that you’re a teacher, and they’ve most likely been treated by another teacher with contempt at some point. Prove them wrong. Ask them how they’re doing. Use non-accusatory language. Read up on psychology if you haven’t had a refresher in a while.
#7: Mental health days.
Mental health days are growing in popularity in today’s world, but it’s for good reason. I firmly believe that mental health is just as important as physiological health. If you can’t take care of yourself emotionally, how can you care for the needs of 100 other people?
And I know that most websites will say “plan ahead” for your mental health days, but just like the flu or strep throat, you can’t predict when you’re going to have “one of those days”. So keep your substitute teacher folder up to date, and leave emergency sub plans.
Be prepared to lie a little when people ask where you were when you come back. You are not required by law to tell your employer or coworkers why you were sick as long as you are within your allotted sick days for the year. So keep this in mind, and fib about a fever or food poisoning.
#8: Volunteer for something that is outside of your assigned duties.
Judge a debate tournament. Go see your students’ plays. Go to football games. Cover a teacher’s class during your plan period. Doing nice things around the workplace reflects well on you, and when it comes time that you need a favor from other people, they’ll be more willing to help you out. I don’t enjoy volunteering my time often, but I view it as a necessary act in any workplace.