Starting a new job can be stressful, but new teachers face obstacles like no other profession. In an occupation that relies so heavily on experience, a beginner can get lost before building up enough wisdom to overcome the daily stresses that arise in the classroom. Here are five simple ways to keep your confidence high and your classroom management strong.
1. Use positive reinforcement to encourage students to succeed
Students of all backgrounds respond when there is a reward for positive behaviors. Verbal praise for a specific student’s positive actions will often spur others to do the same. Tangible rewards such as stickers for the young students and homework passes for the older ones also do the trick. Make it a great honor to the students to have their work displayed in the class. My first experience in the classroom was a ninth grade Global History class in a tough Bronx, NY high school. After a rough September, I began a unit on Ancient Greece in October. I divided the students into small groups and designated each a Greek city – state to emulate. They would work in their groups for the length of the unit, with daily medals given for the top three “city-states” for quality of work, effort, and behavior. This Olympic simulation harnessed the energy in the room and gave even the most difficult student something to strive for: a place in the daily medal ceremony.
2. Set high standards and hold the students (and yourself) to them
We often set the bar too low for our students. It is important to set high – yet achievable – standards for them each day and each marking period. After the first marking period ends, work with each student to set a specific goal that improves upon an area in which they struggled in the first part of the year. Have them write a reflective piece as to why they didn’t do well and how they plan to do better. Make sure to monitor their progress frequently with one on one conferences. Include their parents in the goal setting process. When students achieve their goals, it gives you another reason to use positive reinforcement to encourage others to work harder. I’ve had many students who didn’t try hard because school was just too hard for them. When asked to examine the specific difficulty that was holding them back, some responded with telling answers. Vocabulary, reading comprehension, and a quiet place to do homework were just a few of the common issues we faced together. Identifying the problem made it possible to at least address it, and, in many cases, we did just that.
3. Don’t fight battles that you can’t win
It is very important to enforce rules and not to look weak in front of the assembled class, but some battles need to be lost in order to win the war. Not every student should be treated the same. What works as a punishment or a behavior modifier for one student will not work for all of them. For example, not every student is capable of handling direct and public criticism. Sometimes behaviors are best corrected in private or with only vague references to specific offenders. Students often respond to subtle cues, like your proximity to the misbehaver, a tap on the shoulder, or stern look. Even when a student acts out in an inappropriate way, it is not always necessary to correct the behavior with a lecture and punishment on the spot. End the disruption and deal with the fallout later. Word will surely get back to the rest of the class when the punishment or modification is doled out. Causing a scene to reestablish your credibility is not required.
4. Do not take on more responsibilities than you can handle
The first year of teaching is stress filled and requires an intense devotion to your craft. It is not recommended that you coach, take extra classes, or advise a club while you’re in educational boot camp.
During my first year of teaching I put my higher education quest on hold while I battled to become a better educator. Despite my need for more income, I avoided all opportunities to earn unless it was paid training. I spent my free time planning, grading, researching, and reflecting. Every second was time well spent.
5. Learn from more veteran teachers
All teachers, new or veteran, should be observing their colleagues and sharing best practices, but the new teacher has special needs that others do not. Questions a new teacher should ask a colleague every day include “How else could I have handled that?” and “What did you do when…?”
If you have a problem student, seek out other teachers who have him in class or who have had him in the past. If there’s a topic that you just can’t pin down how to present, go to another teacher who has done it before. Pick a friend’s brain before the first parent-teacher conference. Ask your union representative about the contract and how it affects those low on seniority. If your district has a new teacher center, go to every meeting and share your experiences with others.
It takes time to overcome a lot of the anxieties of a first year teacher, but it’s easier to have faith and confidence in yourself when you know you’re on the right path. Staying true to your training and the simple advice above will go a long way towards setting the course for stability and success.