To All the New Teachers, On Your First Day of School
The night before my first ever first day of school as a teacher, I was more nervous than I had been at age five preparing for my first day of kindergarten. On the eve of both of these firsts, my school bag was comically oversized: In kindergarten, the pink plastic backpack was crammed with a brightly colored lunchbox, notebooks carefully labeled by my mother, and a change of clothes because… well, kindergarten.
Eighteen years later, my practical, gray, new-teacher backpack was packed, then unpacked and repacked. (What if I’d forgotten something?!) Inside was a fancy planner—its first few pages filled with to-the-minute schedules, an insulated lunch bag with my carefully made sandwich, and a copy of Thank You, Mr. Faulker by Patricia Polacco. Color-coded sticky notes fanned out from the pages like autumn leaves marking where to stop and what questions to ask students when I did.
In other words, I was a well-prepared nervous wreck.
If you’re about to welcome your very first class of students, you’re likely experiencing similar emotions. Rest assured that you’re joining one of the most creative, empathetic, and welcoming groups I know: the global teaching community. I tapped some seasoned educators for their advice and insights for first-year teachers, and like so many in this community, they were more than happy to share their wisdom.
1. It’s okay to be nervous
Keke Powell, an elementary school teacher in Hawaii who has taught grades 2–5, recalls that on her very first day of school as a teacher, she wasn’t the only one with jitters. “My students were nervous to meet me, and I was nervous to meet them,” she shares.
Bryan Betz, an elementary and middle school EFL teacher in South Korea, attributes that pre-first day feeling to preparing to meet new people. Whether they’re students or not, he says, “There’s always that sense of anxiety: Am I doing it right? Am I doing it wrong? Will I fit in?” Mr. Betz notes that “students almost always are going to be as excited, if not more, to meet you as you are to meet them.”
Though supportive words alone can’t totally erase first-day jitters, Ms. Powell offers an important reminder: “Everything will be okay, and you will not have all the answers on the first day.”
2. Break the ice, and be yourself
On her very first day of teaching, Ms. Powell planned icebreakers to “help my students and myself feel comfortable inside the room. After that, students were talking more, and I felt my guard come down, and I started to act more like myself.”
“Be your genuine self every day in all of your interactions with students, staff, and administration,” suggests Darshell Silva, a librarian and technology integration specialist in Rhode Island.
Remember to enjoy that first day with your new class! “Take a minute to stop and look at your students,” advises Michelle Manning, a technology integration instructional specialist in New York with three decades of first days as a teacher under her belt. “Take your first day of school picture, and save it. In 30 years, when you come across those students again, it will be amazing to have those memories.”
3.You’ll get to use all of your skills, and then some
You may be surprised by how many roles fall under the job title “teacher.” By the end of my first year, I’d taught everything from commas to multiplication. I’d also acted as an interior designer, restructuring the layout of my classroom to best suit the work we were doing at any given moment; an advisor to parents navigating special education services for the first time; an advocate for my class, ensuring they had what they needed to feel safe and confident as students and human beings; a tour guide for field trips that took me and 26 of my favorite nine-year-olds on two subways from downtown Brooklyn to Washington Heights; and so much more that there isn’t space enough to continue.
As Ms. Powell describes it, “We are peacemakers, nurses, comedians, actors, event planners, tech coordinators, and so much more! We have to be able to adapt to any situation and respond immediately. Society doesn’t realize just how much we do behind the scenes.”
No matter which teacher hat you’re wearing, from advocating for your students to nursing their papercuts, Dr. Rayna Freedman, an elementary school teacher of more than 20 years in Massachusetts, offers the same advice: “Trust your gut, believe in your gifts, and know you are about to make a world of difference to the students in front of you.”
4. Lean on the educator community
No one understands life in the classroom like your fellow educators. It can sometimes feel overwhelming to look at the bulletin board down the hall and feel as though “we are not doing enough” in our own classrooms, Ms. Manning says. “It’s very important to create your PLN (professional learning network), and utilize them. Brainstorm. Share tasks and lessons. Ask questions. Ask for help.”
Thanks to the internet, your educator community reaches far beyond your school’s walls. “There are so many outstanding educators online who are sharing best practices that work for them,” explains Ms. Powell. One forum that has been particularly helpful is the Certified BrainPOP Educators Facebook group. She describes the power of networking with others who share her passion for education.
5. When you face challenges, remember why you started teaching
There will be frustrating moments and rough days. “It’s okay to know that sometimes doing what is right for your students can also be hard,” Dr. Freedman acknowledges. “There is a lot of adversity we face, but keep trekking forward.”
In reconnecting with former students, Ms. Manning discovered that their classroom memories focused on the good times, and not on her daily stresses of correcting papers in time or getting through lessons.
“Every day will not be perfect—and some days, far from it,” says Ms. Silva. “But as long as you practice self-care, rely on the people in your building, and remember why you chose to be a teacher, it will all work out.”
6. Enjoy the bonds you foster with your students
Building your classroom community is one of the most exciting parts of the first weeks of school. Prior to her first day teaching, Dr. Freedman recalls, “I was looking forward to building relationships and a community of learners that I truly cared about, even before I knew who they were.”
Engage with your students, both in and out of the classroom. “One of the best things I ever did was get out of my classroom,” Mr. Betz says. He recommends working in the auditorium, the gymnasium, or near the soccer field during your prep periods, rather than staying at your desk. “I get a chance to see my students outside of that academic setting. You’ll see your students in a different light when they’re outside the classroom.”
7. Oh, and try to get some sleep
Nearly every educator I spoke with emphasized the importance of getting a good night’s rest, though it can be challenging to fall asleep the night before the first day of school.
“You go to sleep early, you wake up early,” says Mr. Betz. “You wake up early, you can prepare yourself: You can have breakfast. You can have your coffee. You can read the newspaper. There’s so many things you can do to set yourself up for success throughout the day.”
Still, if you can’t sleep, know that many others in your teacher community are awake, too. They’re feeling the same bubbles of nervous excitement, and thinking about the possibilities of a new school year.
Rachel Eisenman is a curriculum alignment specialist at BrainPOP. A former English major, she is an obsessive reader and a genuinely curious lifelong learner.