First-Year Teaching For Dummies
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I didn’t sleep much the night before my first day of school. I was nervous, anxious, scared, and more afraid of riding the bus than anything else, but that’s mostly because I was 5 years old and terrified to start kindergarten.

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Flash forward 17 years, and the mood was much the same my first week as a first-year teacher. The evening before my first day as a real, bona fide, certified teacher was just as nerve-wracking. I had a lot of the same worries. Would the kids respect me? Would I embarrass myself? What if I did something wrong? Where would I put my lunch?

You’ve spent at least two decades in school to prepare for your life as a teacher. You may very well be a teacher for the next 30 years and live on in the minds and memories of your students. But all such journeys must begin with a single step, and this step feels as significant as Neil Armstrong’s first hops across the moon.

As seasoned educators, we're writing this (and a couple of other articles) to provide some important first-year teaching advice that we hope will help you during this somewhat scary time.

Making that important first impression

Your first week as a first-year teacher is your biggest and best chance to make a first impression. If you’ve been on a blind date before, you know that first impressions mean everything. Studies show that it takes as little as seven seconds for those impressions to form, but they’ll definitely be hard-coded by the end of your first instructional week together.

When students size you up for the first time, first and foremost, they want to determine who’s in charge. If you show signs of weakness, they know that it’ll just be a matter of time until they figure out how to get under your skin (figuratively speaking, hopefully). This begs the question: What can you do and how can you carry yourself to assert that you’re in control of the classroom? To answer that question, let’s use a metaphor of a lion tamer.

Teaching may be a scary job at times, but its inherent danger really doesn’t much compare to the profession of lion tamer. Giant, ferocious, feral beasts bent on drinking human blood surround one, small, proportionally insignificant lion tamer.

For more on how to not just get through, but thrive during your first days, weeks, and year as a brand new teacher, check out our book First-Year Teaching For Dummies.

They’re armed with only a whip, perhaps a chair, and the unspoken support and empathy of the thousands in the circus stands surrounding them. Slowly, they walk around the cage, staring down the hulking monsters, which growl menacingly and paw at the air as they walk by.

Suddenly, they crack their whip, and the lions do all sorts of crazy things. They balance on giant, oversized balls. They jump through flaming hoops. They do political sketch comedy. It’s amazing! What keeps these huge cats from realizing that, if they teamed up, the lion tamer would stand no chance against them? What makes them follow the advice and admonition of the teeny human with the whip and the chair? (And why a chair? Are they trying to threaten the lions with the notion of being seated comfortably?)

A lion tamer is very deliberate about when they enter and exit the cage. They’re always the first in and the last out. Why is this so important? When you are the person in the cage, you’re establishing your territory — this is your realm, and you rule over it.

When the lions are allowed in later, they enter with the implicit understanding that the tamer is king or queen of the cage, and they’re merely guests invited at a royal whim. If the lions were to enter first, they’d recognize the empty space as theirs and be more willing to attack to defend their territory.

If you haven’t guessed it, you’re the lion tamer in this metaphor, and your students are the lions. During the first week of school, you need to be in your room, greeting students as they walk in the door.

Don’t roam the hallways during class changes or come flying into your classroom as the bell is sounding. You need to show that you’re completely in control of what happens in that classroom, from the first minute to the last minute that you share with your students each day.

Here are some other benefits of the lion tamer’s initial presence in the classroom:

  • You can direct your students to their assigned seats. You must have your seating arrangement ready to go with assigned seats for every student on the first day. The easiest way to assign these seats is alphabetically, for a couple of reasons. First of all, taking roll is easy when seats are in alphabetical order, which is extremely helpful before you learn all your kids’ names.

    Secondly, seating according to the alphabet is completely impartial. Kids are just like adults in that they want to be close to their friends when entering a completely unknown situation. Your classroom is a total mystery to them, and their knee-jerk reaction will be to try to sit with their friends. By denying them the ability to sit wherever they please, you’ve made your first statement about who’s in charge without making anything personal.

    The lions may not be happy when they can’t sit where they want, but this is not their territory; it is yours. Perhaps down the road the seating arrangement may change, but that’s not a topic of discussion for the day. Facing complaints and tears, the lion tamer is unmoved. One word of warning: Lions whose last names fall close together in the alphabet may be very familiar with each other because of other classes seated alphabetically.

    Don’t hesitate to separate students who look overly comfortable together on the first day of class. If they’re chatting amiably minutes after you’ve seated them, you need to make a mental note to have new seats the next day. The first day of school often represents your students’ best behavior that they’ll manage all year. If they’re already distracted and ignoring instructions on day one, it’s not going to improve unless you do something.

  • You can begin to pair names with faces. Remember that kid everyone warned you about? Pair the name with the face immediately. Know your lions, especially the ones more likely to bite. In fact, learning student names should be your first major objective in the school year. A student will respond better to “Jim” than “the young man in the front row, third seat from my left — your right — with blue eyes and brown hair, dressed in a white T-shirt, jeans, and bright red sneakers.”
  • You give students clear direction about what you expect. In earth and space sciences, you learn that nature abhors a vacuum. It’s a simple principle — nature rushes to overwhelm any empty space it finds. For example, if you suck the air out of a plastic milk jug, it will collapse upon itself. Nature doesn’t like the absence of air in the container, so it collapses the container around it to fill in that space.

Students also abhor living in a vacuum — even more than they think they hate rules. They actually crave structure, though they may not know it. They want to know what is expected of them at all times during the school day. This, of course, doesn’t mean that they’ll actually do what is expected, but it at least satisfies their curiosity.

If you’re in your classroom before class starts, you can give direction to the students coming in. Most teachers write learning objectives and warm-ups (or to use fancy-pants educational jargon, an anticipatory set of questions) so that the students have an immediate goal as soon as they enter the room.

Attendance, grading, and other administrative tasks may occupy you for the first five minutes of class, especially during the first week of school, so this gives students something to focus on while you get your head on straight. It’s much better than leaving them to find their own entertainment, because then you are ceding choice and control to the lions right away.

Be prepared with an activity that students can immediately immerse themselves in. For example, provide paper and crayons, and ask them to draw a picture of something they did that summer or perhaps draw a picture of their families. Drawing and coloring are familiar activities, so you are providing structure in a context that they already understand while allowing you time to get yourself together.

Building a reputation in your first year teaching

No one wants to deal with the discipline issues that arise day to day. Even if you’re good at classroom management, dealing with it constantly is a bummer. Time for some harsh reality: You’ll deal with more discipline issues in your first three or four months of teaching than you will for the next three or four years. It’s all about reputation.

The students know which teachers can be pushed around and which ones stick fast to the rules. And they pay special attention to people who are going through their first year as a teacher.

Students pass the information to each other like spies in a hostile country. “In Mrs. Brown’s class, you’re allowed to swear (just as long as it’s not one of the major swear words), but she hates it when you chew gum. Also, if she’s having a bad day, don’t talk without raising your hand. A kid did that last year and she went completely mental, yelling for like 25 minutes straight. She even made a couple of kids cry, and they were on the football team!”

Students are extremely curious; from the first minute they meet you, they’re going to try to figure out everything they can, including:

  • Your first name
  • How old you are
  • Where you live
  • The kind of car you drive (and where you park)
  • Whether you have a significant other, if you’re married — if so, why; and if not, why not
  • How often you yell and what prompts it
  • Why you’ve worn the same pants two days in a row
They’ll build their overall impression of you slowly, over the course of the first few weeks, based on how you react to them, what kind of teaching style you use, and how dutifully you stick to both your personal rules and the school rules.

Another bit of wisdom from our list of first-year teacher tips: Don’t be surprised if all of your students, even the ones you’ve been warned about in advance, are at least tolerable, if not very well behaved at the beginning.

Very few students will actually challenge you openly in the first few days of school because even they know that that’s a poor way to get the year started. However, very slowly, they’ll begin to test you, to see exactly where your boundaries are. This shouldn’t surprise you that much — you and your peers did the same things when you were a student.

We’ve said this already, but it bears repeating: To avoid future problems, stick to your rules, unless they’re wildly inappropriate and must be changed on the spot (this is almost never the case). If your notebook-collection rule was a little too eager and it stinks having to gather them up and grade them weekly, too bad. You made that rule, so stick by it.

If you start changing things around right away, students are going to question every single one of your rules, and the argument “But you changed your grading policy twice already” is going to frustrate your principal, who can’t support you unless you stay consistent with the rules you’ve set.

If your students push back on the rules, tell them “I’m not here to make it easy. I am here to make it worthwhile.” After a few months of being Mr. or Mrs. By the Book, the students will get the point: You make the rules, and they aren’t going to change, so if anything needs changing, it’ll be their attitudes and work habits.

In essence, you always want to bring students up to your level of expectations rather than lower those expectations to make it easier for your class. By November or December, you can be more jovial and kid around with the students because you’ve established the parameters within which you will operate for the rest of the school year and beyond.

In your first year of teaching, starting the year relaxed and then trying to introduce discipline later is almost impossible. Beginning the school year as a stickler for the rules and easing up as the school year goes on is much easier. Just about every new teacher we spoke with told us, “I wish I’d been tougher at first, and I definitely will be next year.” Being tough from the beginning makes things much less stressful for you because you’ll actually be able to focus on teaching rather than constant supervision. You will find that this pays dividends for you going forward. Students already know what you expect every other year moving forward, and you won’t have to be a crank next fall.

One of my former students, Laura, gave me a terrific compliment when she graduated. She was studying to be a teacher, and one of her professors told her that first-year teachers are historically very bad because they have a lot to learn. Laura told the class about me because she was in my class the first year I taught. “For the first three months, we thought he was mean. He had lots of fun ways to learn stuff, but when it came down to the rules, he wouldn’t budge. Then, one random day in the spring, we suddenly noticed that he was much more relaxed, and everyone was following the rules, and we never even realized what he’d done. Pretty slick.”

Don't smile until December? If there’s one piece of advice we heard over and over again as we prepared to teach, it was the old adage “Don’t smile until December.” In other words, be firm and stern at the beginning of the school year and slowly ease up as the year progresses and student behavior allows. There’s a reason this advice is so popular — it works, if applied correctly.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book authors:

W. Michael Kelley is a former calculus teacher who now works in the Department of Education at the University of Maryland. His Web site,, has won many awards.

W. Michael Kelley is a former calculus teacher who now works in the Department of Education at the University of Maryland. His Web site,, has won many awards.

W. Michael Kelley is a former calculus teacher who now works in the Department of Education at the University of Maryland. His Web site,, has won many awards.

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