This past school year, I transitioned from a K–8 school to a high school. I went from teaching sixth, seventh, and eighth graders to ninth and twelfth graders. In short, it was a big jump going from a middle school setting to the high school.
I was leaving behind fellow teachers, who are now my good friends, and students I have taught multiple years in a row. However, after five years at this K–8 school, I felt it was time for a change. I was excited yet nervous about the change of teaching environment. Luckily, I had a few teachers who offered me support and advice at my new school. They helped my transition into this new environment become easier. Here are some of the tips that I picked up from those teachers, as well as a few from my own observations and experiences.
1. Be an advocate for students
If there was one thing I consistently learned throughout the school year, it was to advocate for your students. Being the new teacher, my plan was to come in and teach, but lay low at the same time. The last thing I wanted to do was ruffle any feathers by speaking out of turn. I was assigned a class that was labeled “sheltered,” meaning an English class that had ELL students of varying abilities. However, after a few days of teaching, I realized that some students in the class did not belong there because they were too advanced and needed more of a challenge. I assumed these students were placed in the class because of a scheduling conflict, and I thought I would be over-stepping if I went to the counselors. However, after talking to another teacher about it, she explained that some students do not have parents that will come to the school and advocate for their child’s education. Therefore, we as teachers need to do it. Lesson learned. Once I advocated for these already achieving students, they were able to move up and learn at a higher level.
If we know that something is not right for our students, whether they aren’t being challenged enough or are falling behind, it is our responsibility as educators to speak up to the administration or counselors and advocate for them to be placed in the right level.
2. Treat seniors as if they know nothing
This is something a teacher told me right before school started. It may sound harsh, but this teacher explained that I would be surprised by what seniors don’t remember. Plus, a lot of them will be feeling “senioritis,” even at the beginning of the year. Turns out this advice was spot-on. Sure, there were overachieving students who actually worked hard and performed well. However, a majority of my seniors needed to be re-taught concepts they should already have known. This was especially true when it came to research papers. Twelfth grade students should already know how to construct a research paper, since they likely have written one every year of high school. Most students knew the basics; however, it was still necessary to give them step-by-step instructions on how to construct their papers. The lesson I took away is to not just assume that seniors already know the content—even if you think it is easy and they should know it.
3. Find a mentor teacher to turn to for advice
This was a personal goal for me coming into a new school. I believed it would be important to have a teacher friend I could turn to for help, and I was absolutely right. Some schools have programs where they will help new teachers navigate the school year by pairing them with veteran teachers. However, if a school does not have a program like this, it is important to seek out a veteran teacher on your own. Usually, this is easy because there are teachers who will be more than happy to help us newbies.
4. Be available to help other teachers
Even though my plan was to theoretically “lay low,” I also wanted to help other teachers and get involved in the school any way I could. I think it is important to not only be invested in your classroom but also the school as a whole, helping it grow and function. It shows that you are dedicated and really care about the students. I love a Steve Martin quote that applies here, “be so good they can’t ignore you.” Working hard—especially at the beginning of your teaching career—is important, and you want to show your administrators how valuable you can be.
5. Don’t engage with gossip
This is where my “lay low” plan came into action. I did not want to stick my nose where it did not belong. As a new teacher, I did not want to engage too much in gossip that some of the teachers were talking about. Sure, I like talking to the other teachers and wanted to become friends with them. However, I also wanted them to know that I was someone who they could trust and wouldn’t spread anything they told me in confidence.
6. Don’t let other students talk about teachers
This kind of goes along with the “no gossip” tip. This is one piece of advice that I implemented early into my teaching career and one that I constantly hear from other teachers. Yes, we know students like to vent; however, they are talking about your colleagues and friends. What they are saying may have some truth to it or none at all. However, any way you slice it, it is not good for school morale when students are spreading gossip or hurtful words about other teachers.
7. Don’t wait until the last minute to set up your classroom
This remains especially true for elementary classrooms, but with secondary classrooms there is less decorating and more organizing to be done. It is less intricate work; however, that does not mean that it should be put off until the last minute. I believe it shows dedication to your work to get your classroom set up early. I have known teachers who wait until it is time to come back to school to set up their classrooms, and it can make them appear uninterested or disorganized (especially new teachers).
8. Begin planning for new lessons over the summer
Every teacher has their own way of planning and developing lesson plans. If you have found your own “tried and true” method, stick to it. I like to have a basic plan or pacing guide I develop over the summer for as far into the year as I can. This way I at least have something that I can lean on to implement my plans throughout the year. It is a way to keep me on track and means I don’t have to scramble for ideas about what to teach.
9. Spend your money wisely
We teachers often spend a lot of our own personal money on our classrooms or the clubs/sports we sponsor. However, we all know that we are not “rolling in it” when it comes to our salaries. We need to be able to budget our money for our classrooms effectively. At my school, we usually get our teacher money given to us around October. However, school has been in session since August. If there are materials that you need immediately, plan to spend money on just those items, and wait to purchase the other items when your teacher money comes in.
10. Make friends with the teachers in your subject area to plan with
This tip goes along with finding a mentor teacher. The close friendships I developed with other teachers this year stemmed from being able to plan lessons with them. I was so lucky that I got to work with teachers that were easy to talk to and I could bounce ideas off of. These planning sessions and the friendships I forged with these teachers made me feel that I fit in at this new school.
When I started working at this new school, I began to think again like a new teacher, as though this was my very first teaching job (even though it was not). I reverted to the thinking that my college professors instilled in me, “keep to yourself, and don’t go into the teachers’ workroom because that is where the gossip occurs.” Even though I did keep to myself (although I did go into the teachers’ workroom), I think once you become more of an established teacher there is a fine line that you have to walk when coming into a new school. There needs to be a balance between putting yourself out there to help others and keeping to yourself. However, I believe the best advice is to work hard at your craft while also being willing to help others and go the extra mile.
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Jessica Hayes has been teaching for five years. She completed a bachelors’ degree in Social Science Education at Auburn University in 2009, and a master’s degree in English Education from Jacksonville State University in 2014. Recently, she has received her Instructional Leadership certificate. In her work as a certified trainer for Active Classroom, she builds curriculum maps and trains educators on using the program. In her spare time, she loves reading and learning new technology/productivity skills.