6 Tips for New High School Teachers: How to Prepare for Your First Year
By Catherine Dorian – former English Teacher, Brattleboro Union High School and Fort Benton Middle/High School
You got the offer. You signed the contract. The first day of school is just a few weeks away, and you already have a t-shirt with the school’s mascot. You’re officially a high school teacher! Now it’s time to put what you’ve learned into practice, and you’ll be able to make the most of your time in the classroom with these tips for high school teachers.
As a first-year teacher, you may be asking yourself: How do I survive my first year of teaching? There are definitely no easy answers to that question, but our advice is to find a circle of colleagues you can lean on, set reasonable expectations of yourself, stay flexible, include parents as much as possible, and do what you can while learning what you can along the way.
Easier said than done, right? Here’s a few thoughts that will help turn that advice into practical tips you can use to actually make your life easier your first year …
1 – Seek Out Your Colleagues.
Remember that you’re not alone, and schools run smoothly when everyone’s on the same page.
That math teacher with the class set of virtual reality glasses? Stop by sometime and introduce yourself—she was once in your shoes! Not sure where to find resources as you’re putting together a unit on World War II? Ask your school’s librarian to point you in the right direction.
You might feel like you’re the only one who has ever felt so overwhelmed by the first-year experience, but the fact is, every last teacher in the building has been exactly where you are and chances are they are happy to offer some guidance, or at least give you someone to talk to. Join teacher networks, social media pages, and online forums where you can connect with others.
You may feel like everyone else has it all figured out, while you’re barely keeping your head above water. Your colleagues want to help you, and they have tons of tips for first-year teachers—don’t worry about asking questions or seeming needy. In a few years, you’ll be the veteran teacher helping out the doe-eyed new teacher trying to navigate their first year. Remember, you’re all in this together.
2 – Know That You Don’t Have To Know It All
Any veteran teacher will tell you that there are a million things worth teaching, and there are just as many things worth knowing. The possibilities for the year are overwhelming, and you definitely don’t need to have all of the answers.
So what does a first-year teacher need to know? Whether you’re teaching online or in person, consider the key things that you want your students to be able to do by the end of the year. Even if the only thing you know for sure heading into your first year is what you’ll be teaching, you’re going to be in good shape. You can’t prepare for everything, but you can definitely prepare your lesson plans so that’s a wise place to put your energy.
As a teacher of history, English, math, science, physical education, whatever—what are the skills that you want students to bring from the classroom to their life? Consider the qualities of an effective learning environment. What key rules or behavioral expectations do you want to establish in your classroom?
One of the best tips for high school teachers? Know your why. Why do you teach what you teach, and why do you love to teach? When you figure out your why, you will better be able to discern which texts, topics, units, and projects you want to prioritize this year. Then, you will be able to build a curriculum that shows your passion and engages students in the work that matters.
3 – Be Prepared, But Flexible.
At this point, you’ve probably acquired a potpourri of lesson ideas, units, and engaging assignments. But you may also be wondering: How do I prepare for my first year as a high school teacher? Embrace the fact that you are a fresh face to the school. Be thoughtful about what you want students to learn, and before your new teacher orientation, prepare a general outline of the year’s curriculum.
But since you’re just starting out, also find freedom in the fact that you are not expected to have all of the answers. When you finish a unit, seek student feedback with an evaluation form. Invite your principal in to your classroom, and email them afterward with any questions you have about your performance.
Talk to your students’ parents. You might be surprised what they have to say. If they have had older kids that have passed through those halls in previous years, they might be able to offer some tips for high school teachers themselves.
Show that you’re open to input, and don’t be afraid to pivot and dive into new ideas. When you choose to be flexible, you improve your relationships with your students and your supervisor, and you set yourself up to thrive instead of survive in your first year.
4 – Even Though It’s High School, Still Make an Effort to Connect with Parents
Teaching online during the COVID-19 pandemic transformed the teacher-student-parent relationship.
Engaging parents may seem like another thing to add to your infinitely growing list, but the payoff is huge, and it doesn’t have to be time-consuming.
At the end of each day, reach out to two parents and share something positive that their teenager did that day, whether an insightful comment about The Hate U Give or a thoughtful question about a chemical equation.
When it comes to communicating with parents, short messages and quick shout-outs can go a long way. Giving compliments and voicing concerns will help you gain the trust of your students, their parents, and ultimately, your supervisors.
5 – Minimize and Personalize
Between getting to know your school building, your colleagues, your curriculum, and your students, your first year can feel like a perpetual game of catch-up, and bringing home a stack of miscellaneous papers to grade is no way to set yourself up for success. In my first year, the best advice I ever received was to assign less and assess mindfully.
For formative assessments, don’t be afraid to modernize the learning experience with technology. Use a platform like Kahoot or Prodigy to create quick, self-grading quizzes and check-ins. For summative assessments, when appropriate, allow students to personalize their learning and embrace their style. Maybe they want to create an infographic, social media post, or animated video on a free platform like Canva. Let them record a podcast. Prepare them for the professional world by helping them create a web-based portfolio.
There are a ton of tips for high school teachers, and there are a ton of resources that will help you increase student engagement: a key component to thriving in your first year.
6 – Soak Up Knowledge and Guidance Anywhere You Can Get It
There are tons of tips out there for high school teachers. But ask a veteran teacher, “what advice would you give to a new teacher just starting out?” and their answer is not surprising: keep learning.
I know, you’re in your first year, and you’re already swamped with work. But reading books and listening to podcasts, whether during your morning commute or for 15 minutes before you leave for the day, is one of the best ways to stay inspired.
Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion 2.0 can help you prepare for your first year with reminders about your objectives, differentiation, and creating fair assessments. Memoirs like Tara Westover’s Educated can remind you of the value of learning as you survive your first year in one of the toughest—and most rewarding—professions. The Truth for Teachers podcast with Angela Watson can provide positive affirmation as you navigate your new role as an educator.
Be thoughtful about how you build your teacher identity, and dive into all of the learning that is available to you.