How to survive and thrive in the toughest years of teaching.
Dear New Teacher,
Thank you for joining the teaching community. Thank you for your commitment to the learning and growth of our little people. Thank you for bringing your optimism, your ideas, your passions into our world.
We love you. We need you. We’re glad you’re here.
And it’s because we appreciate you that we want to help you make it.
We want to see you grow, not go.
We want this work to give you life, not take it from you.
So with that in mind, here are some tips and strategies that will help you survive and thrive in your toughest years of teaching.
9 Survival Tips for New Teachers
1. Your only professional learning goal is to survive.
The idealism that you bring into the profession is inspiring. You want to teach well, learn quickly, collaborate with colleagues, and be better every day. You’re ready to embrace the school’s latest initiative, improve your assessment practices, refine your instruction, and love your students well all at once.
Here’s the reality: you likely won’t master everything or anything in your first couple of years of teaching. And that’s more than all right, because your first professional goal isn’t mastery of anything at all.
Make no apologies: your only professional goal is survival. You do that, you end your first year or years with your dignity, sanity, and your sense of self-concept basically intact, and then we can talk about your next steps of professional growth.
2. It’s okay to say no.
Well-meaning teammates and colleagues from other departments will admire your energy. They’ll notice your creative spirit and that special passion you have for volleyball, graphic design, or photography. Coaches and members of your school’s stretched-thin athletic staff will notice the rapport that you quickly build with students. And the requests will inevitably come.
“What do you think about coaching in the spring?”
“How would you feel about a weekly after-school club?”
“We’re starting an entrepreneurship fair planning committee. Would you like to join us?”
It’s okay to say no. You do not owe anyone anything: not your time, your help, or an explanation.
As a new teacher, you’ve got a million things on your plate your hands are more than full.
“No” has sometimes been called the most freeing word in the English language.
3. Play the new teacher card early and often — you will make mistakes and that’s okay.
The New Teacher Card is a powerful one. It will buy you grace and liberties and excuses all over the place from veterans who remember well the trauma of their own first years of teaching. Play it early and often.
4. Beware of Parkinson’s Law: set firm boundaries on work time.
This might be my single biggest tip of them all, so stay with me here. No, we’re not talking about a disease.
Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the time allotted for its completion. It’s a dangerous principle.
Here’s an honest admission. When I was a new seventh grade teacher, I would sometimes end the school day so mentally and physically exhausted that I would actually take a nap on a couch in my classroom before preparing for the next day.
After 20–30 minutes of snoozing, I would wake up, try to collect my thoughts, grab a bite to eat, and then begin the work of lesson planning.
“I’ll stay at school til I’m done,” I thought. That way, I could sleep well when I did go to bed, knowing that everything was set and ready for the next day.
One problem with that plan: Parkinson’s Law. By not putting a hard limit on my work time, my work would expand and expand and expand. Without the urgency of a deadline, my pace would slow to an inefficient crawl.
I could spend an hour designing a student handout that was of little consequence for learning, convincing myself that what I was working on was critical because my students deserved the best learning experience possible.
Watch this: some of your colleagues are married with young children. (You may be in the same situation, although that’s often not the case for new teachers.)
These teachers often leave the school building as fast as possible and spend the bare minimum of personal time on school work. They don’t have a choice, either: the demands of their personal lives require absolute efficiency.
You can learn from that efficiency. Set tough time limits on your work, and get comfortable saying “This is good enough for now.”
5. Take sick days without apology.
It can be tempting as a new teacher to make sure “I always show up.” To maintain a bulletproof attendance record and play the role of Miss Reliable.
“My students may not be successful without me there” can be a tempting thought.
But at some point over the 200 days of a typical school year, your body may disagree with your noble commitment to faithfulness. The throat will get sore, the chills will appear, or the headaches will persist from one day to the next.
Some frank advice: don’t wait til you’re vomiting over a toilet to call in sick. Say goodbye to the notions of “letting down” your colleagues or students.
When your body is screaming at you that it needs a break, take a sick day. You’ll actually be doing your colleagues and students a favour.
6. Mental health = health.
This point is closely related to the previous one, but it’s so big that it deserves its own place on the list.
Mental health is health.
As a new teacher, it’s quite likely that you’ll feel mentally or emotionally overwhelmed at some point.
It may be during the pressures of a reporting period.
It may be after yet another long and angry email from those parents that are convinced that you hate their child, even when you’re trying everything in your power to help them.
It may be during your sixth difficult IEP meeting when it becomes apparent that you “somehow missed” a key piece of information from the psychological profile of one of your learners.
Perhaps you notice that you dissolve in tears more often and more easily.
You feel like you have no time or emotional margin for friends and family.
The light has gone out of your eyes and you begin resenting everyone and everything around you.
If you’re there, take a break. Call in sick, because you really are sick. And don’t feel guilty doing it.
Mental health is health. It’s not safe for others if you’re in the building with flu symptoms. It’s also not safe for others when your sanity is hanging by a thread.
Take a sick day.
7. If you ever feel overwhelmed by work or life, speak to your principal or assistant principal.
If you ever do find yourself cracking — physically, emotionally, or mentally — don’t suffer in silence. Let your administrators know.
Your principal and assistant principal are charged in part with the health and wellness of the entire learning community. When they know how you’re doing, there may be things that they can do to help. Things that you haven’t thought of.
They may be able to take over one of your scheduled supervision duties.
They may be able to pitch in and cover a difficult class for you.
They may be able to quietly excuse you from an after-school event.
Think of it this way: your administrators win when you win. They’re on your side and they share your goals for success.
It may feel humbling or embarrassing to send that text or knock on your administrator’s door, but it shouldn’t. Trust me — they’ll be glad that you did.
Let your administrators know when you’re struggling.
8. Connect with other positive teachers on social media.
Social media can be a powerful source of energy, encouragement, and inspiration. Tap into it.
Personally, Twitter is always my first stop. I live there as @MisterCavey, and what I’ve found is that in a matter of 1–2 minutes on the app I can count on interesting, helpful, motivating content in my feed, guaranteed.
Twitter can also be an amazing resource when you’re looking for teaching solutions. I once reached out to my Twitter community for some middle school Math resources, and I was stunned by the number of helpful, practical responses.
Maybe you’re more of an Instagram person. Or maybe it’s Facebook or TikTok or YouTube. There are vibrant teacher communities on each one.
Not sure how or where to get started on one of these platforms? Find me on any of the above, and start by following who I’m following.
By tapping into the right people and building a positive professional learning network, you’re inviting more joy, optimism, and practical resources — even if it’s only for a few minutes each day.
9. Invest in activities of personal passion and joy.
About five years ago, I started leaning harder into personal passions outside of school. Things like hiking, paddleboarding, drone flying, writing, podcasting, and YouTubing.
And do you know what I noticed? I started to love teaching more.
You see, when we live and breathe teaching and nothing else, we’re actually not very interesting people. We’re living monochrome lives. We have little to offer others and less emotional bandwidth to do the work itself.
But when we invest in personal passions, when we give ourselves permission and space to engage in life-giving activities of personal joy, some really good things happen.
Our emotional health improves.
We model the learning life that we ask of our students.
We gain new knowledge and expertise that we can bring back into the learning community.
We need to change this idea that time spent on personal passions is somehow selfish. It’s absolutely not.
Wherever your personal passions lie, your colleagues and students need you to invest in them. You’ll be better for it. And so will they.
Welcome to the profession, colleague. You are in for an emotional ride like no other, and you will experience human rewards that few careers can match.
Between the tears of utter exhaustion and indescribable joy, remember this: you are more than your work. You are only as effective as you are well.
We’re in the learning business, but we’re also in the people business. You are more than your work, so take care of yourself first.
Wishing you an incredible year,
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