What I Wish I Knew as a First Year Teacher

what I wish I knew as a first year teacher

The mantra for my 20+ year career has always been ‘When you help a child, you help a whole family’. This has been the driving force behind everything I have done in my professional life. So when it came time to choosing my Uni degree (Teaching behind Door #1 and Speech Pathology behind Door #2), it was a tough call as both professions help families in so many ways! I picked the Teaching door as I loved the idea of the variety that each day could bring.


I’m Ready to Teach!

And I couldn’t wait to get to my first classroom – I had my ‘teaching ideas’ notebook ready, which I had been adding to for years, I had stocked up on pretty classroom décor and had my ‘teacher clothes’ hanging in my cupboard. 


At uni, I had majored in special education but my first posting was a mainstream Kindergarten and my first thought was – ‘Mainstream – easy! I’ve got this!’.


There is no such thing as a ‘Mainstream Classroom’

What I discovered on that very first day of teaching is that I didn’t have a Mainstream class at all. I had 18 beautiful five-year-olds, many of which had additional needs. Some of these kiddies came with a diagnosis, which at least gave me a starting point with how to help them but several of them didn’t – which meant I was running blind in terms of how to help them, how to alter the curriculum for them, how to also cater for my extension kids…. AND how to fit some sleep in around it all.


And even though I had WONDERFUL support from my colleagues, I started to feel overwhelmed and burnt out quickly. I would arrive at school at 7am to prep and was exhausted before the day even began. My evenings and weekends became a blur of sitting on my laptop.


And yet I felt like I was getting nowhere.


My Lowest Teaching Point

I remember one lunchtime early in Term One of that first year – I was surrounded by my bombsite of a classroom after yet a(nother) lesson had gone pear shaped. I was frantically sharpening the pencils before playground duty started in 8 minutes and trying to prep for my maths lesson which was straight after lunch.


And I was sobbing. I felt like a failure. I felt like I was letting my students down and I felt like I wasn’t giving my best. But I couldn’t find a way off of this treadmill of just trying to ‘keep up’.

I didn’t end up finishing sharpening the pencils (there were a LOT of them!) but I remember feeling in that moment at something had to change.


The Power of Visual Supports

And perhaps it was fate, but that very next day, we had a speech pathologist visit our school and she passed on some information on visual supports.


I swear my life changed in that moment.


That one document she gave me sparked my interest and I began researching visual supports more and more. I started to understand more about how they worked and felt empowered when I created my own.  I began implementing these visuals into my teaching day.


My classroom settled. The routines flowed. My students made gains. And finally I had space to breathe.


A New Position and Collaboration


After two years of upskilling, I applied for and secured a specialist special education position called the ‘Support Teacher Language’. This unique position involved teaching a class of just seven students, all of which presented with  speech and language disorders. These kiddies came from all over the geographic area and the idea of this class was to give these students a year of ‘language enriched curriculum’ to boost their language skills and then they would return to their ‘home school’.


And the best part? I had a speech pathologist in the classroom with me three days a week. And it was here that I could see the value of the speech pathology world and more importantly, the value of working collaboratively with speech pathologists.


Not only did I get to continue implementing visual supports –  something I had become quite passionate about –  but I learnt, with the speech pathologist’s support, how to turn ANY lesson into an enriched language lesson.


The more I worked alongside the speech pathologist, the more I fell in love with the speech pathology world. I could see that language and communication was where it all begins for our students! So I headed back to Uni and retrained. I’ve been working as a speech pathologist for 13 years now and my passion to work with Educators remains – because I never want Educators to feel as powerless as I felt in those first couple of years.


When I tell others about my early years of teaching, they often ask – ‘What do you now know that would have helped you to work smarter, not harder, as a teacher?’ And whilst I could answer this question for days, I did narrow it down to the top three strategies that ultimately helped me thrive:


Top Tip #1: Become Confident Implementing Visual Supports

There are no mainstream classes anymore – I wonder if there ever were any to begin with?! But something that remains consistent is that SO many students, particularly those with additional needs, are most often very visual learners. And visual supports not only assists these students, they actually support ALL your students, freeing you up to do what you love – TEACH!


And remember, visual supports don’t always have to fancy, laminated printouts. Think writing down your instructions on the board, drawing simple stick figures to emphasise your key points or referring to your calendar each day with your class.


Top Tip #2: Enrich All Lessons with Language:

Every lesson is a chance for vocabulary building! Mathematics is bursting with language concepts (think long/short; empty/full), art is full of action words (think paint, blot, mix) and News / talking and listening focuses on ‘Wh’ questions. Take an extra few minutes in your lessons to talk about the new words you are focusing on and draw a stick figure to match (I say ‘stick figures’ as this is the extent of my drawing skills – but kids love to giggle at my creations! And it keeps them engaged!).


Top Tip #3: Ask for Help

Particularly as an early career teacher, I carried a lot of pride and felt that I should have it ‘figured out’. I’ve since learned that


(i) no one has it all figured out, and

(ii) teaching is a profession of lifelong learning anyway!


Once I embraced that, my anxiety dropped and I became open to new possibilities.


So lean into those areas of unfamiliarity. Reach out and ask a colleague for assistance. Connect with a speech pathologist who can offer collaboration in these areas – we all want to support eachother! Teaching doesn’t have to isolated profession that it can sometimes feel like.


Ultimately, we all want to enjoy our careers and I promise you – you can! Keep learning, keep trying and as I often say, keep making a difference.

visual schedules free guide
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