Advice to Myself as a New Teacher

Dear Mr. Barnwell (version 2004),

You’re about to embark on one of the toughest things you’ll ever do, but I’m not sure you realize it yet.  Being a first-year teacher, no matter the school or situation, will challenge you in ways you could never imagine. Now, I know you’re used to being successful at nearly everything you do, but trust me: you will be battling to stay afloat during your first year. After nearly 10 years in the classroom, I’ve learned a few things; the passage of time has allowed me to realize that certain dispositions, actions, and perspectives are crucial to keep in mind as you embark on becoming the teacher of record.

Don’t Get Caught Up in Things You Can’t Change

While there are plenty of great things about the public education system, you’re going to run into systems and situations that drive you bonkers. Flaws in mandated testing implementation and design, meetings, school discipline policies, and even professional development could make you feel like you’ve chosen the wrong career path. It’ll seem like there are obstacles at every corner from preventing you from doing your job. But the sooner your focus on what you can control, like improving your lesson planning, establishing classroom routines, and continuing to build positive relationships with students, the less irritated and helpless you’ll feel regarding all that needs reform.

You Won’t Be an Effective Teacher (For a While)

As I stated above, it doesn’t matter if you’re facing a classroom full of students in poverty, English language learners, or advanced students in a wealthy suburb: you’re not going to be good at your job…for a while. You may find you have a knack for building relationships with students. You may find you have a knack for establishing classroom routines (probably not at first). You may find you have a knack for writing assessments.  But to be skilled at the myriad demands facing teachers will take a while. Build on your strengths and, over time, you’ll round out your teaching skill set. For me, I truly hit a comfort zone in year four. Be patient and don’t be too hard on yourself.

Take Care of Yourself

If you aren’t healthy in mind, body, and spirit, your chance for a reasonably low-stress teaching assignment is almost nonexistent. Your teaching–and ultimately your students–will suffer as a result of feeling overwhelmed and overworked. Throughout your first year, It’ll seem like you need to grade papers, design lessons, and answer e-mails, but what you must do first is schedule a routine for stress-reducing activities to keep you sane. I know you like to play pickup basketball and lift weights. Don’t push these things aside. Heck, you might even consider yoga or jogging. Also remember to maintain your hobbies or start a new one.

Seek Veteran Advice

You’ll soon know which teachers in your building seem to “get it.” Hopefully your administrators will encourage you to observe master teachers. Once you spend some time with some helpful veteran teachers, you’ll discover that they know a lot more than you do, even managing to balance successful professional lives with roles as mothers, fathers, parents, and spouses–this will blow your mind. There’s a reason why many veteran teachers don’t seemed as stressed out as beginners. They know a lot more than you do. Most of it comes down to classroom management expertise and maintaining positive relationships with students, and you’ll want to soak in as much know-how as possible.

Alternative Certification Is Really Tough

It’s too late to change this decision, of course, as you’re enrolled in a alternative teacher certification program at the local university. You’ll have the dual challenge of taking graduate courses while you plunge into your teaching career. This will make all my other advice all the more important. In general, I’ve noticed that some of my older colleagues who have participated in alternative certification have the advantage of possessing more wisdom and trying life experiences. You’re young, and you’re taking on a lot. It can be done. Stick with it.

Lastly, It’s not your fault that you’ll be placed in a tough school, or that you’re expected to teach a full schedule–even encouraged to coach–when you should be working an 80% salary and assigned mentor teachers in the building. But please take my advice: it will get better. If you stay in the education game long enough, you might even realize that you’ve found your calling.

-Mr. Barnwell (version 2014)

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  • Jenelle

    Elementary 3-5

    Wow! It was like you were writing a letter to me, and it was just what I needed right now! Thank you ! 

    • PaulBarnwell



      I’m glad it struck a chord with you. Please check back in at CTQ and share some more thoughts/challenges about your first year! I’m not sure if you are a member of CTQ…it’s an amazing group of supportive educators.

  • LaurenHill

    I know a beautiful young

    I know a beautiful young woman who’s not quite a first year teacher who absolutely needs to hear this right now.  Thanks for putting it out there.

  • KipHottman

    Rock Star Advice


    You touch on so many feelings that I had as a new teacher.  I was lost and in survival mode trying to figure out how to run a classroom without knowing where to go.  I agree with your point of trying to connect with a master teacher.  Master teachers know what makes a class flow and I needed that guidance.  

    To all the CTQ teacher leaders, I appreciate what you do for those beginning their profession!  I was too intimidated to seek that much needed support, and I wonder if maybe we can reverse that trend.  What if we introduce ourselves to beginning teachers in our school?  What if we offer support and give up a planning or an hour after school every now and then?  I had a KTIP mentor, but I needed somebody to grab me and tell me the same story that Paul is writing.  

    Paul, thank you for writing this blog to which all teachers can relate.  Who knows, maybe somewhere tomorrow a new teacher will be approached by a teacher leader offering help and affecting their class in a positive manner.  That is why we are in this profession in the first place, not to just help the students that we teach, but to help all students be successful.

    • PaulBarnwell

      “Lost and In Survival Mode”


      The fact that many of us can relate to that feeling of day-to-day survival must be changed! Do some people really believe that it’s a necessary rite of passage to struggle through a first year?  With troubling teacher retention rates in some places, you’d think more structures would be in place to ensure greater teacher growth and support.  Thanks for the comment!

      • bradclark

        Specific to KY I realize, but we also have to completely re-think how we support first-years. How can a first-year engage in a meaningful leadership project? Her/His focus needs to be grounded in instructional practice and understanding students in a learning environment. We need to relieve burdens so that teachers have strong instructional foundations. Leadership opportunities emerge from expertise and interest.

        • KellyStidham

          Defining our Work

          I think what we are all talking around is how we define what it means to do the work of teaching.  

          Teaching has always been my calling, but it shifted from my job to my profession when I realized that the more I valued daily reflection and collaboration – when my practice became more purposeful and intentional.  

          How do we help to frame “the work” for new teachers in this light?  Especially when they are learning the mechanics of the day to day as well?

        • KellyStidham

          Defining our Work

          I think what we are all talking around is how we define what it means to do the work of teaching.  

          Teaching has always been my calling, but it shifted from my job to my profession when I realized that the more I valued daily reflection and collaboration – when my practice became more purposeful and intentional.  

          How do we help to frame “the work” for new teachers in this light?  Especially when they are learning the mechanics of the day to day as well?

        • PaulBarnwell

          Realistic for some, probably not for others.

          Hey Brad,

          Thanks for checking in with your thoughts. You’ve raised a good point regarding viewing new teacher assets, rather than simply deficits. What passions, skills, ideas, do new teachers have that they might be able to build on?  Share with new colleagues? At the least, I can imagine mentor teachers sitting down with new teachers to try and understand what makes them tick, then working to implement a plan.


      • Lynn Wilhelm

        I absolutely agree Paul.

        This “first year of hell” ritual definitely needs to change. I’m a new teacher who’s not just out of undergrad. I’ve been in the business world, I’ve even been a business owner. And nothing has been as difficult or made me feel as incompetent as this first year of teaching.

        I can’t think of any profession where novices are expected to do just what veterans can do. Most newbies get lighter loads or have more coaching through new projects. There’s usually some form of training, even if it’s just some time to get to know the company. And no, student teaching doesn’t cut it. I had a great time student teaching with a great mentor, but she’d already gotten her classes started, so I never saw that. Plus the student population was completely different than I ended up with.

        One of my thoughts is that every school should have at least one coach for BTs. Their job would be to regularly observe and literally coach BTs through their classes. Getting the classes started, classroom management, real-world lesson planning, getting materials ready (I’m a science teacher) and making sure teachers take care of themselves outside of school. My county’s mentor program is sorely lacking with mentors that have full loads already. I actually had to have 2 mentors because one went into admin last semester. Both could be better, but how can they have much time for their mentees?

        Another idea would be to have new teachers teach fewer hours with more time for planning and professional development. That’s probably too much to ask, but it would be very helpful. I know my state wouldn’t spend more money, but it’s nice to dream.

        Thanks so much for this article Paul, I definitely needed to read it now.