Tips for First Year Teachers

This August I will begin my 20th year in the classroom--hard to believe! For many new teachers, this fall will be the beginning of their journey. After that exhausting job search, you finally have a classroom of your own! Thinking back to my first year, there were so many things I wish I had known, so I'm sharing that advice today. Newbies, this post is for you. Keeping it simple, here are the ABCs of your First Year Teaching.

Simple, practical advice for first year teachers, Creating a Thoughtful Classroom

You're the new kid on the block, so instead of letting that bother you, embrace it. Don't waste energy worrying about what you don't know. Instead, learn as much as you can; don't be afraid to...

Ask lots of them! Every school has its own "institutional history," meaning their own way of doing things- routines, procedures, grading, etc. A lot of these procedures are "invisible"- teachers just internailze these procedures over time, and automatically follow them, so that's why it's important to ask about them. 

Ask a Mentor

Many schools assign a mentor teacher to first-year teachers, which is so very helpful! If your school doesn't follow this practice, seek out an approachable, veteran teacher yourself and learn from her/him. 
  • Ask to observe her/him teach and note how they deliver and pace (timing is tricky, but comes with practice) their lessons.
  • Ask them about their behavior management techniques (this is by far the MOST important skill to master your first year- If you cannot manage your students, there won't be much learning happening!)
  • Ask them how they organize their classroom (student work, files and materials can take over your classroom unless they have a proper home!)
  • DO NOT ask to have a copy of their lessons or whatever they are using to teach, unless of course they offer. The goal is for you to develop your own identity as a teacher. Each of us brings our own unique personality and style to teaching, so don't try to cheat the process by "copying" someone else. If you are not wanting and willing to invest in yourself as a professional, then teaching will never be a fulfilling career choice for you. 

Ask a Parent

It's also important to ask your parents questions. Build a relationship with them through positive communication. Many teachers start off the year with a Parent Survey which is a questionnaire about their child. These surveys communicate your concern for their child's well-being and growth. You may continue to communicate with parents through weekly newsletters, emails, text messages and or blog posts (if you have a class blog).

Ask Your Students

And don't forget about your students! Ask them lots of questions to get to know them, their interests, their passions and their dreams. This is especially important when you have students that may present behavioral challenges, but it also applies to all your students. Never assume that you know what is going on in that child's mind or life- we truly have no idea what goes on at home, good or bad.

Lastly, let them ask you questions (notice I did not say, 'question you'!) You are a rock star in their eyes and they want to know ALL about you. It is possible to balance your authority as the teacher with your role as a friend. I try very hard to hear my students out, even when I think I know what they are going to say, and many times they surprise me. Let them be heard - you may be the only adult in their life who listens to them, really listens, and communicates a sense of validation. Sometimes this requires you to dig deep into your patience pocket, but it's more than worth it.


Finding balance for anyone can be extremely difficult, but must be a priority for a teacher in order to prevent burn out. Much like housework, it often feels like a teacher's job is never done - lesson planning, prepping materials, assessments and paperwork!!! So, how can you manage it all without feeling overwhelmed? Make a plan and stick to it!

Balance Your Schedule

You will need to put in "over time" your first year, just know that and plan for it. At the beginning of the school year, there is a lot to do, so almost everyone stays late or comes in early until they get a rhythm going. Decide which days you will stay late/come in early - do you prefer to do most of your prep and planning at the beginning of the week, or at the end?  Do you prefer to complete some work at home, or will you be distracted? These preferences are really up to you, but decide on a schedule and stick to it so that you will get your much needed rest and rejuvenation time outside of school!!!

Balance Your Goals

Rome wasn't built in a day, and that's doubly true for any classroom! In the beginning, you'll want everything to be perfect, but it won't be - it never is for any teacher, at least not for me!! Be patient with yourself and set small, reachable goals with realistic timelines. For example, decide that you will focus on getting pre-assessments done in ??? days, and they you will start guided reading. Then, you may decide to start with 1 guided reading group a day, at first. You see, there are so many routines and activities that all must come together to make your classroom function, but it all takes time. Don't rush it; that just leads to frustration. This is where your mentor teacher can really help you prioritize what's really important!


"Who dares to teach must never cease to learn" John Cotton Dana

The best teachers keep evolving as lifelong learners like the students they hope to cultivate. Your first couple of years of teaching will be full of growth in many ways, but beyond that, commit to growing in one area each year. This echoes my advice about balancing your goals so that they are achievable and authentic. For example, in addition to several smaller goals along the way, commit to becoming a master at classroom management and building relationships as I believe this is the foundation of a positive classroom environment. Beyond that, commit to other subject areas in which you can grow as a teacher in literacy, math, or inquiry, for example. 
  • Commit to professional reading. Heinemann is my favorite publisher for professional resources. Many teacher blogs host book studies from time to time, so order your book and join the fun.
  • Commit to classes. Learner's Edge offers lots of online classes for educators at very reasonable fees.
  • Commit to professional learning in your school/district. Look for opportunities to attend workshops in your area, or simply participate in professional learning communities on your campus.
  • Commit to yourself. If all else fails, you can learn on your own! There are LOADS of great teaching blogs out there, not to mention Pinterest and Instagram!!! Back in my day, I didn't have those resources at my fingertips! Ah yes, the olden days before internet :)
  • Commit to positive thinking!

I hope you found this advice helpful! As you prepare to create your own thoughtful classroom, I leave you with a poem that reminds me why, after 20 years, I am still proud to be just a teacher.



How to Teach Math Fact Fluency

Why is math fact fluency important? Some people argue that it's not...with technology these days, why do students need to know their math facts from memory? Isn't that too old school??

According to The National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, students need knowledge of math facts and computational fluency in order to become more proficient problem solvers and critical thinkers. How do students learn their facts?

Research shows that students move through three predictable stages from kindergarten to grade 5 as they learn their math facts for all operations. Let's look at these stages and how you can teach them.

Stage 1 - Conceptual Understanding

Stage 1 refers to conceptual understanding, which is when students need to build procedural knowledge of the operations. That means, they need to figure it out with manipulatives, or even act it out to see the concrete action that the operation represents. Strong number sense and counting skills and are a pre-cursor to success! (I've linked a helpful blog post from Kindergarten Is Crazy including lots of great ideas for building number sense!)

Kindergarten teachers focus on Stage 1, and rightfully so, however, students still need lots of opportunities to build their conceptual understandings in every grade level. For much of the first semester, I use my math mats to reinforce procedural understanding of addition and subtraction.

Here we were working on subtraction with the bug counters from Lakeshore Learning and my picnic Math Story Mats. My kids just love the mats because there are so many different scenes- each time I change out the manipulatives, it's like a brand new activity! I just slip the mats into plastic sleeves (last-minute laminating) so my students can write their equations directly on the mat. (Sorry these pics are blurry- my friends were busy using the manips!)

Students need multiple opportunities to practice addition and subtraction procedures before they can be expected to truly understand equations and compute them with fluency. If you'd like to check out my Math Story Mats, just click on the picture to go to my TpT shop! It includes 12 different story mats, counters and recording sheets.

I also have a FREEBIE from this pack! Try it out with your kiddos :)

Stage 2 - Memory Strategies

Stage 2 is when students begin to learn ways to remember how to solve equations accurately. This is where our role is huge- we can and do help our students learn their math facts by teaching them explicit strategies like:
  • counting on/back
  • doubles
  • doubles plus one
  • complements of 10
  • fact families
Teaching students these kinds of strategies works better than rote memorization because they focus on the relationships between numbers, leading to brain-friendly connections that foster retention- ureka! For example, if I know 4+4=8, then one more (4+5) must equal 9.

Many of us already explicitly teach these strategies during math workshop through mini-lessons, math chats and small group work. To help my students practice these strategies, I created some Math Fact Printables. I introduce them in small groups where we discuss which strategies could be used to solve the equations. (Sorry, I didn't get any photos of student work, but I made a sample to show you what we do...)

So, after I have introduced a couple of strategies and we have had plenty of time to practice them with manipulatives, we slowly go through one of these sheets together in a small group (or one-on-one if a student is really struggling) and mark it according to the strategies that would help us. In the picture above, I tried to show how we circle "+ 0" (or - 0) facts like we are putting a big zero around it (because there is zero/no change), and how I encourage kids to circle the greater number and then count on by making a dot or mark for each count while also counting on aloud. I prompt my students to mark their paper as a way to "train their brain" in preparation for Stage 3. The most important part of Stage 2 is ensuring accuracy. It's kind of like coaching a sport; your prompting your students each step of the way as they make attempt after attempt, so that they execute with accuracy and precision- speed comes later!

I have just added my Addition & Subtraction Fact Printables to my shop! I have organized them into different levels to allow for pacing during the school year and differentiation for students. Click on the picture to them out!

Stage 3 - Developing Automaticity

Now students can apply their knowledge of memory strategies through more practice. The goal now is for students to easily recall the answers to facts immediately. This takes time and students will advance in this area at their own rates, but they still need consistent practice.

To develop math fact automaticity, I have my students continue to complete the fact practice printables with more frequency and with more independence, as well as employ various games during math stations. This year I also started to using Super Speed Math from Whole Brain Teaching and my kids absolutely loved it! I definitely recommend it because they work with a partner, which makes it more fun, and they measure their progress, which is really motivating! My students made great strides in learning their facts, which also improved their ability to solve word problems, and even double digit addition and subtraction. I saw their confidence grow and that was so great!

How do you teach fact fluency?? I'd love to hear!
Thanks for stopping by!


See, Think, Wonder as an Invitation to Learning

Now that summer is in full swing, I can catch up on some of the posts that I have wanted to share, but just didn't have time!! Here's something we did this past spring when we started a new unit.......

How do you usually get  your students interested in new units or topics?

In college, many of us learned about the "anticipatory set" part of the lesson, or the "hook" that would increase students' curiosity and draw them in. In PYP circles, this may be referred to as the "provocation" or an "invitation". My use of See, Think, Wonder here was more an invitation to learning, something to get my students curious and excited!

Whatever you call it, intentional choices about how you introduce new topics and concepts to your students can make a lasting impression on them and a positive impact on their learning and what they remember long after the unit is done. Today I'm sharing how I used the visible thinking strategy, See Think Wonder, to get my students interested in the rainforest!

If you follow this blog, you know that I teach at a PYP school; for our Sharing the Planet unit, our focus was on ecosystems. Our central idea was: Ecosystems require a balance for survival. We wanted to teach students about the interdependence of living things and our responsibility in that relationship.

My teammates and I decided to each pick an ecosystem to research as a class, that way our students would have a knowledge base from which they could make connections. My class would study the rainforest, so I asked our school gardener to make a terrarium for us.

(I know! I am incredibly lucky to have a "school gardener"!!! But, you can actually make your own without a lot of trouble).

I set it up after school and planned to surprise my students with it the next day. We had just begun to explore the topic of ecosystems. Here's their reaction....

My hope was that it would ignite some questions, and that it did! They had a lot of great thoughts to share.

They had class pets on the brain because another class was planning on getting turtles! There was actually no creature in there, but they were convinced there was! Most of them got over the idea of getting a class pet, and were able to make a connection to ecosystems.

Once the excitement calmed down a little bit, we followed the See, Think, Wonder routine using different colored post-it notes.
Some of my friends didn't even want to unpack because they were so intrigued by the terrarium!
(The others had already started on their morning warm-up!)
For this thinking routine, just ask your students to answer the three questions. Each one frames their thinking in a slightly different way and sets up the group to have a great discussion.

I like using this routine because it's very simple and need not take a long time At this point in the year(April) my firsties could write really well, but you can also have students draw. You could even do it as a whole class by asking students to just turn and talk with a partner- no writing needed! Some of my colleagues use this routine in PK and K with these modifications; the whole point is to get your students thinking and talking!

See: what objects, colors do you see? (literal)

Think: what do these things make you think? (inferring)

Wonder: what do you wonder about these things? (questions, connections)

I was really pleased in the way that the terrarium "provoked" my students' curiosity. If I could change something, I'd like to include some living things to make the experience richer, and on-going through out the unit, however, it's hard to get access to live animals/pets in Bangladesh- we can't just order science kits because of the time it would take to ship. Maybe next year I will do so plant-related experiments to add some more scientific discovery to the unit.

In the least, the terrariurm got my kids excited about the topic. While we can't always have special projects with each unit, I think it's really important to remember to engage students with shared experiences. These kinds of provocations don't need to be extravagant or costly, they just need to be interesting!

How do you get your kids excited about learning?


FREE Father's Day Card!

Have you found an idea for a Father's Day card this year? Not yet? I know the feeling! I went on Pinterest and found a couple ideas that I put together to make this FREEBIE! I'm really excited to share it with you because it easy and SUPER-cute!! (I don't mind saying so, myself!)

FREE Father's Day Card, Creating a Thoughtful Classroom

Father's Day is quickly approaching (June 21st) and whether or not you'll still be in school, it's a wonderful end-of-year activity to do with your students - they can take it home with them and save it to give to their dads on Father's day.

Here's how it works....

Start off by explaining the play on words, terrific as "tie" riffic. Ha, ha! So funny, right kids????
Anyway, print a letter template for each student and ask the to write about what makes their dad so "tie" riffic. Take some time to have a brainstorming session and list some ideas on chart paper to help students gather their thoughts. It's always helpful to have them chat with another student about what they plan to write before they actually do it.

FREE Father's Day Card, Creating a Thoughtful Classroom

***If you know that there are children in your class who may not have a father present in their life, you can encourage them to make this card for a grandpa, uncle or special man in their life instead. I have included these options in the freebie! You would want to add to your lesson that many kids have special people in their lives who are like fathers to them without being their actual dad, and that's ok!!!***

Print the shirt template on white or colored paper (for an extra pop) and cut on the dotted lines.

FREE Father's Day Card, Creating a Thoughtful Classroom

Fold the "collar" pieces in and down so that the corners meet at the "x", and then glue it. If you have early learners, I suggest doing this step yourself in advance so that your students can focus on decorating the tie and creating a thoughtful message to write inside the card.

Have students decorate the tie in any design or pattern they want. You could even encourage them to create a funny ties by drawing something that their dad really loves, like basketball, golf or whatever!
I like to use oil pastels because the colors are so vibrant. My sample here is pretty safe (and patriotic!), but your students' cards can be as colorful and creative as you want to make them!!

FREE Father's Day Card, Creating a Thoughtful Classroom

Remind students that they can color outside the lines for a smoother look because they will cut out the tie!

Next, they will glue the tie onto the shirt, and then glue that to a large piece of folded construction paper (I used 12"x18").

FREE Father's Day Card, Creating a Thoughtful Classroom

Finally, they can glue their letter inside the card. My class will be making these this week, so I'll update this post with some pictures of their creations!

If you'd like this FREEBIE, just click on the image below to download it from my store. I would really appreciate it if you would take a second to go back and leave some feedback to help me build a positive rating on TpT- thank you!!! :)

FREE Father's Day Card, Creating a Thoughtful Classroom


Teaching Mindfulness in First Grade

Are you having trouble keeping your kiddos calm during the last weeks of school? Why not try "breathing buddies"? What are breathing buddies, you ask??? Well, let me explain....

Mindfulness in First Grade, Creating a Thoughtful Classroom

During our latest unit about well-being, we explored the components of health. Instead of just focusing on "traditional health" topics for kids, like brushing your teeth and washing your hands, we also inquired into how we could care for our hearts (feelings) and minds. I was actually a little bit surprised at how many of my students shared that they already practice meditation to some degree, their parents having taught them. Once I thought about it, it made a lot of sense as meditation and mindfulness are a big part of south Asian culture.

When we were looking for ways to teach students about taking some quiet time to think, breathe and relax, my teammate found this post on Left Brain Buddha. It's got some great ideas, including breathing buddies!

Ask your students to bring in a small stuffed animal to serve as their breathing buddy. Ask them to lay down, and set them on their bellies. The breathing buddy encourages students to breathe deeply; when they inhale, their buddy will go up, and when they exhale, their buddy will go down. This movement helps them to get a breathing rhythm going. I also asked my kids to count to 3 to encourage them to breathe slowly.

Mindfulness in First Grade, Creating a Thoughtful Classroom

My students loved it! We practiced this just for a couple of minutes each day for the past week and I definitely saw a difference in their overall level of energy- they seemed more calm and less end-of-the-year hyper. It's a great thing to do after recess to help them center their focus back to learning.

Do you practice mindfulness in your classroom?

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