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Advice for First-Year Teachers From the Principals Who Hired Them

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Most principals were teachers too. Once upon a time, they were even first-year teachers. Since becoming principals, they've had the opportunity to observe many first-year teachers -- and to see many of those teachers make many of the same mistakes. So what is the best advice these experienced school leaders have to offer this year's crop of new teachers? Education World's "Principal Files" principals share some pointers that will ensure a successful first year and a successful career.

Last week, Education World offered advice to this year's crop of new teachers. That advice came from teachers who were in those same shoes last year!

See Advice for First-Year Teachers --- from the 'Sophomores' Who Survived Last Year.

But who knows better the stumbling blocks that first-year teachers face than the principals who hired them? Most principals have seen many a first-year teacher stumble and fall; those principals have brushed off dozens of new recruits and sent them back into battle.

This week, Education World asked our Principal Files Principals this question: If you could give one piece of advice to this year's new teachers, what would that advice be? Here's what our P-Files principals had to say...


"Realize that you will probably learn more in your first year of teaching than you did in all four years of your college education."

That's one piece of advice that principal Terri Kirkman offers new teachers at Melissa Ridge Elementary School in Melissa, Texas.

"And don't be afraid to ask for help from 'seasoned' teachers," added Kirkman. "Most teachers are very willing to share their secrets. If you have the opportunity to visit other classrooms or if you can find a mentor teacher, do so. The more you witness teaching taking place, the greater chance you will have of knowing what will work for you."

Barbara Woods, principal at Marshall Elementary School in Lewisburg, Tennessee, agrees that learning from other teachers is the best way to learn. "Find out which teacher or teachers the other teachers in your building would want their child to have," said Woods, "and spend lots of time finding out how to do what it is that that teacher does!"


Support is essential to a beginning teacher's success, said Helene Dykes, principal at Marian Bergeson Elementary School in Laguna Niguel, California. "I would tell new teachers not to be afraid to ask questions and to seek out experienced teachers to mentor them," said Dykes. "Usually, experienced teachers feel privileged to share some of their expertise with new teachers."

In California, Dykes explained, the Beginning Teachers Support Advisement (BTSA) pairs each new teacher with an experienced support teacher in his or her building who can offer advice, counsel, and encouragement during the difficult first two years of teaching. The BSTA program also provides training, in-services, release time to observe in other classrooms, and a small stipend to purchase materials, added Dykes.

"Don't be afraid to ask questions of veteran teachers and administrators," echoed David Innocenzi, vice principal at Hamilton (New Jersey) High West. "You're not alone. We have all been in the same boat. An experienced teacher can help show a new teacher the ropes."

Principals in school systems that don't offer mentoring programs should consider creating their own in-house programs, added Innocenzi.

Latching onto a peer or mentor teacher is an excellent idea, said Ernest Elliott, principal at Hacker Middle School in Mountain Home, Idaho. But, he warned, don't forget about your building principal!

"Keep in close contact with your building administrator," said Elliott. "Often, first-year teachers keep their distance from their administrators because they feel inadequate or because they don't want to appear to need help. ... [But] these are the people who hired you, and they have confidence in your ability to do a wonderful job.

"I was one of those first-year teachers who was left to himself by an administrator who did not seem to care," said Elliott. "As a result of my not wanting to seem in need, and as a result of the administrator's not caring enough to check in with me, I had an absolutely miserable year. At the end of that school year, I left the profession.

"I think often of the growth and nurturing that I missed and of the students who deserved a better teacher," added Elliott. "A few years later, with the help of another caring administrator, I returned to the profession and had a wonderful career."


For first-year teachers, getting off on the right foot can make a world of difference. A good start can mean the difference between a successful year and a year of total distress. You're the boss, you have the degree, this is your classroom, and a strong plan and adequate preparation can set you up to achieve your goals.

"Have a plan in place for the first day of school," advised Terri Kirkman. "The plan should include rules and consequences, as well as procedures for sharpening pencils, going to the restroom, handing in papers, and so on. The rules and consequences should be limited to three to five of the ones that are most important to you personally."

"Print up your classroom rules for students to keep, and for them to take home with them for parents to read and maybe even to sign and bring back to you," added Jessie Ballenger, assistant principal at Danbury (Connecticut) High School.

"On the first day of orientation, my district gives every new teacher a copy of Harry Wong's book The First Days of School," said Mary Ellen Imbo, principal at Westwood Elementary School in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. "This book has outstanding suggestions for establishing procedures. It's also of great value to veteran teachers.

"I always suggest that new teachers plan ways to bond with their students for the very first day -- or even before!" added Imbo. "I ask my teachers to call all of their new students at home in the days prior to school opening. That sets the stage for the students and parents to feel welcome."

Getting to know parents early in the school year should be an essential part of a new teacher's plan, added Terri Kirkman. "Send a letter home the first week of school introducing yourself. In that letter you might explain what you will be doing the first few weeks of school. You might even include some information about your expectations of students and parents. Then keep the communication lines open at all times. Call home occasionally with good reports."

"Stay in touch with parents -- with good news and bad news," concurred Jessie Ballenger. "Parents want to know what is going on. They really do appreciate hearing from teachers -- and administrators too."


Beyond the first day, it's a wise teacher who always has lesson plans ready on time, said Dee Manitzas, principal at Accelerated Middle School in San Antonio, Texas.

"Be prepared with the day's learning objectives," added Ballenger. "You will impart an air of confidence. Students need to see that in a new teacher."

"Don't be afraid to take risks to reach your students," said Bruce Hudson, principal at Asir Academy, a K-9 American school in Khamis Mushayt, Saudi Arabia. Hudson encourages first-year teachers to work diligently to create "authentic" learning connections. "The best teachers I know have their students energized each day. [They have] become joyful life-long learners who are willing to take educational risks."

Valerie Thatcher, principal at Campo (California) Elementary School, agrees. "Invest yourself in your profession," she said. "Remember why you entered the education field in the first place. Everybody knows you won't get rich here, but if you invest yourself, you will make a major difference in the lives of children who need you."


We couldn't resist leaving first-year teachers with a few more tidbits of advice from our P-Files principals.

From Betty Yee, principal at Dort Elementary School in Roseville, Michigan:

  • Accept constructive criticism from the principal.
  • Attitude: Teaching is a career, not just a job!

From John Stone, principal at Rindge (New Hampshire) Memorial School:

  • Don't try to do everything the first year.
  • Justify what you are doing.
  • Stay away from gossip and negative staff members, even if times are tough.

More advice from Dee Manitzas:

  • Laugh at yourself when you make a real boo-boo in front of the students.
  • Always be flexible in your daily schedule.
  • Have your plans ready on time and your grade book up-to-date.
  • Keep away from the "lounge lizards" -- those staff members who are always complaining about something.

More advice from Terri Kirkman:

  • Find a good way to reduce stress. Find a buddy and walk in the evenings or join a gym and work out. I have seen many first-year teachers burn out in the first semester simply because they couldn't let [the stress] go...
  • Don't gossip!
  • Be very nice to the secretary and custodians.
  • Take any staff development opportunities that come your way.
  • Don't let them see you sweat!


From the Ed World Library

Article by Gary Hopkins
Education World® Editor-in-Chief
Copyright © 2009, 2015 Education World


Originally published 08/16/1999
Last updated 06/21/2015