I’ve been told that your first year of teaching under any circumstances feels like building a plane while flying it. This year, it’s even more complicated.
Teaching during the coronavirus pandemic has been draining for all teachers. Scrolling through Reddit, I’ve seen countless posts from dedicated educators who have reached their respective breaking points since school buildings first closed almost exactly a year ago. But first-year teachers like me face an additional hurdle: our own inexperience.
First-year teachers haven’t built up our confidence reserves just yet. And that means being plagued with doubt.
Every single day I wonder if I am failing my students. I wonder if I’ve lost too much class time introducing another virtual learning platform. I wonder if socializing in breakout rooms is enough to meet students’ social-emotional needs. I stress over how much longer everything takes — how the flow of every lesson is punctured by Wi-Fi issues, audio issues, log in issues, and messages from parents such as “can you let us back into the call?”
All teachers, regardless of their experience, face these problems. However, first-year teachers must navigate them alongside grasping the basics of teaching. How can I be mindful of my “economy of language” — that is, minimizing words and maximizing clarity — when my students with unreliable internet connections can’t hear what I’m saying half the time? How do I provide “multiple means of representation” — or teaching with an eye toward different types of learners — when everyone is staring at a computer screen? I worry that everything I learned about classroom management and lesson planning doesn’t seem to apply in a virtual setting.
However, after my first few months of teaching, I’ve discovered some things that have helped me become a better teacher during this “unprecedented” first year in the field.
I thought my mistakes meant I had failed — until my colleagues taught me otherwise.
During the first month of teaching, I missed a meeting with two members of the school staff because I set the wrong time on my Google Calendar. It was such a silly mistake, but I felt like a complete failure. I thought I needed to be perfect 100% of the time and that any lapse in my job performance would mean letting down my students. Later that week, I confessed what had happened to four other first-year teachers during a Zoom call. To my surprise, we all ended up bonding over how we had all missed meetings that week. Being around other first-years helped me understand that I should extend grace to myself when occasionally things slip through the cracks. Otherwise, I would quickly burn out.
I scoffed at “self-care” — until I learned to embrace it.
Until I started teaching, I always thought “self-care” was a marketing ploy to sell juice cleanses and gym memberships, or, more recently, face masks. But I quickly realized that if I practice real “self-care,” I couldn’t be there for my students. The first few weeks of teaching, I found talking to a computer screen for six hours a day every day to be incredibly exhausting. All I wanted to do when the clock struck 3 p.m. was sleep. This tiredness trickled into my teaching. To combat it, I started waking up earlier, eating a balanced breakfast, and exercising more. Students absorb much less of your energy when you’re over Zoom than in-person, so I discovered it’s even more important to be alert and enthusiastic during class.
I struggled to find my footing — until veteran teachers helped.
It took me a few weeks to find my “teacher voice.” I wanted to sound warm and demanding; at the same time, I didn’t come across as very demanding. Fortunately, three different coaches visited my virtual classroom to observe. They pointed out ways I could keep my students engaged and told me what was working for me virtually and what wasn’t. For instance, students could more clearly see my work when I annotated on the virtual whiteboard than when I wrote on a physical whiteboard. Similarly, students seemed to absorb more of the lesson when they could type answers to questions in the chat. I also found it helpful to observe other virtual classrooms. When my class merged with another class for a week of testing, I learned a lot by watching a more experienced teacher lead an English Language Arts and math lesson and borrowed some of her strategies for teaching virtually.
I never expected that I’d spend my first year teaching over Zoom. I also never expected to form such close bonds with students I’ve never met in real life. I’ve felt empowered by the knowledge that I’m not alone — that there are other first-year teachers experiencing pandemic learning right alongside of me and there are veteran educators from whom I have so much to learn. Without them, I would be far less confident in my ability to navigate this school year and those to come.
Canwen Xu is a third grade teacher in the South Bronx. She graduated from Columbia University in 2020 with a Bachelor of Arts in political science. She is also a freelance writer and content strategist for iris, an AI-powered dating app.