How to Survive the First Week of Teaching High School English – Or Die Trying

The crazy part about being a SAH mom is that I no longer have to deal with the ramp-up and emotional explosion that is THE FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL. Of course, I am buying school supplies (for my own child – novelty!) Still, I see all the half-joking status updates by my teaching friends mourning the death of another summer and the rebirth of their teacher personas. When you think about it, it’s amazing that we resurrect those box-shaped teacher zombies every year. Do you think the students know when they’re being taught by the undead?

I was thinking these thoughts and pondering my first teaching experience. I had spent a week trying to prepare for those first real students (not ones that were owned by a practicum or student teaching mentor), and had slept maybe 2 hours the night before. I was excited, scared and totally unprepared for what I was stepping into.

Since I’m pretty sure I was not alone in my lack of understanding, I decided to share with you the best things I learned from those first few weeks of teaching high school English. Maybe they will help you. Maybe I’m too late to help you. Or, maybe you’ll just nod your head and say, “Yep. I probably shouldn’t have done that either.”

How to Survive the First Week of Teaching High School English – Or Die Trying

1. Overprepare

Have a clear plan of what you want to teach this week at least a month in advance. Oops. Oh, well. Just do your best to scramble something together and be really prepared next week. Besides, your first week should be all about getting to know your kids and teaching routines, anyway. When the time comes to lay down the heavy doctrine of Hamlet and Onomatopoeia, you will feel confident and teach better knowing what you’re going to do. Your students will see this and respect you more for having a clear path for them to follow. They will also respect you more for not making them spell Onomatopoeia.

2. Set Reasonable Expectations

Nope. They’re not going to like reading Chaucer or doing a multimedia presentation about the symbolism in the Great Gatsby during the first week of school. You need to first recognize that you are teaching high school students. It will be a miracle if they can write a paper without including a ๐Ÿ™‚ or an LOL.

Still, don’t teach to the bottom. Give your lesson plans enough wiggle room so that they can be tailored to each student’s level. One cool idea is to give a syllabus at the beginning of the semester that entails how a student can get an A, B, or C in your class. That way they can decide for themselves what grade they would like to get. Of course, that also means that you would have had to plan ahead for that, and seeing how it’s already the end of the first week of school….bullocks.

Periodic Table of Texting - High School English
But, just in case you DO want to know what they’re saying…

3. Teach Routines

Don’t be ashamed to take some time and teach the procedures for your class right up front. How to turn in papers, how to get a bathroom pass, what can be said or should never be said in class: these things are the bread and butter of your everyday teaching experience. Take the time to teach them now. Otherwise you’ll have a unending rash of students crying on your desk because they “didn’t know the makeup policy” or “didn’t know the homework was graded.” On the other hand, it can lead to some very excellent bribes.

4. Have a Seating Chart, Preferably in Alpha Order

A lot of teachers are “too cool” for seating charts, and you are probably one of them. I was. Until I saw that an alphabetical seating chart makes grading easier, memorizing names quicker and discipline better. It is the least personal way to break up a clique, unless they all have the same last names. Then you’re screwed.

5. Plan for Bad Behavior

Yep, the first month is the “Great Testing Grounds.” It sounds like something out of the “Hunger Games,” right? It is. You say to me, “Well, I’ve been teaching for a full week and my kids are all angels!” Yes. That’s because they don’t turn back into the demons they are until about week 3. BE PREPARED FOR THIS.

If you don’t have a clear behavior plan established by then (either through class consensus or good old-fashioned dictatorship), you won’t have a chance to reign in their real-life Lord of the Flies tendencies. How will you explain to your principal why there is a pig’s head on top of your projector? Not good. Better to do discipline now than to suffer the wrath of the insane children later.

How to Survive Your Demon English Student

6. Show Them You’re the Boss

My first year of teaching was with gendered classes. I had 3 classes of girls and 3 classes of boys. This whole teaching experiment was based on the research book of Dr. Leonard Sax, Why Gender Matters, about the effectiveness of single-gender classrooms. While a lot of my fellow teachers thought it was malarky, they couldn’t deny that the test scores improved considerably over the next 5 years.

What I thought was so helpful was finding out how importance dominance is to young male students. While girls are motivated to connect personally with the teacher (hence, the compliments, presents and general hobnobbing), boys are motivated to test a teacher for classroom control. This means that you must establish that you are in control of the classroom from day one. Don’t be a douche, but make sure that everyone knows that you have eyes in the back of your head and that there are consequences for breaking the rules. Every time.

7. Have a Backup Plan in Case of Technical Failure

Admins love knowing that you are using technology in the classroom. It makes them look good and your students get some valuable non-Instagram time on the computers. Just make sure you have a backup plan. If you have a PowerPoint, make sure you print out enough copies for them to look at, just in case things go teats-up. Trust me, they will.

8. Know Your Students

Not just their names, although that is also important. I mean, talk to them, one-on-one, and find out who they are. All you need to know at first is something simple and concrete. Who is on the Varsity Cheerleading team? Who loves to listen to Country Rap? Who has a secret Elmo collection? It helps them know you care, and gives you a better chance of actually teaching them in a way that they will remember for a lifetime.

Nightmare Before Christmas Eyeshadow Art - Survive Teaching
“I see you have painted Jack Skellington on your eyelids. A+ for creativity!!”

9. Don’t Eat Alone

With most first-year teachers, it is almost a necessity to sit in the classroom during lunch and grade or supervise the weird kids who want to eat with you. Don’t. It is vital that you eat with other teachers, complain about the psycho kid in 4th period with the drawings of rabid monkeys on his paper. You usually find that the kid has problems in other classes, too. Not only that, but you expand your professional network and learn strategies that you need to survive this first year.

10. Have Fun Every Day

No matter how intelligent you are, you didn’t get into teaching to show off your smarts, did you? DID YOU?!?! Go home. Now.

Ahem. To everyone else:

You got into teaching because you had a teacher somewhere along the line that mattered to you. They told stupid jokes and told you you were smart and you decided that you wanted to do that for a living. Do that for your students. Find inventive ways to make teaching fun! Tell a joke, do a dance, make a craft or just talk about the movie Warm Bodies for a half hour. You will be happier and your students will feel honored that you decided to be a real person with them for just a little while.

How to survive teaching high school
Don’t worry. The force works for English, too.

You Have Time for Just One More:

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14 responses to “How to Survive the First Week of Teaching High School English – Or Die Trying”

  1. Enjoyed reading this as I prepare for a new year & was thinkig about what suggestions to offer our new teachers. I will suggest they read this. It’s quick & filled with humor – always a positive. Thank you!

  2. […] It’s Sunday, and come Friday I will be teaching! I’m actually browsing through Pinterest finding resources, activities and habits to pick up. I found this great blog with tips of surviving your first year as an English Teacher (but it works for practicum student teachers too!). You can find it here:… […]

  3. As a pre-service teacher, its always nice to get a heads-up about what will really happen once we graduate and have a classroom of our own. I’m a somewhat non-traditional student (I’m about 4 years older than most graduating students, and even though it’s not a lot, it feels like a lifetime) and sometimes I think I get caught up in the fantasy. It’s nice to know that even though I’m scared, I wont be the only one who feels completely unprepared for their first year. I’m terrified, and excited too. I found this particular page on pinterest; if your other articles are anywhere near as entertaining and truthful, I think I might just become a regular reader!

    • I’m glad it was helpful. Yes, most teachers are scared as crap that first day…and the next day…and the next. But, you eventually do find your rhythm. Getting to know your limits and the kids individually – that’s the most important thing. There are a lot of other pressures, but you must remember why you started to do this job in the first place.

      Actually, I was in the exact same boat as you. I graduated with students who were all at least 4 years younger than me, sometimes more. What is great about that, though, is that I had already had a lot of life experiences (which I’m sure you do, too), that made me more prepared to be a teacher. I had a daughter, I had been in management, I had already done a lot of substitute teaching. Even with all those additional experiences, having my own classroom was daunting. No worries. You are going to do great! Just take time now to practice the skills of listening and setting boundaries. The rest you’ll gain with experience. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thanks for your comment! I appreciate it!

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