Advice For First-Year Teachers

Advice For First-Year Physical Education Teachers

Last fall, I sent out a survey asking via The #PhysEd Newsletter asking my readers if they had any burning questions that they would like me to tackle in 2019.

One question that was submitted by a lot of people was “what advice would you give a first-year physical education teacher?” This is a question I’ve seen asked several times on Twitter as well, so I thought it would be cool to answer it here.

Here’s the thing though: my advice is coming from only one perspective (my own). The beauty of the online #physed community is that it is composed of thousands of educators from around the world. Collectively, that involves thousands of roads travels, thousands of background stories, and thousands of unique perspectives. So to complement this blog post, I’ll be creating a #PhysEd Thrive Guide that will include responses to this question from other members of the #physed community. I will be embedding it at the end of this blog post once it is done. For now, be sure to follow me on Twitter (@phys_educator) to make sure you get notified once the #PhysEd Thrive Guide for this post goes live.

Ok, here’s my advice for first-year physical education teachers which I’ve limited it to the top five items I wish I could go back and tell myself a decade ago.

Stay Healthy

As ridiculous as it may sound for me – as a physical educator – to be saying this to a fellow physical educator, I need you to remember that health is your greatest wealth.

Teaching has the power to make you feel superhuman, saving the world one child’s life at a time. That being said, it also has this tendency to completely drain you physically, mentally, emotionally, and – on some occasions – spiritually.

A wise man once told me that to give, you need to have; that to fill, you need to be full. If you allow yourself to become depleted, you will no longer be in a position to continue to serve the young people that you are blessed to be able to teach.

As a first-year teacher, you hopefully have that mad fire in your belly that is burning hot. That fire is an incredible thing and something that you can sustain over time if you focus on keeping your body, mind, and spirit active and healthy.

Don’t underestimate the terrible impact that a few skipped runs, a few missed lunches, a couple calls you forgot about with friends/family, and some lost self-reflection time can quickly have on your ability to teach to the best of your capacity. There is a fine line between being selfless and being stupid. I’m calling it as it is because creating that sense of balance in my life is something that I have struggled with throughout my career and something that has had an unnecessary negative impact on my own wellbeing.

Over the past ten years, I’ve learned better and have been working hard to stay balanced and healthy (check out this post to learn about some of the habits that have helped me get there). Do yourself a favour and learn from mistakes. Make your own health a non-negotiable priority in your life and empower yourself to continue to be the best teacher you can be.

Go Slow

As I mentioned before, you’re probably feeling pretty fired up about teaching in your first year. To that, I say HELL YES! The world doesn’t need unmotivated, unenthusiastic people teaching its future. Rumble, young teacher, rumble!

Your incredible motivation as a first-year teacher might lead to you wanting to make a massive splash as possible as quickly as possible. You’ll want to teach every outcome, coach every team, tweet every moment, run every show. You’ll want to show the world that you mean business and deserve to be in the position that you are in.

This belief that you need to do as much as possible to prove yourself as an educator is a mistake. In most cases, you’ll wind up skimming the surface on most things while never giving yourself – or, more importantly, your students – the opportunity to live rich, deep experiences. This surface dwelling as you try to check every box on your “Super Teacher Checklist” can actually create a lot of self-imposed pressure on yourself which can lead to you missing out on the magic of teaching.

I’m not telling you to be lazy and do as little as possible. I’m just telling you to go a little slower:

Go slow as you get to know your students. Take your time getting to know what they like, what they don’t like, what they need, and what they can teach you. Give them time to get to know you and take the time to get to know them.

Go slow as you build your teaching style. Be patient as you establish routines and procedures with your students. Don’t try to be that teacher you saw at the conference/on Twitter. Figure out the role you can best play in your students’ lives and allow yourself to be you.

Go slow as you learn all of the things that I promise you they didn’t teach you in school. I thought I knew it all when I graduated back in 2009. I learned more in that first year of teaching than I did in the four years of university that preceded it. Take your time digesting all of the information the trenches of teaching will teach you as you find your footing as an educator.

I was lucky to get to be exposed to some of the most masterful physical educators in Canada while attending PHE Canada’s Student Leadership Camp back in 2007. I remember that one of my early goals when I started building this website, was to fast-track it to becoming a “Master Teacher” like the mentors I spent time with at the SLC. Listen, I learned skills, developed ideas, built resources, and made incredible connections that no doubt had a positive impact on my professional development and helped me become the physical educator I am today. However, there is no such thing as “Master Teacher” speed plan. The title, which I hope to one day feel like I’ve attained, comes from experience. What I’ve learned is the teacher’s I met at that camp were who they were because of years of trying, learning, growing, and enjoying. They were who they were because they put in the work.

So put in the work, get your reps in, and enjoy taking the time getting to understand what it means to be someone’s teacher. It’s fun, trust me.

Be Kind

Contrary to what the news these days wants you to believe, there is a lot of power in practicing kindness.

Obviously, kindness towards your students can lead to them practicing kindness in return. It can help build trust, gain their support, and not be too hard on you the next time your lesson plan performs a belly flop (which is 100% going to happen at some point).

Kindness towards your school’s parent community can help you recruit advocates for your program and volunteers for your events. It can help you build relationships in which you feel comfortable having the honest-yet-difficult conversations we sometimes need to have to best serve a child.

Kindness towards your colleagues/administrators can help you create a stronger teaching team at your school. It can help you develop bonds in which you feel like others have your back (like when you really need to pee but have been teaching back-to-backs all day… I bet they didn’t teach you that in school). It can help you build friendships that will last a lifetime.

Here’s one last kindness that I really want you to remember: be kind to yourself. I promise you that, at some point, you’re going to make mistakes. On the rare occasion, you might even feel like you’ve really f*cked up. You might feel like a failure, a loser, or a complete incompetent.

In those moments, here’s what I want you to do:

  • Breathe.
  • Understand that this feeling of unworthiness comes from a place of wanting to be great for your students.
  • Remember that with each failure comes a better understanding of how to be successful.
  • Focus on your next step towards success.
  • Promise to be a little bit kinder towards yourself next time this happens.

Feel better? Ok, good. Now get out there and teach!

Be Consistent

For many of you in your first year, you may find yourselves inheriting a program with a problematic culture. Maybe it was a “roll-out-the-ball” thing, a “let’s cater to the athletes” thing, or (my favourite) a “I just kinda did whatever, the kids were sweaty though” thing.

Strong classroom culture is like having an additional teacher in your class: it’s there to help your students make the right decisions, guides them through the routines and procedures that serve as the foundation of your classroom management, and can help your students maintain a positive mindset when facing challenging situations in their learning.

Often, new teachers wind up feeling crushed by the culture that they’ve inherited from the teacher who was there before them. This legacy effect can make you feel as though you are always swimming upstream in your efforts to create the program of your dreams. It’s tough and – given the lack of teacher accountability frequently found in physical education programs – it can be really easy to give up on your dream and just go with the flow.

Here’s what I’ve learned about culture change: it’s really hard, but it doesn’t take as long as you’d expect. There is a tipping point after which you can sense an increase in momentum that will help accelerate the rate at which you dream becomes a reality.

From my experience, the thing that slowed me down the most wasn’t outside forces, oppositional voices, or uninterested students. Instead, it was a lack of resolve in how consistent I was being in making my dream come true.

If you want your students to demonstrate responsible behaviours in your class, be consistent in your behaviour management.

If you want students, parents, teachers, administrators to view your program as an important and essential component of education, be consistent with the quality of work (e.g., lessons, programs, events) that you produce for your program.

If you want to build strong relationships with your students, be consistent in the way that you show respect and interest in who they are as individuals.

There are going to be moments in which you falter, make mistakes, or underperform (remember the “Be Kind” point). The important thing is that, when you take a step back and look at the big picture of the body of work you produce, that you see that was a clear and consistent purpose in what you’ve done.

So how do you make sure you do that? Start with the end in mind!* Take time to sit down and map out where it is you want to go in your work. What kind of program do you want to build? How do you want your lessons to run? How do you want your school’s community to view you? Paint a clear, detailed portrait of the culture that you want to build and keep it close to your heart at all times. Review it on a regular basis. Let it guide your actions, decisions, and efforts as you move forward in your career. Know that others will resist it, push back, and try to crush it. This includes yourself, via that small voice in the back of your head. Stay focused on your mission, let your passion be infectious, and others will begin to see your vision as something they want to be a part of too**.

*”The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People” is essential reading for ever human being on the planet. I’d add it to your library asap.

*Again, from my experience, this usually happens right when you’re about to give up and don’t. Once it does, things get easier (without necessarily being easy).

Keep Learning

Alright, so you’re about 2000 words into this post. I’m going to go ahead and say that you’re one of those “passionate about P.E.” types (I’m not that good of a writer). That’s good news because you’re going to need that passion for this last piece of advice:

Accept and embrace the fact that you still have a lot to learn.

Here’s the thing though: you always will. The more you learn, the more you realize that there is so much more to know. Lucky for you, we live in a time where information and professional development are more accessible than ever before!

At any moment, you can hop online and connect with teachers from all around the world via the power of social media. Be it Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, or Voxer: teachers are finding ways to get together, share ideas, and learn.

I want to really encourage you to be proactive in the way that you go about creating your professional learning network. Don’t wait to be in crisis mode to start reaching out for help and support! Make a conscious effort to engage in discussion, read an article, scroll through tweets, or watch a video each and every day. Keep finding new people to follow and learn from. Be sure to introduce yourself to them, don’t just lurk! Step outside your comfort zone and politely interject/add to conversations that are taking place.

Also, share your work! The real value of social media as a tool for professional development is felt when you start putting your own ideas out there. Let people take a look, add comments, and help you build those ideas. You’re lucky that the #physed community is one of the most respectful, kind, and energetic communities you are likely to find. Yes, people might be critical of your work at times. Don’t let yourself become defensive. Instead, engage with them and encourage them to help you grow. You would be amazed at the number of times that the person who was most critical of my work wound up being the person I had the most to learn from.

As you connect with other educators, as you build your PLN, you will find yourself feeling inspired and excited about the work that you do. Impossible obstacles will become exciting challenges, mistakes will become opportunities for growth, and the fear of hitting “post” will become a hunger for feedback. That’s what lifelong learning feels like.

I hope this advice serves you well. There is so much more I would love to share with you, but I’m going to stop myself here. Instead, I will be sharing the Thrive Guide I mentioned at the top of this post below (it will be up soon, I promise! It’s up!) If there are any questions you may still have, feel free to leave them in the comments below.

Thanks for reading and happy teaching!

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Joey Feith is the founder of ThePhysicalEducator.com. He currently teaches elementary physical education at St. George’s School of Montreal in Quebec, Canada.

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