While most teachers imagine a summer full of planning, prepping, collaborating and decorating to prepare for each brand new group of students, that’s not always the case for hundreds of teachers.
It’s January, and that means that that across the country (and the world) there are teachers marching into classrooms for the first time, tasked with charging ahead with unfamiliar curriculum, establishing a community under a new management system, and getting to know an established student community, all while trying to stay sane and confident.
It is a challenge, but the good news is that while you may be the only teacher you know taking over a class midyear, there are countless teachers elsewhere going through a very similar situation.
One of them just a couple of weeks ago emailed me, actually, asking for advice. She sent me some questions and I went looking for teachers who could answer them.
All three of the following teachers stepped up. They all took a class over midyear, and all had advice for those that might be nervous about doing it now. They speak of the realities that so many teachers face in this position, along with some sound advice and encouraging words. I hope you can glean some ideas and maybe even a little peace from reading their words.
If you or someone you know could benefit from not feeling alone and from a little wisdom about taking over midyear, read on.
Here’s a little about our interviewees:
Grade level: 7th & 8th grade currently, but took over for a 5th grade teacher mid year
Content: Science (current) in 5th, all contents
Years of experience: 5
Kaylee Ann Wilkes
Grade level: 3-5 Special Education Resource
Content: Reading, Math, Science, Social Studies, Extended Standards, Behavior Therapy
Years of experience: 3 years
Grade level: 5th
Content: ELA, Science, and Social Studies
Years of experience: 3 months!
1. Can you explain a little bit about the situation when you took over someone else’s class?
Kelly: I took over for a 5th grade teacher in northwest Phoenix right out of college. I had just completed student teaching 8th grade social studies and this was the job that came up. I had ZERO solo experience in the classroom. The 5th graders were babies compared to the 8th graders. I took over the classroom in January. The teacher had been fired in November and the class had pretty much had rotating subs from Thanksgiving to winter break. There had not been any consistency when I walked in.
Kaylee: Mine is a bit tricky, I stepped into the position of the sole Special Education teacher at our school. I graduated December 11th, 2015, was officially hired December 17th, and moved December 31st. I started school on the 3rd of January 2016. The teacher before me chose to retire after 25 + years. In Special Education, the rules, games, laws, teaching methods, and methodology has transformed over the past 10 years. I took over the caseload, which was manageable then, of students with varying disabilities and worked hard to figure out how to work on their specific deficits. I learned how to write Individualized Education Programs, progress reports, grade papers, and handle behaviors on a daily basis in my tiny classroom.
Alyssa: I took over a classroom in October after our hometown was pretty wrecked after Hurricane Irma. The existing teacher had just moved to Marathon, and lost everything in the hurricane. She decided not to remain in the Keys, and moved back home. The students were only in school about 2 weeks before the hurricane hit, and had a substitute for about 3 weeks before I started. We were really starting from scratch in October.
This is my first year teaching! I graduated with my BA in 2012, but was self employed from 2012-2017. (I actually still run my business, www.alyssamorganphotography.com, on the side!)
I never pictured myself in 5th grade; I preferred the primary grades in college. But, now that I am in the classroom, I love it!
2. What is something you didn’t expect but wished you had been ready for (OR something you did expect and were glad you had prepared for)?
Kelly: If you don’t do anything else, buy a few ice packs and have them ready to go! My feet and knees hurt so bad the first week that the weight of my feet laying on the bed hurt my feet! Ice packs were a life saver! But really, because I student taught middle school, I was not prepared for two huge things. I had to plan for every subject everyday, and I had to keep the kids all day long. I had to learn how to navigate elementary school quickly. I was also not prepared for the tattling. On my second day teaching, a student came up to me and said another kid was playing with Legos. I remember giving him a confused face and asking if he was choking on the Legos because unless he was, he didn’t need to tell me. He had no idea what to say. Oops.
Kaylee: I am thankful I decorated my classroom and didn’t just “move in” with the decorations the previous teachers had already put up. She had been in that room for years, so I knew it was time to change it up! I was blessed to have my crafty mother come in and help me transform it into my classroom in a matter of a day. I wish I would have had a lifeline of someone in a similar situation that could help me navigate all of the programs and day-to-day planning. I have a paraprofessional, but she is not required, nor should she, to write programs or handle schedules or discipline. This was a learning curve and still is.
Alyssa: I didn’t expect to walk into, what for me, was chaos. The teacher I replaced had a much different teaching style and was not very organized. I spent a LOT of time implementing new routines not only for the students but for myself. It took a solid month to get really organized and to feel like I was actually accomplishing anything!
3. How do you deal with the negative emotions from a teacher leaving on bad terms? Or deal with students’ disappointment or hurt that they’re teacher changed?
Kelly: The only thing I really remember was not really being allowed to tell the kids he was fired. They had a day where they said their goodbyes, and even he was not allowed to tell them. I believe the kids were told he had to move. I really got thrown in, so I just did whatever I was told. The kids didn’t seem to be too disappointed or have too much trauma from the experience though.
Kaylee: She didn’t leave on bad terms, just kind of went with Christmas break. Most of the kids understood that she was leaving and someone else was coming in. However, the biggest push-back I received was that parents believed I was too young to teach their children. After proving to them that I was certified and capable, they understood quickly that I was here for the children’s best interest.
Alyssa: She didn’t leave in bad terms, per se. Everyone understood why she left. Hurricanes are devastating, and a lot of my students lost their homes as well. It’s been a long road of healing for a lot of people, and being that I grew up in the area, I could relate to the students and empathize with the frustrations they felt.
4. How do you establish classroom management and routines mid-year? And can I use time to play “getting to know you” games?
Kelly: Day one, introduce yourself and briefly tell who you are. The next things out of your mouth need to be the following:
- How and when they may sharpen their pencil. I’m not kidding. It’s the first procedure they’ll have to use. Tell them where the pencil sharpener is. I literally make my kids point to it. Then they have no reason to ask you in April :). Can they sharpen while you’re teaching? If they can, make sure they know to wait until you acknowledge them (otherwise you’ll be interrupted – and let them know what acknowledgment looks like).
- How and when they can throw away their garbage. Again, not kidding. Can they get up and throw something away when you’re teaching? What if they miss the trash can?
- What they can and cannot touch. Anything on my desk is off limits, and anything in my yellow smiley mug is off limits. They can use any supplies on the front counter or on the shelves.
- When can they use the restroom and how do they let you know? Can they go during instruction? Small groups? Do they have to sign out? Take a pass?
- Where do their backpacks go? Are they in a cubby? On the back of their chair? My students’ backpacks are on the back of their chair. If they get up to get supplies or go work in another part of the room, their backpack goes on their desk.
These five things will come up before you can teach them how you want to distribute supplies. You can absolutely play get to know you games, but make that the focus. Those first few days are not necessarily about having fun. Establish procedures and get to know them. Don’t rely on [get to know you games] either. Make the kids want to play them. If you play too many, you’ll get behavior issues because they’re are bored.
Kaylee: So this one was a bit different since I don’t have a true class. I have students across three grade levels that move in and out of my classroom in 30 minute increments throughout the day. Even my day-to-day schedule varies. What I was able to do across the grades, ability levels, and crazy schedule was to buy sparkly pencils. I bought these at Target when I decided my major. I took each pencil, gave it to each child, and explained to them that in my classroom they were not dull, boring, or not enough. Instead, each of them were bright shining superstars that had so much to learn! They were tickled (except for some boys) with the idea!
Alyssa: At first, I went with what the other teacher had established. I could tell right away which students were helpers, and they filled me in on what worked and didn’t work. From there, I just tweaked until I found what worked for us as a group. After Thanksgiving break, where we had a week off, I spent the first day going over some new routines that I felt the class needed.
5. What should be the main priorities in working with my kids when I start?
Kelly: Not necessarily about the kids, but your priority should be finding your footing. This new role is about to take over your life and emotions in a whole new way. Rest up. Eat healthily, get enough sleep, drink enough water. Nothing good will happen in the classroom if you’re not taking care of yourself.
Kaylee: First and foremost, let them know that you love them and want the best for them. I know this is crazy, but I promise it is worth your time and effort. I am finishing this year with the children I began with my first year. These kids are my children and I am so thrilled to see them moving on to sixth grade, but goodness gracious I could hold on to some of them forever! They have grown and understood what it is to be loved and motivated to work.
Alyssa: Establish a relationship. You’ll have a curriculum guide and co-teachers to bounce ideas off of, so really spend time getting to know these kids. Ask them what they like and dislike about school. Have them fill out a getting to know you questionnaire if you can. Once you have a good idea of their personalities, abilities, and interests, you’ll have a MUCH easier time establishing routine and planning lessons.
6. How can I ensure my students are successful (and that I’m organized) with short notice and little information about curriculum/materials?
Kelly: Use what other teachers on that grade level are using as much as possible. Even if they’re doing a mapping activity that you don’t really love—if you didn’t have to stay up until midnight to make it, it’s great! Especially that first year. If you don’t have other teachers who teach the same grade, look at the standards, see if you can grab a text book for each subject and start scrolling through Pinterest or Teachers Pay Teachers for some ideas. As much as it sucks to spend money on TPT, sometimes it’s worth it. Don’t go spending every dime you ever earned, but if it saves you from hours of making something, spend the money!
Kaylee: This may sound horrible and I pray my district doesn’t ever see this, but wing it, girl! I downloaded TONS of interactive smartboard activities from TPT that were free to keep us busy. I also invested in GoNoodle subscription to be able to transition, get up and moving, and relax with daily. I will be honest, I did not have a clue what was expected of me, my paraprofessional, or my students. Set your expectations high and work hard to meet them. I stayed late every day. My then fiance, now husband and I were three hours apart and he only visited on the weekends, so I also took work home nightly. Now, I am focused and more meaningful with my time.
Alyssa: Take the first week just to feel things out, and go from there. I had a ton of ideas before I started, and they went right out the window the second I walked into the classroom. Be flexible and open minded! Talk to your co-teachers and administrators. Find the “helpers” and ask them what their classroom was like before you started.
7. I don’t know if I’ll have much access to my classroom before starting. At this point, should classroom decorations even be a concern?
Kelly: Decorations are not necessarily a concern. A few posters here and there might be nice. Don’t try to keep up with Instagram and Pinterest your first year. You’ll burn out. There are so many things to learn and do. Just make sure it’s clean. I spent the first day in my classroom cleaning what I thought was 100 years worth of dust off of every surface. The decorations are not the most important part of teaching.
Kaylee: I decorated my classroom because it is the place where you will spend 10-12 hours per day for your first year. I have since moved classrooms and redecorated. My top things to have posted are my rules, which I obtained from Especially Education, my cool down area, my library (with expectations), and my desk area. I have been able to focus on those area to organize and decorate and have moved on throughout my classroom figuring out what works.
Alyssa: Not right now. That will come with time. Keep it simple for this first year, it’s a huge transition for all of you. Once you have your footing, you can start thinking about decor and the like.
8. What advice do you have for work/life balance for new teachers?
Kelly: The best advice another teacher gave me was to take a day off (although, warning – sub plans kinda suck). It’s just a job. It will be there when you get back. Assign packets and worksheets and sleep in. You will not be effective if you are burnt out. I take a day at least once a quarter and more if I’m particularly stressed. Use sick days and consider it a mental health day and stay home.
Kaylee: I will be honest, I had a horrible balance my first six months working, but I have learned how to balance much better now. You have to understand that there is always something to do, but you don’t have to always be doing something for school. If I wasn’t at work, working on something for my kids, I was planning my wedding my first six months. My first full year (2016-2017), I had my wonderful husband join me in our town, we bought a house, and began the process of remodeling. I love to be busy and productive. That is what I thrive on. I had to learn how to channel this energy to things that were beneficial for myself and family as well as school. My husband helped me through this a lot, and he gets the teacher thing since he is a teacher’s kid by his mother and father. This school year began a little different though, I found out I was expecting my first week with kids (and we all thought I just had BTS exhaustion)! This has pushed me to stay not just busy but productive and more organized. Have a long term goal for your life, in and out of school, and work little by little to achieve it.
Alyssa: Don’t bring work home, as tempting as it is. I’ve only been teaching 3 months, and I NEVER take work home! Not even my laptop. If I have to stay until 6pm every night, so be it. But once I’m home, I’m home, and my attention goes to my family.
9. What should I do if I don’t get along with my co-teacher?
Kelly: This is so hard! If you just dislike them for whatever reason, find a way to cope. They’re condescending? You don’t agree on how they should line up after lunch, and turn in homework, and handle discipline? They just bother you? You may not be able to change that. The good news is you’re going to learn a good lesson in compromise. If they are disrespectful or unprofessional, then you should get your administrator involved. They can’t always do something about it, but informing them is a good step to take. Ultimately if it’s that bad, you may consider looking for a new job the following year.
Kaylee: This is a question I am asked ALL. THE. TIME. I will tell you what many people (in and out of education) have told me, “You are not paid to get along, but to make sure that your students are successful”. This is more true today than ever. You must find common ground, no matter the lengths it takes to do so.
Alyssa: Grin and bear it!
10. I’m nervous. Can you tell me a success story, something encouraging, or something that was rewarding for you in your experience taking over mid-year?
Kelly: I had a very tough experience overall, so I can’t offer a ton of roses. You will be in survival mode for a while. But when you come out of it, you’ll find that you actually like the students in your class. They’re bright and funny, and they’ll make your day. I’ll show this picture of something one of my 5th graders drew during math, because it was the best! I have to say taking over a class mid-year is the hardest thing a teacher can do. It will probably be the hardest semester of your teaching career. But after it’s over, you’ll have a better grasp of who you are as a teacher. You’ll know what works and what definitely doesn’t. The really good news is the next year will be so much easier.
Kaylee: My favorite part of starting mid-year is that I felt like I had a trial run my first six months and then I was able to come back with a game plan for the next year. Over that summer, I was blessed to gain a husband and a new passion, dyslexia therapy. I was able to participate in a program that trains people to become dyslexia therapists and work with that population. I had no idea what I was signing up for when I volunteered, but it has since changed my life. Sometimes, ignorance (and overwhelm) is bliss!
Alyssa: It’s totally normal to be nervous. Don’t be afraid to ask for help; teachers are a family, and they will want to help in any capacity they can.
I started in October, and by Christmas, I had a few students tell me I was the best teacher they’ve ever had, and that they were so happy I came into their classroom. And I’ll be honest, it’s not because I plan awesome lessons, because I don’t. I do what I can! I really think they appreciate that I value each one of them as individuals, and I take the time to get to know them.
THANK YOU to Kelly, Kaylee, and Alyssa for spending the time and energy to share their experiences.
Want to connect with them? This is where you can find them:
- Blog: Supersassandscienceclass.com
- Teachers Pay Teachers: Super Sass and Science Class
- Instagram: @supersassandscienceclass
- Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/supersassscienc/
- Blog: allkindsofspecial.com/blog
- Teachers Pay Teachers:All Kinds of Special
- Facebook: All Kinds of Special
- Instagram: @all_kinds_of_special
- Website: www.alyssamorganphotography.com
Just remember, no matter what, you’ll get through this year. Know that you’re not alone. With your passion and love for your students, along with a little hard work and humility, you’ll come out of this year stronger and better and undoubtedly having influenced young lives. We’re rooting for you!! Feel free to reach out with any other questions you have, and share if you think someone else could use it. Good luck!
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