Dear Me: A Letter to My First-Year-Teacher Self

Anjuli Johnston

Dear Me:

It's me. Well, you. Writing from a decade in the future. You are in your first year of teaching... what a whirlwind. You're feeling excited, exhausted, overwhelmed, and about a million other things in between. You get to spend your days with 25 fifth-grade students, and I know you hope so deeply that you are making a positive impact. You are. 

Every day, you wonder how you are doing. Are you meeting the needs of your students? Are your students learning? Are your students having fun? Are you answering that parent email sufficiently? Are you teaching that lesson correctly? You are surrounded by an amazing, generous team of veteran teachers and you are supported by a caring principal, yet the questions swarm incessantly. At times, you’ll question whether this is truly the right career path for you. However, just when you think you’ve fallen short as a teacher, you’ll watch a student experience that “lightbulb” moment: the moment when the stars align, the persistence pays off, and understanding is achieved. It’s there, in the proud eyes of your student, that you’ll realize that teaching, through its ups, downs, twists and turns (many of which you haven’t even begun to experience yet), is your calling.

So, why am I writing? Simple. There are a few things I wish I had known back when I was in my first year of teaching, so why not write a letter to you, my former self? While a decade hardly makes me a veteran teacher, I have picked up at least a couple of tidbits that would have been of use ten years ago. While I loved my undergraduate program, nothing can truly prepare you for your own classroom.


Lean On Your Team

I can only speak to the first ten years of your career, but you are immeasurably lucky. You will switch teams and teaching roles a few times in the next decade, but every single team member with whom you will work is an asset to your practice. Utilize them! I know that as a perfectionist, it can be tempting to “do it all”, but your teammates want to support you. As you evolve in your practice and develop deeper relationships with your teammates, you will find a rhythm where your talents are utilized and your weaknesses are supplemented (and given opportunities to grow!). 


...But Trust Your Gut

You are a smart, capable teacher. It’s easy to question your every move, but know that you can trust yourself! While your team is an invaluable resource, you are the one who sees your students every day. 


Give Families the Benefit of the Doubt

Families want what is best for their children. Plain and simple. Assume that parents are doing all that they can at home to help their children succeed. Provide resources and options. Read emails from families with the assumption of positive intent, rather than interpreting a sharp or questioning tone. Also: sometimes, families don’t have time to read the newsletter. I know you put a lot of time into it, but if they ask you a question that was clearly answered in the newsletter, just give some grace, resist the urge to roll your eyes, and provide the answer. 


Start With Standards

In your first  year, you are just trying to stay afloat. You look at the standards. You know them generally well. Even so, it’s easy to rely on curricula and team materials, assuming that standards are being met. Take the time to deeply understand the standards. Breathe them. Consume them. Let them drive your instruction. Some big legwork here will provide clarity and confidence in the future.


...But Teach Your Students

Even as you lead with standards, remember that you are teaching wonderfully unique young humans. Sometimes, this means scrapping a lesson (which you undoubtedly took hours upon hours to meticulously plan) only five minutes in. It stinks, but sometimes, this is where the magic comes in. Read your audience. Provide them opportunities to guide lessons. Your students will amaze you. 


Learn to Say “No”

You want to do it all. You can’t do it all (and do it all well). Prioritize. You can’t join every committee, head every fundraiser, and coach the after school running club. Commit to the things that matter most to you, and give them your all. 


Teaching has got to be one of the most rewarding, draining, inspiring professions out there. Even ten years later, you are still questioning instructional moves, wondering how you could improve a lesson. You are still thinking about students long after the bell rings. You are still hoping you are doing enough. 


You are. 


Hang in there. Enjoy the ride… you’ve got some exciting years ahead. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry. You’ll wonder a few times why you didn’t choose law school. At your core, though, you are an educator. But you already knew that.




If you were to write a letter to yourself in the first year of your career, what advice would you give? Upon which experiences would you reflect?

  • elementary
  • high school
  • middle school
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