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  • Writer's pictureAndroy Bruney

My First Year as a New Chemistry Teacher: How I Nearly Quit

Updated: Jun 14

I think it would be appropriate for my first blog post ever to tell you, my readers, how I nearly quit teaching in my first month on the job. Some of you may relate to these mistakes, and if you're a newbie, maybe you can learn a few things.


The Challenges of Being a New Chemistry Teacher

My first year teaching was a very challenging experience for a number of reasons.

Mostly, it was my false expectations of what teaching really was, my lack of preparation (I was called in two weeks after the school year had already started), and my erroneous idea that having a degree in chemistry was enough for teaching high school chemistry (Spoiler! I was dead wrong).

Here are a few mistakes I made during my first four years on the job and what I learned from those experiences. And no, I didn't quit—at least not until about a decade later…but that's for another day.

Mistake # 1: Taking Outdated Advice

I got a lot of advice in my first week on the job, some good and some bad. But the one I remember clearly, mostly due to the disastrous effect it had, was this:

“Don’t smile. Otherwise, they will walk all over you.”

So, I readied myself with my best “I mean business” face and walked into a classroom of teenagers, and…let's just say it did not go well. There was an explosive confrontation with a female student, which ended in the principal's office.

It went downhill from there. Students refused to approach me after that “incident.” I started receiving quite a few calls from concerned parents who were getting complaints from their children that they just didn't like chemistry.

I never had a good rapport with that particular class after that and spent most of the year anticipating graduation.

Here's What I Learned:

  • Don’t take advice from teachers who haven't updated their classroom management strategies since the 1980s. I did get some great advice and will be forever grateful to those who pointed me in the right direction. However, your students will typically respond to you with the same energy you give them. Coming on too strong with the "I mean business" attitude only creates an "us versus them" atmosphere, which doesn't benefit anyone.

  • It is definitely okay to smile. Contrary to popular belief, smiling on the first day doesn’t communicate weakness or suggest that you are a pushover (not doing what you say you are going to do does). A smile communicates that you are kind and polite and makes a good first impression.

Mistake # 2: Weak Lesson Planning

As a new chemistry teacher, I was called in for my first teaching job two weeks into the school year. Fresh out of university, I had never stepped foot in a classroom. I mistakenly believed that getting students to “know the content” was my ultimate goal as a teacher.

I walked into class with two sheets of paper with paragraphs upon paragraphs of content on acids and alkalis, a few diagrams, and a few hastily written objectives (I had about seven).

When I was finally done after 40 minutes, I turned to the class and asked, “Do you understand?” All I got back were blank stares.

I soon learned from the head of the science department that my students were complaining that they were completely lost in my class.

My Advice to You:

Ensure that you have a great lesson planned for your first day (No pressure)! It makes a great first impression and gets your students excited for your class. There is no room to leave your students bored and uninspired, especially in the first week of classes when they are most excited.

Mistake # 3: Neglecting Formative Assessments

If you’re like I was and don’t know the difference between a formative and summative assessment, here’s a quick explanation:

  • Formative assessments are methods used to monitor student learning during a lesson or unit.

  • Summative assessments are used to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit.

Formative assessments are important for both teachers and students. Teachers can find ways to improve their teaching strategies, focus on student problem areas, or review concepts that need clarification. Similarly, students can become aware of their strengths and weaknesses.

I knew that checking for student understanding was necessary, but in my mind, that didn't go beyond asking, "Do you understand?"

When I did administer quizzes or gave my students assignments, I never looked for trends in the grades. And when I did notice a trend (almost always a negative one mind you), I rarely did anything about it.

So, of course, when end-of-term results came, their performances were lackluster, to say the least.

My Advice to You:

  1. Formative assessments should be part of EVERY lesson. Asking students whether they understand something is not enough. Most will just say yes, and those who don’t, won’t say anything at all. Often, students don't realize they have difficulty with a concept until they are quizzed on it.

  2. Administer different forms of low-stakes assessments aligned with the lesson objectives. These include creating concept maps, writing summaries, or forming groups where they share their ideas or explain concepts to their peers.

Mistake # 4: Not Having a Classroom Management Plan

I debated putting this as Mistake Number 1 because of how important it is to have a classroom management plan.

After years of teaching, I now believe that having a robust classroom management plan is even more important than having a good lesson plan.

No matter how brilliant your lesson is, you won't get anything done if you have to constantly stop class to deal with behavioral issues.

I knew having class rules was important, but in my mind, that meant telling my students what not to do rather than what I expected them to do (there is a difference).

For example, instead of telling my students, “You should raise your hands when you have a question,” I told them, “Do not speak when I am speaking.” When it came to my policy on homework and assignments, I said:

“There is only one excuse for not doing my homework, and that is death…your death.”

I am not proud of that moment. Outside of getting a laugh from a few students, it made absolutely no difference. I constantly got assignments and homework submitted late. In fact, it was so bad that I was convinced it was being done deliberately.

Here's What I Learned:

  • Having a solid and detailed classroom management plan is essential. It promotes an organized and engaging learning environment. Not only does it set the tone for the school year, but it also saves you lots of time and energy so you can spend more time teaching rather than constantly dealing with disciplinary issues.

  • Write your rules and expectations as affirmative statements. Instead of telling students what they should not do, tell them exactly what they should be doing.

  • Clearly outline consequences for violations of class rules. Having a plan is one thing; enforcing it is another. Interventions should be in place to deal with behavioral issues, such as letters/meetings with parents, detentions, time-outs (for younger students), etc.

  • Be consistent. There is no point in having consequences for rule violations if you aren’t going to stick to them. If you tell students that late assignments three times in a row will warrant a letter to their parents, and you haven’t sent that letter after the fifth infraction, then your students will know you do not mean what you say, and they won't trust you.

Mistake # 5: Believing that Knowing the Content Was Enough

“You haven’t taught until they've learned.” — John Wooden.

When I decided to take my first teaching job, I was confident that having a degree in biochemistry and chemistry was all I needed (clearly the administration thought so too since I was hired for the job with zero teaching experience or training). In my country, it is often difficult to get teachers who are trained and also have science degrees.

I knew the content, and I had the erroneous idea that my main goal as a teacher was getting my students to also know the content. I believed that once I stood in front of a classroom and lectured for 40 minutes, that constituted teaching. I was genuinely shocked at the end of the school year when almost half of my class had grades below 50%.

It took me some time and reflection to realize that teaching is not simply the transfer of knowledge from the head of the teacher into the heads of the students. That is just not how the brain works. It’s an art form, requiring care and patience—something I was lacking in the beginning of my career.

Here's What I Learned:

Teaching is more about teaching students how to learn rather than what to learn.

To be a good teacher means helping students form connections, relate new knowledge to what they already know, and apply new knowledge to new situations.

In chemistry, I find more meaningful learning occurs when I show my students something rather than overwhelm them with abstract information.

Teaching goes way beyond just knowing the content.

If you are new to teaching or you're a veteran teacher looking for some tips and advice from a flawed teacher who went from learning on the job to deep diving into educational research, be sure to stick around for much more.


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