My Advice for a First Year 5th Grade Teacher


It’s hard to believe that my first year teaching 5th grade was ten years ago. My sister, who just graduated from college, called me this week to let me know she had received a job offer – to teach 5th grade.

I couldn’t be happier for her. Fifth grade was my absolute favorite grade to teach. Not only have they developed a sense of humor, but they have clear interests. I learned so much about weird, random stuff from my 5th graders. And I definitely learned to be a more patient person, and not to take things personally.

I know my sister is going to want to know everything I can tell her to prepare her for her first year teaching as a 5th grade teacher, but a lot has changed since my first year. For example, my first year teaching, we used these amazing pieces of tech called overhead projectors. They were an awesome way to model lessons for your students, unless the light bulb went out. Then you were writing on the board with your back to a class of 5th graders for several weeks while you waited for a new light bulb to be ordered.

Photo courtesy of Meg @ The Teacher Studio 


Technology has come a long way. My last year teaching, we had a projector with an Apple TV, Macs, and iPads. There are definitely new challenges that are way beyond just light bulbs. I have some advice for technology (if you have it) in this blog post, but I’m mostly going to focus on the most important things you can do your first year teaching – in 5th grade.

Fifth graders need consistency

The best thing you can do your first year teaching is to choose a classroom management system and stick with it. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy. It most definitely should not change each week as you try something completely new. Choose a strategy, and stick with it for a while. Before you begin teaching, make a list of all of the ways students can be disruptive. Maybe even ask some of your other teacher friends. Then come up with how you are going to calmly, and fairly handle the situation.

By 5th grade, kids have realized what your limitations are. Do not threaten a consequence that you can’t follow through on. Hopefully you will get training on the system your school has in place to handle behavior issues. Listen to this training and ask questions.

I’ve tried many classroom management ideas throughout the year, but what’s ultimately worked best for me is to treat students like my own children. I don’t yell – I treat them with respect, but I expect them to be cooperative members of my classroom.

One of my favorite systems is sending home a positive note when my students go above and beyond. You can read more about it by clicking the image.

Don’t get me wrong, some students can behave absolutely unbearable. Remember that it’s not personal. There’s something going on with them that makes them act like they are. If it gets unbearable, ask for help!

Staying organized should be a team effort

Ask your new team what systems they have in place to stay organized, and implement them. You’re going to want a system for:

  • Bathroom breaks
  • Homework
  • Technology (see below)
  • Classroom library (keep it simple)
  • Supplies
  • and more

Most importantly, use students to keep it all together. Don’t switch skilled helpers each week. For example, a door holder is not a skilled helper and it can totally be a weekly job (although I preferred to just have it be the first person in line – the weekly helper thing was way too much work for me and 5th graders can learn in a couple of days that they should hold the door open if they’re first in line). However, the person checking that all of the iPads are present and plugged in properly is. Assign these skilled jobs to students that show the skills necessary to handle them. You’ll find that sometimes your most difficult students will thrive with important classroom jobs.

One organization system I used for our 1:1 iPads was a book ring of student password information. Fifth graders are still very unorganized at the beginning of the year. I have them keep a copy of their passwords in their binders, but if they lose it, they can also get their page off of the book ring. They write their passwords on my copy and theirs. Don’t make jobs for yourself like filling out password pages for each student – most fifth graders are totally capable of doing this themselves! By the third week of school, all of the students know where to find this information without interrupting me.

Don’t expect your 5th graders to be robots

When we get into our classrooms, we find ourselves focusing on the overall machine. We want everything to run smoothly – but it won’t. That’s not realistic. Students, especially 5th graders, have their own opinions and preferences. The expectation that every single student will be engaged in reading the awesome novel that you paid your own money for is unrealistic. You will find yourself crying with your door locked and your lights off on more than one occasion if you expect everything to work perfectly all the time. #truestory

Teacher evaluation and student testing falls under this too. It always bothered me when administrators came around with a form that had points for student engagement on it – but they expected no less than 100% engagement. I would love to have 100% engagement, but it’s not a reality in today’s classroom. For some students, there are no consequences at home if they don’t do their work. That’s another reason for you to not take things personally. If most of your students are disengaged during a lesson, see the next section. If it’s just a few, then there’s something going on with them. I’m also not telling you to disregard feedback from your administrators. It’s important to get this feedback to find out what they want from you for next time. Just don’t be hard on yourself when you get that feedback. Even experienced teachers don’t get 100%.

Ultimately, you’ll learn strategies to help with student engagement, but it’s never going to be a perfect science. When students are disengaged, try to figure out why, and brainstorm how to deal with it next time. It might take you months to engage certain students, so give yourself a break and get to know them. Relationships are key.

Your lessons will fail, miserably

All of us experienced teachers have stories of horrible, and sometimes even inaccurate, lessons we taught our first year teaching. The kicker with fifth graders is that they will definitely pick up on it when you mess up. They will point out your mistakes. all. the. time. And they’re not always nice about it.

If you mess up, let them know, laugh about it, and tell them you’re going to do a better job the next time. Then move on with confidence. Again, don’t take it personally. We all have off days, and this is your first year teaching 951 standards in 6 completely different subjects.

Let them socialize

I’m writing this piece with a bit of hesitation because 5th graders love socializing, but they will take advantage of you if they can. Learn how to allow them to socialize in your class for good, not for evil. That is actually what I tell my students at the beginning of the year. I can ask them a month in, “Are you chatting for good, or evil?”, and they know I’m asking them if they’re doing collaborative work, or messing around.

The procedures and expectations that you set for socialization in your classroom the first week are really important. Do not let students go crazy doing whatever they want because “it’s a fun back to school activity”. Use the fun back to school activities to model what it looks like to be collaborating vs. being off task with another student. Students should know week 1 that you are a fun and awesome teacher that lets them enjoy doing classwork together, as long as it’s for good and not evil ;). And be consistent.

Putting desks in rows in 5th grade really works against you. This age is extremely social, and sneaky. They will spend class time trying to get around your system. No seating chart change will save you. The best thing to do is to teach them how to properly collaborate from day 1, and use their love for socializing to drive conversation in your classroom. That being said, I recommend groups of 3-4 to start with. I wouldn’t go all crazy with flexible seating day 1 in your classroom. Try to stick with what your students are familiar with, which is usually student desks or tables – find this out from the grade level before you.

Enjoy it

Lastly – enjoy it. Your first year will definitely be challenging, but you will remember this group of kids with a fondness for your entire life.

Good luck to all the new first year teachers, including my sister. I’m so proud of you, sis!


April Smith

Curriculum Writer and Online Professional Development Coach. 


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