Survival Strategies for the New AP® Teacher

by Heather Garcia

Being a new teacher is challenging, but being a new AP® teacher can be especially daunting (even if you have been teaching a different course for YEARS). Teaching high school students with a college-level curriculum culminating in a high-stakes test can be a herculean feat, but here are a few tips that can make the job a little easier:

  • Lean on other AP® teacherssome of the best advice I ever received as an AP® Literature and AP® Language teacher came from a veteran AP®U.S. Government teacher. She told me that this is a college-level course and college classes don’t meet daily. She encouraged me not to feel guilty if I give students a reading day once every other week or even once a week. She explained that it would give me a chance to grade essays and the kids a chance to catch their breath and catch up on the reading for the course. It was solid advice that I never would have gotten had I not leaned into those veteran AP® teachers around me (Thank you, Amy).
  • Create a system for College Recommendation letters (especially if you teach seniors): It can be overwhelming to need to write SO many letters of recommendation—and they are ALL due at the same time (seriously, it comes in fast waves). Consider having a policy that works for you and helps to manage the load. My policy is that I need a two-week turnaround window. I also make students give me a printed resume before I will write a letter. The resume not only gives me ammunition to write about, but it also reminds me that I needed to actually write the letter.
  • Not EVERY assignment needs to be graded in the grade book: Sometimes kids just need to practice a skill, and that is okay. If your school requires that every assignment is graded, consider allowing students to complete an assignment based on completion once in a while. That will ease some of the pressure the students feel regarding grades, and it will also lighten some of the grading load for you.
  • Don’t spend your own money: AP® resources are awesome and plentiful, but don’t feel like you need to spend your own money right away. Ask other AP® teachers how they get supplemental materials and professional development resources paid for. Some schools have separate budgets just for their AP® programs, and you might be able to ask your admin for a slice of that delicious pie. As a non-AP® teacher, you would not have known about this magic money, and it never hurts to ask. Principals like to help and want you to be successful, so give them the chance to shower you in awesome materials that will help you be an awesome teacher.
  • Join communities: Joining online communities with other AP® educators can be SO fulfilling. It is a great reminder that you aren’t the only person struggling, and it is also a great way to learn from veteran teachers, ask questions, and offer suggestions. The more you put into the communities, the more you will get back. However, a word of caution: it can be easy to fall into cycles of self-doubt when you see what some teachers do in their rooms. Do NOT compare yourself to other people in these online communities. That isn’t what they are designed for (even if some members can’t resist touting their own awesomeness).
  • Attend training: Seriously—training for your course will be GOLD! Instructors usually go out of their way to ensure that you have seriously rich and robust resources to bring back to your classroom when the training is over, so they are well worth the time and financial investment.  You will feel more confident in what you are teaching, and the grading policies of College Board can be daunting at times. It helps to have a guide to help you through in the beginning.
  • Take the practice tests: As a new AP® teacher, it is easy to get overwhelmed with Course and Exam Descriptions and Essential Skills, but don’t forget that College Board has released many tests out on the web, so actually taking those tests can help you help your kids. Show kids where you messed up. Show them which questions took you longer than others. Talk them through YOUR test-taking process. The vulnerability can be intimidating because taking a timed test is never easy, but don’t just rely on answer keys to help you. Get your hands dirty and take that test too. Marco Learning has some free practice tests available HERE, and you can use them as practice for yourself and your students.
  • Allow yourself flexibility: As a new AP® teacher, not everything will work the way you envision. Be ready to abandon ship and set sail in a different direction if needed. It is better to abandon a sinking ship than try to stick with it based on pride. If a lab is tanking or a novel isn’t resonating with the kids, allow yourself the grace to admit the blunder and re-steer the course in a new direction.
  • Don’t feel like you need to know it all: Teenagers can spot a fake in a minute. If you have questions about the content, don’t try to pretend like you don’t. Don’t make up content on the spot. Be honest, tell the kids that you have a gap, and then work to fix it. That will impress them more than trying to convince them that you know something you don’t.
  • Remember, you are not the kids’ only AP® teacher: Many students take more than one AP® course at a time, so when it comes time to assign homework, keep that perspective in mind. It is best to limit nightly homework to what can be completed in an hour or less. If a student has six AP® courses and each teacher assigns an hour of homework, that is six hours of homework after an already long school day. It is important to keep this in mind so that the kids don’t get too overextended and you don’t get too frustrated with incomplete homework assignments.
  • Be kind to yourself: It is easy to let an AP® course take over your life. The content is awesome, the test is challenging, the kids are fabulous—it is easy to dive in head-first. But remember that you have other facets of your life that need attention. Set boundaries so that you aren’t bringing essays home daily. Prevent yourself from taking stacks of papers on vacations. You deserve a moment to separate yourself and recharge—and a burnt-out teacher never helps anyone.

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Heather GarciaHeather Garcia is an English teacher at Charlotte High School, Florida, where she teaches AP English Literature and AP® English Language. She is a professional development leader in her district, running annual new-teacher trainings and is now the Curriculum and Instructional Specialist for her district for grades 6-12. After 16 years of hands-on experience, Heather has developed a series of strategies to help her students navigate challenging texts. Her favorite book is the Steinbeck classic, East of Eden.