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New Kid on the Block: Surviving My First Year in the Classroom

| Mark Nichol

What does it take to ensure that new teachers have a fair shake at succeeding? Perhaps my experience is instructive.

I come from a family of teachers: My father, both grandmothers, and an aunt all spent time at the front of a classroom. A few years after I graduated from college, though I had not studied education, I decided to follow in their footsteps -- and the prospect of doing so excited me. After earning my teaching credential, however, I couldn't find a full-time job. I spent a year and a half working as a substitute teacher, and when I again failed to get a classroom assignment, I resigned myself to another twelve months of pinch-hitting.

But then, two days before the start of the school year, a principal asked me to substitute indefinitely in a third-grade class whose teacher had abruptly taken another job. I showed up the next day, bright eyed and eager, and a couple of teachers happily skipped a long, boring districtwide teachers' assembly to help me set up my classroom at the last minute.

When I greeted my thirty-two little charges that first morning, I had to be honest with them and tell them I might not be their permanent teacher, but I was hired at the end of the second day, and we settled into the routine. Soon after, I was told that my predecessor had loaded the student roster with many kids with behavior problems, but they seemed a nice enough group, and I knew from my experience as a substitute that eight-year-olds enjoy the novelty of a young male teacher. (The school had only one other, in a kindergarten class.)

I had delusions of being a super teacher, creating much of my own curriculum, and inspiring these young minds to think outside the box (this was long before such phrases as "project learning" had been invented), but that school year was very difficult. The principal, at the insistence of the parents of one of my students, transferred their son to another classroom, then promised he wouldn't remove any other children from my class, but soon after did exactly that.

I dutifully followed all the advice I had heard and read about classroom management; nevertheless, I had trouble making it stick. I tried to reward engaged, well-behaved students with my attention and to give attention to the more difficult ones whenever I caught them being good, but my classroom was often chaotic, and I struggled to succeed.

The principal met with me informally about my challenges. Though he meant well, I left his office no more hopeful than when I had entered it. The vice principal observed my classroom a couple times as part of the evaluation process, but her official forms and officious meetings with me told me nothing I didn't know about my shortcomings and offered little in the way of practical advice. (I also had the feeling that she, a brand-new administrator, was as overwhelmed in her job as I was in mine.)

At the end of the school year, I was exhausted from spending almost as much time at home preparing lessons and grading assignments as I spent in the classroom each day, but I hung in there, teaching in the relatively relaxing environment of summer school and determined to do better the next year. Plus, I was optimistic about the opportunity to work with slightly older children as a fourth-grade teacher.

Does any of this sound familiar? Share your remembrances of your first year of teaching, and read my follow-up to this post.

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Comments (94)

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Kimberly Owen (not verified)

First Year

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Mark,

Since this is only my second year of teaching, I can remember my first year all too well. I know exactly how you felt when you said you were overwhelmed. During my first year I was teaching 4 out of 6 subjects that I had no prior experence with, and I got a lot of elective classes with seniors who were looking to do nothing their last year of school. I too went into the field very excited and ready to change lives for the better. While my classroom management for the most part was good, I had days where I felt like I had no control over my students, and struggled to be fair and even when administering rewards/punishments. I would be at school from 6 am till 6 pm almost everyday and still went home feeling like I had so much left to do before the next day. There were days where I felt like getting a new profession, but I hung in there and made it out alive.

Now it is the middle of my second year and I have learned so much from the mistakes I made my first year. My classroom management is much better this year and I know it will continue to improve as I continue to grow and improve as a teacher. I have found that I trully love to teach and that I am very passionate about it, and look for new ways to grow and better myself, which in turn help my students do the same. I think the first year is rough on all teachers, but if we can make it through and still want to be apart of it, then we are headed in the right direction.

Susan Losakmp (not verified)

It is a shame that we all

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It is a shame that we all have to go through similar experiences during our first year of teaching. It is an incredibly overwhelming and difficult year. I have heard of school systems that have mentoring programs set up where you have experienced teachers that do not have a classroom anymore. They work with beginning teachers to help them through and gain the experience so they don’t fall through the cracks and quit before they see the light. It is very similar to our students falling through the cracks. If we had this type of position in school systems, you would have less failure for teachers and students alike. I have always been fortunate to have another teacher take me under their wing. This was a tremendous help and one of the reasons I didn’t give up. In turn, I try to be as helpful to new teachers or just teachers new to the school.

Jim S. (not verified)

Remembering the first year

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Mark's story sounds all too familiar -- as I'm sure it does to most who reflect on that first year. College never seems to fully prepare us for the reality of the classroom. I, too, had dreams of grandeur; I was so enthusiastic and eager to teach, I knew I was going to be great and that my students would love me. I doubted that disciplinary action would ever be necessary in my classroom. Instead, I would keep the students so engaged and interested in the learning process that I would have NO problems. Wrong.

After the first couple of months, I was sure I had made the wrong choice. I had more discipline problems in a single day than I could keep up with. And, I usually carried those problems home with me and thought about them all night, which added to my stress. I was constantly planning to make the next day a better one, but in retrospect, it was a plan to survive. I actually think I taught very little that year. But, I definitely became a better disciplinarian. Before I could ever be effective, I had to learn the important lesson of classroom management -- a skill I'm still constantly striving to improve.

Ashley (not verified)

Thank you!

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Mark,

Your blog really touched me. I am in my first year of teaching. I was hired at the last minute. I started the school year two weeks after my students. The school hired a substitute to cover my class until I arrived. It was very difficult to walk into a classroom that had been set up by someone else! I am extremely organized and the substitute had piles of papers covering my counter. The students had a hard time adjusting to me. They were used to the other woman’s way of doing things, and at eleven years old, are not quick to accept change. It took me several weeks to sort through the sub’s pile of papers and come up with a way to grade the students for their first two weeks of work. I had to decide how to follow up with missing work, when I was not sure what the assignment was in the first place.

My situation turned out well. I was given a wonderful mentor who I collaborate with on a daily basis. She helped me to organize the clutter and get my students back on track. Classroom management was (and sometimes still is) a nightmare for me! I am young and my students seem to think they can get away with acting out or want to become my friend. I also sometimes felt like my room was chaotic.

I recently had an evaluation by our main principal. I was shocked when, at the faculty meeting later that day, she asked me to stand and told everyone that my classroom was one of the smoothest she had seen. I think my students were just on their best behavior that day.

I was sad to see that you left the profession. Someone with your heart and drive is exactly what we need! It is an unfortunate reality that many teachers leave the profession after a year or two. I blame the schools for not supporting new teachers enough.

Thank you for your blog. Reading the posts has made me feel more normal and on-track.

C. Sharp (not verified)

Hoping it has gotten better....

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I just thought I would touch base with you - your post was upsetting. I hated to hear that you were becoming so discouraged with the educational world. Has any improvements occurred? Are you the only beginning teacher in your building? If you need to vent – I’m hear to listen. Hoping that your days are filled with lots of smiles!

C. Sharp (not verified)

Interesting

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As I read everyone's comments, I noticed a common obstacle among many - the feeling of being overwhelmed. I am currently a substitute teacher who just graduated in May of 2007. So this is my first year of being a part of the educational community. I am excited and looking forward to a full-time position. After reading your postings, it was both inspiring and scary. Would some of you please share what you find to be the biggest challenge you’ve encountered. I would also be interested in knowing your most rewarding experience thus far in your teaching career. (There are two sides to every coin!)…..Also any suggestions for a substitute would be appreciated! Thanks!

Anonymous (not verified)

First year teaching and six years later....

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Mark,

I remember my first year. I taught in a small rural community straight out of college. In fact, I went straight from student teaching into a position at the school where I had done my last leg of student teaching I was excited, often second guessed myself, and was usually exhuasted at the end of the day. I had no idea how much work I was in for.

In service sessions were usually about schedules and the like. There was no talk of "courageous conversations" there. Because I had held sub positions my last year of school, I did not qualify for a mentor. I did, however, have a team teacher in a multi-age program. She taught first grade. I taught Kindergarten. She was a veteran teacher who had come back the year before after taking several years off.She helped-some. I spent more time that year doing teacher prep than I did on any other aspect of my life.Unless you count the second guessing on whether what I was doing was effective. The year was a blur of lesson plans, mountains of paperwork, and seriously considering whether teaching was for me. I survived. My students, even those who were behavoirally challenged, passed to the next grade. I became a materials hoarder. Dollar stores became family.

Now I am in my sixth year of teaching, What has changed? I now teach in a metropolitan area. I have come, finally, into the age of computers with everyone else. I have a better repertoire of classroom management skills. I don't grade every paper that crosses my desk. Yet,I still have behavoirally challenged students (more of them, it seems). I haven't been able to make peanut butter in my class for years due to the increase of food allergies. I am now married to Dollar stores. I have a reputation for loving the "act out" students. I have developed a sense of humor. I am working on my masters in Reading and Literacy. Paperwork? It is still a mountain.I still second guess whether I have done my best for the day. The difference is that now, often, I can say yes. Oh!...we still aren't paid what we are worth.

However, for any first years reading this..I am happy. I love what I do. We do make a difference one life at a time. Money can't buy that.

Stephanie

Kara (not verified)

Sounds so familiar

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I am also a first year teacher, and I think I have felt over-whelmed all year. It doesn't help that the teacher that should be my "mentor" is also new. We are both first year teachers working in the only 2 first grade classrooms. We have no one to tell us where we should in a certain subject and how the curriculum should flow. It is all how we think it should be. That puts a lot of pressure on us, not only getting familiar with a new school, new job, new people, and new curriculum, we have to actually teach. I sometimes feel that I haven't created enough "fun" lessons and that I am sometimes teaching out of the book. When this happens I have to step back and remember that it is only my first year and I do love what I do. I will have the summer to prepare much more then the 2 weeks I had with no expectations of how this year would be. I hope that with each year, my uneasiness will settle.

Kimsan (not verified)

Remembered first year in teaching

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Mark,
When I read your post, I remembered everything that happenned to me during the first year of teaching. I worked as a bilingual aide for six years and the responsibility was totally different than the teacher. I was struggled in my first year too. I didn't know how to handle student with bad behaviors. One of my student behaved so bad. He think of himself as a vampire. He went around to other children and bit them in the neck. Just that alone scared the heck out of me. I was so lucky that one of the veteran teacher was there to support me. She had offered to take him out of my class. But later on, I signed him up for SST (student study team), the team asked me what can they do to help me. I told them that I need this child out of my class because he was hurting other students and took a way their learning time. So the team decided to move him to another veteran teacher. That helped a lot. But as far as planning, like you said, I stayed in school until five to six o'clock and school was out by 2:15. It seemed like I was on the run every day. I have learned a lot from the veteran teacher on teaching technique and strategies and classroom management. The rest, I learned the following years.

Anonymous (not verified)

Going Through My First Year

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So, it's Friday night a week before Christmas and I sit at home looking to see if teaching is really for me. Yes, that is right. I am a first year teacher who literally feels like she is going to lose her mind. I spend far too much(if not all) of my personal time prepping. I feel like I am completely become disorganized and dysfunctional in my school. I am a first year teacher who feels completely unsupported by her school's administration. I am a first year teacher who absolutely adores her mischievous middle school math students, but I feel like I am really not serving them. I am a first year teacher who has completely entered "survival mode."

One more week left. One week left of lesson planning, meeting with students, staff and parents. One week left of grading, posting progress reports, returning tests and those d*mn bulletin boards. One week left of managing students administration, and of course, myself. But what is really left are six more months.

I sit here tonight, the only thing pulling me through these moments is the thought of one more week. I have been told that quite a few first year teachers do not come back after winter break. I want to come back but I need a light, a light brighter then next year will be brighter. So this is my SOS!

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