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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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New Kid on the Block: Surviving My First Year in the Classroom

Mark Nichol

Editor / Writer

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.

Comments (94)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Amber's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Everything you said sounds familiar! I am amazed at the same struggles teachers face every day with many different children with different styles of teaching, yet we inevitably fight the same battles.

I am a second year teacher and I, too, took the first job offered to me afraid of not having any other offers. Fortunately, I have come to love my school and truly feel like I am a part of a huge family. When I started my first year teaching, I was the only new teacher in my whole school of kindergarten through fifth grade. Growing up, we had a primary school of K-2 and elementary of 3-5, so needless to say, I was a little overwhelmed at the number of students I dealt with in this big school. The faculty and staff were both extremely supportive and I loved my job....the second half of the year. At first, I wondered every day why in the world I thought I wanted to be a teacher. I couldn't do anything right, the kids didn't listen; I didn't know what I was talking about. It was awful! Finally, I became adjusted but still unsure of myself. I wondered every day if I was making a difference, if anybody cared, and if what I did really mattered in the long run. Then the realization that it all mattered hit me--too much! The paperwork, standardized testing, all so overwhelming. These students' education was up to me and I become terrified. Every day before school started this year, I was having nightmares about what my first day would be like. I just hope and pray it won't be like that every year!

Alise's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I, too, could not find a job right out of school. I felt a little disillusioned that I was not snatched right up after my first application. I had no idea what I was going to do or should do next. Somehow, I was lead into a private educational opportunity. My first year was the hardest because I had no idea how many "hats" I would be wearing. I had so many new responsibilities that I had not anticipated. I am now in my second year, and it gets a little easier as time goes on.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mark,
I too had a very difficult first year teaching, and there were some days where I thought that the principal had a personal vendetta against me. I switched districts and am currently in my fifth year teaching and I don't think I could be any happier as a teacher as I am at this school. I too wanted to give up after my first year, and even the two years following, but when I met my current mentor, she steared me in the right direction and made me see the joy in teaching children. I hope this experience hasn't soured you to teaching ALL together.

Evelena's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I think back on my first few years in the teaching profession. I can remember being very frustrated as well as overwhelmed. I started as a long-term substitute three months after school started. I was assigned to a middle school teaching 6th, 7th, and 8th grade English Language Arts. Oh, did I mentioned that the students were specific learning disabled, and this was an area that I knew almost next to nothing about? I was scared out of my wits!

The students made it prefectly clear that it was their class and I was just a visiter. Well needless to say, I eventually became the lateral entry teacher for the remaider of the school year. Wish meant that I not only had to learn about my students, I also had to teach myself about the rules and regulations of the exceptional children's program. I almost gave into my nervesness of being thrown into a classroom with my background only being psychology. After a while I began to feel my way through the curriculum and the special education program. I did have the pleasure of being assigned a mentor that was the head of the special education department and she was willing to share what she could with me.

To say the least, I survived that year and the seven years that have followed. I still have issues from time to time, but I feel much more equiped than I did six or seven year ago to handle those difficult situations.

I think that the first few years of teaching is crucial. This is when we (experienced teachers)should take the initiative to offer our seasoned ideas and helpful opinions to teachers that are just starting their careers.

Holly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is my first year teaching, and I am teaching a 5th/6th grade split class in a Catholic school. At times I feel as though I should be doing more than I am, but with all of the guidelines I must follow I am limited to what I can teach and how I can teach it. I get frusterated because little things happen that other people don't see as a big deal, but they affect how I feel I am doing as a teacher. A perfect example occured last week. The internet on my computers will not work, my students are missing out on learning valuable information that they will use for the rest of their lives. I know that I just need to keep working at it, but there truly are days when I wonder why I am working so hard for this. I know that I am doing so for my children, and they truly are amazing.

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is both interesting and comforting to read the story of another first year teacher who admits their troubles and frustrations. I had almost the exact same experiences as Mark, from a child being taken from my class (to another school nun the less) to a new assistant principal with little advice to give. I enjoy reading stories such as Mark's, which opens my eyes helping me realize that it's "normal" to have a rough first year. But, I most enjoy reading these stories because I enjoy reading about the success that almost always follows. Thank you for the inspiration, I am now onto year two!

Jennifer Brown's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My first year was in Baltimore, MD. I came in the middle of the year. Students were pulled from other teacher's classes to form mine. I had a room full of behavior challenges! I was honestly just happy to have a job. After nine years, I now see that year as my "trial". I stuck with it and got better with time.

jennifer Brown's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that it is important that as veteran teachers we encourage new teachers not to give up hope. As veterans we had hope in the beginning and did not let that hope die. We have to remember that many of us came from public schools that had a lot of those challenges, teachers were moved, frustrated, not the best at management. All of this went on and we still survived. I think it is important to let new teachers know that it will all be okay, even if it does not look like it will. New teachers have to have hope that the next year will be better.

Latisia Jones's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Everything you said sounds very familiar Mark. I was so wide-eyed and bushy tailed the first year I was an official teacher. Before then I was a paraprofessional at the same school and I had many apprehensions about the students seeing me in that same manner. Soon I became overwhelmed with meetings, clusters, inservices, and etc. By Christmas I was beat. Now I am in my second year and I look forward to many, many years to come!

Mary's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree, except that by Christmas I wanted to quit, and I thought I made a huge mistake. I thought that teaching wasn't something I could do at all. I was so discouraged. I often wonder how it is that college does not prepare you for the classroom - or so it seems. Many of the techniques that I use in my classroom today, I learned on my own or from talking to other teachers in my school district. It is a shame that so many of us have such a difficult first year.

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