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

Mark Nichol

Editor / Writer
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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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Michelle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

While many of the items that Mark has brought up in his discussion sound familiar, I feel that most people agreed that classroom management was a giant hurdle in their first year.
I am curious to see if anyone has advice for first year teachers that are trying to manage the class effectively so that they can "get their teaching done." Many new teachers waste most of their time reacting to discipline issues after they have spent long hours developing curriculum and lesson plans.

Be consistent, be fair and what else?

Felicia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The mentoring program that was in place during my first year of teaching was a blessing. My mentor made sure we met (officially) every other day so I could share my concerns, fears, and frustrations. We were required to log our time together, which was not a problem. Our administation takes care in pairing new teachers with mentors. My mentor and I taught next door to each other. The close proximity to one another made it much easier for me to unofficially ask for advice or have a quick word of encouragement. The school also allowed her to schedule time to come into my room while I taught to offer support, suggestions, and demonstrate various teaching strategies. This was the most valuable part because I could stop right then and there and ask her what I might change about my lesson. All districts need to implement mentoring programs in their schools for new teachers - it made all the difference for me.

Angela's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am into my third year as a teacher but I remember my first year like it was yesterday. I did not have the classroom management problems that you spoke about but I did not have help from the other teacher. I went to a classroom with little to no resourse and I had no idea where to begin. Administration did not come into my classroom to observer me at all that first year and I felt that I need that guidance from veteran teachers and the adminstration. I also had a child who was MD. His parents did not feel that I should treat him any different that the other students but he could not run and it pained him to walk long distances. He would often fall down and I would have to pick him up. I requested a wheelchair or something he could ride in but the parents refused. The parents also felt that he did not have to follow class or school rules. My principal at the time did not support me with trying to get the parents to see what I was saying. The parents then reqested the child to be moved into another class. AFter the child moved, the veteran teacher then received a wheelchair for the child. That really crushed me and I no long had any respect for the administration.
I made it though the rest of that school year and then transferred to anyother school district.

Loni Harris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow, after reading your 1st year experience it brought back memories from last year. My 1st year was certainly difficult, but I had the privelege of having one of the finest mentors around. I was enrolled with BTSA and had been assigned a Support Provider, or mentor teacher. I think without her I would have gone home crying on a weekly basis.
I can completely identify with how overworked you must have felt. I was staying at school until the late night, sometimes 9 p.m. and returning at 6 a.m.---just to feel prepared and confident.
In retrospect, I'm pleased I pushed myself so hard last year, because this year is like a completely different story...I'm not an expert by any means, but I am also not staying here later than 5 p.m. That's not bad for a 2nd year teacher!

Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Jeff's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The first year of teaching was such a challenge for me. I too had substituted for a year before getting a leave of absence in a second grade classroom. With all my new ideas and thoughts about teaching just ready to burst out of me. The students were great and my colleagues were just as good. The trouble I had was with my principal. As much as I tried to do my best and come up with exciting and challenging lessons for my students nothing was ever good enough. As I went through the evaluation period of the first year all I was hearing was why don't you do this, why are you doing it this why, and about every negative comment you could hear. I was lucky though to have a great mentor and some great new friends in the building that kept my spirits alive. Surviving my first year as a teacher was an uphill battle almost from day one. This was on top of all of the other things that new teachers go through. Now that I am in my second year teaching and not in that district anymore I look back on how difficult of a time it was. I have now found a great job that I love and I am teaching fifth grade. So even with your ups and downs as a first year teacher you have to remember why you are here and that is to help children.

Jeff Hammer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I'm suprised that administrators would let you teach middle school math with not middle school experience, especiallly after taking a 5 year break from teaching. You must have done something really bad in a former life to deserve that. Anyway, I wish you good luck.

Simone's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Phew! first year of teahcing, can really turn you away permanently from the classroom. It doesn't necessarily have to be your very first year, but could also be first year with a new age group or new culture. Whatever it is, it can overwhelm you.
My advise is to take it one day at a time. That is what worked for me, because looking back it probably would have done me in if I didn't take it step by step.

All that paperwork, the very defiant child and the parents who think that you are singling out their child when you challenge them or when that child fails are some of the things that no one told us about in college.

Like a lot of you, I was not afraid to ask questions, be an observer. Being an observer is the way that i'm now able to participate in this blogging becuase before this program, I never knew what a blog was.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I definitely remember those feelings of wanting/expecting to be "Wonder Teacher." It is daunting when things don't turn out the way you expect. There is also a helpless feeling when administrators, who mean well, do little to help the situation.

Lyndsey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The first year of teaching is something that no amount of college or number of practicums can really prepare you for. This is my second year of teaching and though I felt last year went just fine, it is amazing how much better things seem to me this year. I think that management issues improve because you use techniques and procedures to "cure" all of those pet peeves from the first year. Also, I tried many different things last year, so I have a better idea about what works well. This profession will always have its challenges, but making it past the first year is a huge success.

Michelle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It was so wonderful to sit down and read other colleagues first year experiences. I am currently in my first year of teaching. Much like Mr. Nichol I am a permanent substitute. This has proved a bit challanging.
Every morning I arrive early not sure what I will be teaching that day. I like to prepare myself ahead of time because the approach I take with elementary students is much different then the approach I take with high school students. I find myself flustrated many days because I have been trained and am certified to teach elementary yet I am teaching high school. Nobody else in our little district wants to teach high school so I find myself doing this.
Now, I know it sounds like I am complaining but I am very gratful to have a job considering I finished school in May 2007 and was hired in June 2007. I am getting a lot of experience and enjoying it. But, I would love to have my own classroom. Somedays I leave school flustrated because I don't have my own class. But, I keep hoping that by the next school year I will have my own class.

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