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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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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It seems like so many teachers look back on their first year with relief that it is over! I know I feel that way. I was completely unprepared for how difficult my first teaching job would be. I understood my school's dynamics because I was hired where I student taught, but that didn't prepare me for the demands of the parents in my classroom. I taught two sections of kindergarten back to back, and it seemed that I couldn't be in enough places at once. Having 45 before-school interviews, 45 little personalities to learn, 45 parent-teacher conferences, and 45 report cards almost did me in. The workload was impossible. I was trying to learn the kindergarten curriculum while figuring out how to teach it in a half day and still fit everything in. I had parents who resented what kindergarten has become (the new first grade), and those who didn't feel their child was challenged enough. I had students with severe behavior problems and, what I never knew before, was that most administrators will give a child his year in kindergarten before starting any interventions, to see if the issues settle down. I felt completely unsupported, especially with the behaviors, and I thought I was going to literally drown. I got out of that position and I have since moved to a much more challenging school, but in very different ways. I cheer on anyone in their first year. Good teaching takes time. It isn't right for everyone, but that first year can't tell you that. It does get better, it does get easier, and you will start to love the path you have chosen.

Bridget's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow! It was very ironic when you described how your first year was. It sounds very familiar to this year for me. I had been working in our district as a substitute for a few years, but just couldn't get the full time job. This year I was called for an interview Thursday before school started. It was a Third Grade position that opened because the teacher took another job at the last minute. I was called the next day on Friday and told that I got the job. I was very excited to finally be hired full time, but very overwhelmed that I had the weekend to get prepared. The hardest part was that the position was an extra 3rd grade that they added so I was not walking into a classroom from the previous year. The room was completely bare with little resources and supplies. My class also seems to be the class with the most students that have behavior problems. My classroom management is not where I want it to be because it does seem very hectic at times. Now that we are 3 months into school, it is getting a little better. There are definitely things that I will do differently next year. Even though I come home pretty stressed out at times I would not take it back.

Bob Friel's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Many of your comments resonate with me as I recollect my first year of teaching. I think "overwhelming" and "overambitious" are adjectives that first come to mind when I think about how I was my first year.

Also similar to many of you posting in this forum, I was hired on the spot due to a recent vacancy in the middle of the school year. The school had already switched this teacher's honors classes to another teacher because they wanted to make sure these honors students were in good hands. That, of course, left me with mainly low level classes, many of which were disruptive students.

Despite the handcuffs that were placed on me, I delved in to the curriculum. I had so many good ideas that I wanted to implement. Many ideas did not work and I became easily discouraged. Discipline was a problem because the students were used to the previous teacher's lax manner.

I can remember many sleepless nights as I reflected on how I could improve my classroom. There are so many nights where I would imagine how I would start the next year if I could only get through this current year.

Although this first year was very taxing and stressful, I look back on it fondly at times. My perseverance and reflection on lessons gone poorly helped me in each subsequent year. I tried to implement all the suggestions I wrote myself that first year. What I lacked was experience and looking back, every day provided me with this experience that I lacked.

It almost seems like if your first year is not difficult, you are not striving hard enough to improve. In fact, as I reflect through my teaching career, it was during the times that seemed easiest that I was the most complacent and did not improve much as a teacher.

I would never want to repeat all of the struggles I encountered my first year teaching, but those struggles have helped me improve as I strive to become an expert teacher.

valencia's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my third year teaching a preschool class. I graduated from collage in may and in agust I had a job. I took the first offer that was given to me because i was afrid that i was not going to get another on. I don't regret taking the job because it has been a great opportunity for me to grow as a new teacher. I had a class of 15 children and a assistant. Although I had some children with challenging behaviors they were behaviors that we were able to work on through out the year. I had three children with IEP's, and others who had challenging behaviors.Looking back on it now it ws a challenging year for me but I worked throught the challenges and develop skills that will help me to better handle the challenging children.

Michelle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a first year teacher teaching first grade. And yes, it has been a challenge so far. Some days I wonder if I am in the right profession, but when I try to think of other careers I could have, I just can't see myself doing anything different. I just keep telling myself that it is my first year and it will get better every year. I love my students and would not take anything for them. But, there are a lot of responsibilities as a teacher and by being a first year teacher, it may seem overwhelming. However, I know that things will get better and I just have to get used to the responsibilities and find what works best for me.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My first year teaching was a day to remember, you would have thought i would have had the materials and books, i needed for my class, but i didn't have those things. I had to make materials for my class. Go in the book room to find books for my class. I made it through the first year, I didn't mind asking for help. My students were eagers to learn and having students that are willing to learn, let you know that you are appreciated for being their teacher. As time pass, I got magazines to order materials and books, and got my classroom the way it should be.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Your experiences resonate with me as I remember feeling exactly as you did that first year. I took a break after my student teaching (had a baby), and did not enter the classroom until two years later when I was hired as long-term sub. I did not think I was going to make it! Student teaching does not prepare you for the realities of the classroom, and it became clear to me as I entered that classroom for the first time, that I had absolutely no clue what I was doing. Teaching is a craft, perfected over time, and each year gets a little easier. 9 years has passed since, and even though I no longer sweat the small stuff, I am still learning something new every day.

Linda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too, am new to blogging and teaching. I substituted for half of last school year and so far almost every day this school year. I have learned so much about different procedures in the classroom and classroom management. I have not been lucky enough to have my own classroom. It is very discouraging to go to so many interviews and not get the position.

It is encouraging to know that "substitutes" can end up with their own class. I know what you mean about the "substitute" title. I always have a few who will test me but in the end they realize I am there to teach not babysit. Can you give me a few pointers about your gentle but firm approach?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel your pain! Your class sounds very similar to mine. I also have 22 students, 4 with IEP's, 3 with ADHD and several others that receive speech and OT. My class is like a revolving door of children going in and out all day to receive services, and I have given up trying to work within their schedules. However, the difference between you and I are that this is my 9th year of teaching but never before have I had this many children with special needs in one class. I too was, and continue to be, overwhelmed by the responsibilities handed to me. I am expected to be familiar with the different learning goals for all these children (and they are all very different) and differentiate and modify instruction accordingly, so that they can all be equally successful! Addionally, I have students in my class that are not classified but who are currently struggling with the material and not making adequate progress. When I complained about it, I was told to deal with it because this is where education is headed today...and I am beginning to believe it. The pressure to mainstream special education students into the regular classroom is mounting as most parents do not want to place their children in self-contained classrooms. So, Billie, in response to your suggestion that a "law" be put into place re placement of special education students into "new teacher" classes, it would never work. In my school for instance, there is only one class of each grade level. This means that we have no control over the student population, and we certainly cannot dictate which students are allowed to enter the regular classroom. This is another reality that us teachers have to learn to work with, and as hard as it may seem today, you will be a better teacher because of it. So continue to do your best, try to work with those children as much you can, learn to read their IEP's and goals, ask for suggestions from the experienced teachers at your school as to how to best modify and differentiate instruction, and learn from your successes and failures. As I mentioned before, this is my 9th year of teaching, and much of what I am experiencing this year is new to me also. If anything, perhaps this will allow you to grow and become an "expert" faster than those of us who did not have these challenges posed to us this early in our teaching career. As I tell the kids, you CAN do it!

Clark's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am in my second year teaching after working in the business sector for 9 years. I am also teaching middle school math, which is not what I received my initial certification in. Last year was at times a very trying experience, but by the end of the year I had seen progress in myself and my students. Reflection was a key component (on a class to class basis at times) and interacting with my mentor teacher. I am new to the "blog" scene so I am hoping to find new ideas and strategies that will help my classes develop into interactive and engaging learning centers. It sounds like you have your students best interests at heart and as long as you keep that as your focus you will do great.

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