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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)

I am glad to read that I am not the only one who aspired to be the "super" teacher. After college, I had difficulty finding a teaching position, but was hired to teach preschool. I thought it was going to be the best job in the world!

After the first week of school, I lost all hope that it was going to be a great year. I had numerous behavior problems, assistants that treated me as if I had no clue what I was doing, and I still wanted to create the best, most engaging lessons, to keep my students interested.

I was incredibly frustrated and overwhelmed. I felt like a complete failure and just wanted the year to end. I was already worried for the year to come because I hadn't gained any confidence as a teacher.

Kimberly's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my second year of teaching and I cringe when I think about how I survived my first year of teaching. I taught third grade. I had the dream of being the best teacher ever. I wanted to move mountains with my students. Shortly reality hit me as I settled in to teaching. I was assigned a mentor; however, they reassigned me a different mentor during pre-planning but failed to mention who my new mentor was. I team taught with another new teacher because the principal was new and thought that this was a good idea. Our personalities clashed right away, but we hung in there. Then to make matters worse, my grade level colleagues were too busy to help new teachers. I felt alone and lost. I pulled it together and made the best of my year. The only thing that kept me going was the opportunity that I would have to move to another grade.

This year I did move down to second grade. It has made a world of difference to work with colleagues who work well together. Of course I still get frustrated at different aspects of my career, but this year I have others who care about me and my students. I look forward to teaching the same grade next year. I thought about changing careers a few times, especially during hard times, but I can't imagine life without my sweet students and all the hugs you can get.

Billie Jo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am in my first year of teaching (I teach first grade) and I have a class full of students with IEPs (Individualized Education Plans)and as a first year teacher, I am just amazed. I have 6 students with IEPs out of 22 (Not to mention my ADHD students). I feel overwhelmed because I have to adhere to all of these different plans and follow each one for each child while I still have 16 other students to teach. I think there should be some 'laws' set in place for first year teachers. I think that as first year teachers, you should have no more than 2 children in your class with IEPs or special needs and I feel that in your first year of teaching you should be paired up with a mentoring teacher as you co-teach the class. A lot of first year teachers are just thrown into their jobs and it is 'sink or swim' and that is discouraging to me. I want to become an expert teacher and I understand that it is going to take time, but how can I become an 'expert teacher' when I am not sure if I am truly doing what I am supposed to or not? Are my students really learning? It is so overwhelming-but I am almost half way through and I will make it. (I hope!)

Carol Bosi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is actually my first full year of teaching here on the beautiful island of Guam. However, I will share with you my fist half year of teaching experience. I graduated on Dec. 23, 2006. By January 8, 2007 I had my very own first grade class. The teacher I replaced just got married and moved to the mainland. When I walked into class on my very first day, I knew that I was walking into someone elses class and that she already had routines and rules in place. I tried as much as possible to make the transition smooth for the sake of the students. I analyzed some of her routines and rules and I kept in place what was working and I slightly modified what I felt was not working, at least for me. Thank goodness my students were very welcoming and very supportive, which is more than I can say for my grade level teachers. I expected to be greeted with open arms and eagerness to have me as part of the first grade team. It was anything but what I expected. I understood that the first grade teachers were very close and I was probably looked upon as an intruder. Nonetheless, I kept in my mind that I was there for the students and no one else. Each day was a learning experience for me. I observed what worked and modified what was not working. Each day at the end of the day, I felt tired, relieved, exhausted, overwhelmed, happy, and confused. All of these different feelings and emotions ran through me. In about six weeks I will have completed my first 12 months of teaching, and I can say that I am still learning and I feel that I still have a lot to learn. I go to school each day with a positive outlook. I stay focused on what my goals are. When it gets tough, I remember that I am there to make a difference and I am there for the students.

I would like to share with you a program that was recently implemented here on Guam. Research found that teachers will resign within the first three years of teaching due to lack of support and guidance from the administration, faculty, and/or school system. A program was launched a couple of years ago called "Project Hatsa". Hatsa means lift up in our language. New teachers that join Hatsa are assigned a mentor who is at the mentee's beck and call 24/7. Your assigned mentor is with you for your first three years of teaching. During the first year, your mentor visits on a weekly basis. He or she is a teacher with no less than eight years teaching experience and holds a masters degree. My mentor has been very supportive. She visits me often, brings me teaching supplies, monthly class activities, education articles of interest, and so much more. She observes me and gives me feed back on my classroom management, teaching style, and more. She has really helped me have a successful first 12 months.

Karen Dunn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My first year teaching was also a last minute assignment in a 7th and 8th grade school in a mill town. All of the students expected to quit school when they reached 16 and work in the mill. My principal was x-military, and he had no teaching experience. This was a nightmare year. My dad had a heart attack so I went home to care for him, and I hoped leave teaching forever. I substituted for 1 year, but still hated the prospect of becoming a teacher. My next assignment was in a private school, and I lived in the dorm with the students. I loved this job. Unfortunately, the school was sold that year. I substituted another year in another middle school. This was also a positive experience. So, you could say I was hooked on teaching. I think every teacher needs to find his/her subject/grade level that fits. Teaching is an awesome occupation. I may not ever retire.

Brittany H's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My first year was very challeneging. Like many of you I felt very prepared for my first year and that I was going to impact and help every student. I got great reviews during my student teaching experience and completed my student teaching with honors. I thought I was prepared. Well 2 weeks into my first year I realized student teaching was not real life. I had classes of my own, test to create, lessons to make every day for entire year, sub plans, my own parent contact letters, and the list goes on. While student teaching was helpful and did somewhat prepare me for my first year I still struggled. They don't teach you what to do when a student has a melt down and starts yelling and cursing and throwing things. They just don't prepare you for these things. So many things you have to figure out on your own. Either you sink or you swim. A lot of my first year I was just keeping my head above the water but this year I'm actually swimming. I have become more comfortable and better able to think on my feet and improvise if I have to. I have learned to plan ahead, become organized and structured. I think all teachers need to fail or stuggle in order to grow and improve.

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I was hired over a phone interview to work in a school in Texas when I lived in Montana. I was hired and two days later was on a plane to Texas. School. That was a Thursday. School started that Monday. To say the least I was a little overwhelmed.I was teaching a fifth grade class. I didn't have a clue as to how to set up my class. I didn't have any materials. I didn't even have a place to stay. Luckily, the teachers at that school were so great. They gave me suggestions, materials, and helped me set up my room. I even roomed with one of the teachers until I found a place. WIth out those supportive teachers I would of been lost and very overwhelmed. I think a lot of new teachers feel this way because there isn't always that great support for new teachers. Which could be why a lot of new teachers end up quiting.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am not only a "New Kid on the Block", but also a "New Kid on the BLOG". As a first year teacher who is also experiencing the challenges of classroom behavior, (especially with the 'substitute' title that makes many students think I am not a real teacher), I start out every morning with a gentle, but firm approach to my students. I believe that raising the bar of expected behavior needs to be known and understood right from the start. I have seen the positive outcomes of showing students who is in charge, without intimidating them. I have ALWAYS been a strong advocate of the gentle but firm approach with children. It basically means you let them know who the boss is without making them feel timid and shy. This way, the students will respect you, and at the same time, you are respecting them. I realize that there are aspects of becoming a truly successful teacher, and the only way I can master these certain skills, is through experience.

Mandy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have had a hard time this year. I am teaching junior high math after teaching k-3, taking a 5 year break, and now turning to 13 year olds. MATH! I haven't done this math since college. I am beginning to enjoy it, but it's been a real challenge. I find that by reflecting almost daily with "master" teachers and with classmates in my online classes, I am able to constantly try new things and keep looking for what works. I also find new encouragement.

Melissa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After I graduated college, I thought finding a job would be easy since I had experience as a substitute and worked in a daycare/preschool for years. However, it was very difficult finding a job in an area where I wanted to teach and for the money that I hoped for. Finally, it was the end of August and I was hired to work in a Head Start Private School. My first year of teaching was not at all what I imagined it to be. I was teaching kindergarten, but not the way kindergarten would be in a public school. There was a lot of child center play that the children would engage in for most of the day. I never felt as if I was teaching them, but rather just "babysitting" them. It was hard on me because I worked so hard to become a teacher and it was not how I expected it.
Then, once I took the time to actually learn about the children, that was when I became the teacher. I learned that children learn each day, through play, through personal experiences, through trail and error and here I was to guide them to answer their questions, care for them when they are upset, and praise them for getting the job done. It was a remarkable time of my life because I realized that a teacher doesn't mean books and grading papers. A teacher devotes their time and love for children each day to make a positive difference in the eyes of a child. That was when I knew, I became a teacher.

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