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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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Technology Applications EC-12 and Business Education Teacher 6-12

I wonder if those at teacher

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I wonder if those at teacher training schools have actually taught in the schools that they are "preparing" us to teach in. My guess is 'no'. They've learned theories and what "studies" have shown. I am very upset that I wasted my college years and money on an "education" that didn't prepare me at all for what I originally wanted to do.

Technology Applications EC-12 and Business Education Teacher 6-12

I'm wondering how things have

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I'm wondering how things have turned out for you. Your thoughts and fears are similar to mine, although I had a little more training. I have recently seen videos and comments from successful teachers who were trained very differently than I was. I don't think I would feel and think the way I do today had I had the teacher training and content background that these polished teachers had. I am quiet as well, but love to teach. I taught my own children for some of their elementary years and loved it. I was more confident earlier this year, hoping I would find a position and have the summer to prepare and get to know some of the other teachers. Now I'm considering not applying for teaching positions anymore, since I would have only days to prepare for the first days of school. The next position that I could apply for is keyboarding for middle school. I have a thought that I MIGHT could handle this. School starts in 1 1/2 weeks. I would love any constructive feedback.

6th grade social studies & science teacher from Colorado

Know the Feeling

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Mark,

Much like you I follow in the footsteps of a family of educators. And like you I did not study education. I went back and got my Teaching credentials during an intense year of graduate study. I LOVE what I am doing, but had some trials my first year as well. Hired a week before school, I had a little more time than you to prepare my classroom, still, I didn't necessarily feel ready. I always want more information than I have and the only cohort I had to help prepare me does not do summers. He has taught me a lot about balancing my personal life with teaching. Unlike you, I was hired half-time, so I spent my afternoons working free of charge to make my teaching what I wanted.

Like you, I had a group of students who were considered "tough." I later found out that they were trying to avoid hiring new teachers out of concern for the difficulty of this group. They took a risk with me, but I am glad they did. Despite my trials, I had the support of a great staff and a great principal. There were some hard lessons and at one point my principal told me I had to start sending kids to the office for ANY infraction - we had to recover one of my classes before things got worse. I had to be a very different teacher than I wanted to be because I let one of my 3 classes get out of control. I thought it would show a weakness if I sent a kid to the office, like I couldn't handle them. Now I know that sometimes kids just need an out. You still have to do your best to keep them in that classroom, but it isn't ok to let them get in the way of the learning of others. I re-normed my class mid-year and at first, sent 2-3 kids to the office a day to let them know I was serious. Eventually we got things back to a manageable place. My second year went fine.

However, I think back on that first year and I recognize that beyond that dark spot, there were so many bright ones. I developed an economic simulation during that year that my students this year were begging to continue, right up through the last day of class. I found my footing and was rewarded for my efforts with a full-time job my second year and a whole new content. Now I enjoy social studies, but I also get to excite students with science as well. I am sure if you think back on that year, you probably did some awesome things that your principal recognized as well, things that got you that second year. I think it is important for us to reflect on and grow from our many failures, but I think it is just as important to stay positive and think about our successes. That has been hard for me, as I am a perfectionist. However, I think without that change, I would get burned out, fast.

Monica (not verified)

Feel the fear..do it anyway...

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Hi Jen,

I can understand your fears. But you can't let fears make decisions for you. Yes, it can be scary but those are only thoughts. How do you know that is for real? The worse thing we can do is act out of our fears.

Let me be blunt, the reason you haven't had a job offer is because you are scared. Go for it! Hey teaching is hard work but you can do it. With all you have survived, this is nothing for you.

Go out , keep interviewing with the intention to get a job and start teaching. You may not do it the rest of your life but right now, it seems to be what you should be doing. Who knows where it will lead. You don't have to have those answers. Just make things happen. Stop thinking and start doing. The only way to get rid of fear is to do the thing that scares you. A great book is Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway.

When you a fearful thought, just observe it - like an anthropologist observes things. Then accept/succumb to that you are feeling that way. It will dissolve like magic. Stop judging yourself. You are just how you are supposed to be.

There's a little technique that can radically transform your life. Try it. Each morning before you get out of bed, list ten things that you are good at. List them in your mind or better yet write them down. It can be simple as "I'm good at making my bed every morning." This simple exercise will release hidden empowerment.

When you stop worrying about being afraid, you will be able to see the signs that your life is trying to give you. The worst thing is to be frozen with fear. Forward movement is where the magic in life is. Even mistakes are no longer mistakes. Keep moving forward. Life is too short to have out feet stuck in quicksand. The steps at first are hard because you are dragging your feet out of the quicksand but just keep going. Hey it took Edison over 6,000 tries to invent the light bulb. There is nothing you can 't handle in the classroom, just live in the moment and deal with things only when they show up. With intention anything can be accomplished.

It's ONLY our thoughts that stop us from succeeding!! Make them positive and faith in yourself!

Good luck!
Namaste,
Monica :)

Tanya Paixao (not verified)

It's good your principal did

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It's good your principal did not just fire you after one tough year. You lucked out. Sometimes it really is the kids even though administrators don't like to admit it.

Marsha (not verified)

First year teacher

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Anonymous,
You are not crazy and adjusting to the first year teacher duties and curriculum is very challenging. I can assure you that you are not going to become an expert teacher overnight no matter how many hours you spend at your school. If you truly have a passion for teaching you will continue to make progress at your speed. Your students do not want a stressed out, emotionally drained teacher. I can tell you that finding a veteran teacher that will be your mentor can be your greatest comfort. Also build a good parent teacher support system in your classroom. This can be very effective in helping you achieve your goals easier and it takes some performance stress off of you. I hope this will help you see that your "life" is important and you must find your balance.
Marsha

Matt Fleming (not verified)

First Year As Public School Principal

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I am seeing this situation with new eyes this year. After 14 years in the classroom, I am starting my first year as a public school principal - at a K-4 school. BTW - all of my teaching experience was in grades 6 - 12. Do I really need to say anything else? Probably not - but I will anyway. I love my staff, these are the hardest working people I have ever been with. We are a Program Improvement school on year 4 in California, but we are making most of our growth goals for those all-important sub-groups. Like the author, I am the child and grandchild of teachers/administrators. I joke that I was genetically engineered for this job. But then the first day hits. I am learning once again that education is one of those professions where no amount of preparation is enough. There is a very steep learning curve even in admin. And just like I learned as a junior officer in the military, no battle plan survives first contact. I am working very hard to support all of my teachers and especially the new ones - still, I know that they could use more support. I hate the sink-or-swim mentality that our industry has adopted and I am already working to change it in my school. You just can't expect to see big changes right away. You do the best you can and settle in for a long, hard, slog.

B. Johnson (not verified)

Response to first year teaching fears

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Jan:

First of all, your fears and doubts are normal. Every teacher has them when they are starting out. Schools are still looking for teachers for next year. If you are not certified, you need to look at private schools and charter schools, public schools do not hire non-certified teachers unless they are going through an alternative certification program. If that is what the three weeks of intensive professional development training was all about then, contact public schools as well. Just to let you know that some schools are hesitant to hire people in alternative certification programs. You might also consider applying to districts in outlying areas around the city. They tend to be less picky because it is harder for them to find teachers.

Let me give you some interviewing tips that might land you the job. As an administrator doing interviews, I look for some visual cues and specific knowledge cues. The visual cues I look for are smile, look me in the eye, and enthusiasm. The knowledge cues are student-centered learning (ie--students can frequently explore, investigate and inquire), lesson design--the five e lessons, Madeline Hunter, or a simple learning cycle (Engage interest, present information, let them practice, check for learning, repeat), and a thirst to become the best teacher possible.

I used to consider myself as an introvert. Not any more. The way out of being an introvert is let your passion shine. If this is something you really want, let it show. Show them how much you love kids and teaching. The first question is always "Tell us about yourself" That is the precise opportunity for you to tell them that because, that is what they are wanting to hear. So tell them your experiences that make you a great teacher. DO NOT start with I was born...I lived... You want to let them see some of the passion that moved you to quit your job. Some of the successes that you have had with teaching children, or any teaching experience at all--training you have done at work, conference presentations etc...

The rest of the questions, don't sweat, just answer them as best you can. If you don't know the answer, say so and add, "I am a fast learner." Have fun in the interviews. What is the worst that can happen? You've been rejected so you already know how that feels. Don't worry about it. One thing that helps is if you go back through the interviews that you already had and prepare killer answers to each of the questions they asked you. Memorize those answers before the next interview and 9 time out of 10 you will be able to use those in answering some of the questions posed.

Education is in the process of changing. Being a teacher used to be a very lonely job. The concept of professional collaboration is much more widely accepted. So, to calm your fears, when (not if) you become a teacher, you will not be alone. There will be lots of people there to help you, support you, mentor you and guide you. You will have to ask for help, but as a new teacher that is expected and it is not considered bad form. Good luck

Ben Johnson
Natalia, TX

A. Cody (not verified)

Finding a teaching job

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Dear Jen,

First of all, three weeks of training, no matter how intensive, is not enough to prepare someone to take over a classroom, in my opinion. I had a year of student teaching and still found my first year to be challenging. I think your queasiness may be rooted in your awareness of the preparation needed for this task, and I have to say that your fears may be well-founded. Second, you raise the issue of your confidence level. It seems like you could be setting yourself for problems here, if you combine inadequate preparation with a lack of confidence.

Your husband sounds like he is feeling a lot of financial pressure, as are lots of folks these days. In that context, his frustration is understandable. But he needs to understand that you will not be in a better position unless you make a career move that is really sustainable.

If I were you I would investigate volunteering at a school, or working as a substitute teacher. Then you could take charge of a class without assuming all the responsibilities of being the teacher of record. You can also become acquainted with the administrators and teachers at some schools, and if it turns out you really love teaching and are growing in your confidence, then you can seek a permanent position. There are often vacancies mid-year for various reasons. Good luck!

Anthony Cody

Stephen (not verified)

Re: First year teaching fears

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Your story is pretty powerful; the experiences that you describe can certainly shake the foundations of anyone's life. Yet you have been drawn to a profession that may or may not be suited for you. Its really hard to tell at this point.

I would like to know more about what has led you to question your ability to do this work? In your professional training, were you in a classroom? Have you had the experience of planning for and managing a classroom program?

I'm wondering whether you are talking yourself out of this before you give it a fair shot?

I don't have any answers, but I do have one suggestion. You may want to use this time to get into some classrooms in a volunteer role. Get in and do some things with small groups of students. Watch some teachers in action. Hang out in a school and try to picture yourself there on a daily basis.

This is going to take a little bit of time. Most professional training programs are longer than 3 weeks. You may need to get some more in-school experience before you know for sure.

Would love to hear from others on this.

stephen

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