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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

For the first few years that I taught, my stomach hurt constantly in the weeks before school started. The anxiety was a mixture of dread and excitement and anticipation. Every year, I mourned the end of summer, but I'd also get revved up, ready to start and get my hands messy with learning.

Now I have insomnia. In 2007, after teaching in the school district in Oakland, California, for twelve years, I stepped out of the classroom and into the role of instructional coach at one of its middle schools. During the weeks before school starts, I often spend 3-5 a.m. making mental to-do lists and solving issues. Last night, I brainstormed about how to get furniture donations for one of our brand-new teachers. Today, I will give her a tour of the school, but when I open the door to her portable, she'll see an empty room.

I'm particularly sensitive to this scenario. To be honest, it triggers my teacher posttraumatic stress disorder. My first year of teaching was in an overcrowded, underresourced elementary school in East Oakland. They led me to a carpeted space and told me to teach bilingual second graders to read. There were no desks, chairs, or books -- or walls.

Back in the 1970s, some people who had never spent time with children promoted "open classrooms." Imagine a long, wide corridor, and add 200 kids but no dividers or doors or sound barriers. Then, lump 30 (or 36) kids with each teacher, and include a teacher who teaches everything by singing and chanting.

Next, consider that this is a school with a rapidly growing population, so that when new classes are created, everyone has to squeeze closer together. Also note that this school does not purchase furniture, and that your fellow teachers hoard supplies and books (which were published twenty years ago), but if you teach a bilingual class, none of that matters, because no one knows what teaching a bilingual class means or when or how the students should learn English.

Now, stick a young, uncredentialed teacher in that room, one who doesn't know anything about how kids learn to read and can't remember her own year in second grade, but who quickly finds herself caring deeply about her students.

But this blog is supposed to be about you, the novice teacher. It's not a place where I plan on processing my own teaching traumas. I do hope that these posts might make a tiny dent in the agony and confusion beginning teachers often feel.

Though there is never enough support for beginning teachers (or any educator), I'm hoping I can enlist the community of Edutopia.org visitors to engage in a discussion with new members of our profession and dish out some practical tips and a few morsels of advice, consolation, and encouragement. I hope that new teachers will find this to be a forum where they can ask any and all questions and brainstorm about any problems. I'm going for a peppery blend of logistical and emotional support.

On a side note, my definition of "new teacher" is very broad. After teaching elementary school for five years, I became a middle school teacher, and I felt very much like a beginner again. Some aspects of teaching will be (and should be) new every year. So, I hope this blog can be a place where we pull back and zoom in and take a close and scary -- and sometimes anonymous -- look at what's going on in our schools and classrooms.

Back to the pre-school-year anxiety. I have insomnia because there's so much to be done. I want to do this year right. I am overwhelmed and afraid I'll fail. I want to sleep more and exercise more and spend leisurely afternoons in the park with my son, but it's all about to start, and it'll be a year before I can read another novel. Is anyone else experiencing this?

I'm learning how to deal with this without the help of pharmaceuticals. I often get up and do the work I'm lying in bed thinking about. I make long lists and plot when and how I'm going to do them. I ask for help and know that not everything will get done. And I constantly remind myself of why I do this job.

And that's my number-one piece of advice to any teacher: Know why you're an educator. Remind yourself about it regularly. Write it up and post it in a prominent place in your classroom. Ask yourself many times throughout the year, particularly when things are hard, "Why am I a teacher? Why do I do this?"

And after a few years, if those reasons aren't loud and compelling, don't do it. When the reasons are really strong, teaching is much, much easier. It becomes enjoyable about 90 percent of the time. As challenging as my job is, I can't imagine doing anything else.

So, why do you -- new, or veteran, educator -- teach? Please share your stories.

In my next post, I'll share my own reasons, and I'll give some practical tips on getting ready for the school year. In the meantime, let me point you in the direction of some recently written blog posts by experienced teachers on Teacher magazine's Web site. Check out Jane Fung's "Teaching Secrets: The First Days of School" and Cindi Rigsbee's "Teaching Secrets: Five Tips for the New Teacher." (Free registration is required.)

Comments (96)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Camden Pace's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I became a teacher because I wanted to change my students' lives. I want to give them the tools they need to become successful learners. I know that teachers have a tremendous impact on their students and I want to them to look up to me. I knew when I was a little girl that I wanted to be a teacher. Our future relies on the students of today and I want to contribute what I can to help shape our future generation. I also got into teaching because I have a love for children. I feel that I connect with my students on a personal level as well as a professional level. I feel that my students can come to me with problems and feel safe in my room.

When I think of a novice, I think of a new teacher that lacks experience in the classroom and someone who is energetic and wants to try everything. A novice teacher is someone who wants to try and please everyone. I was once in this position 5 years ago; I relied on my teacher manuals and did not stray from what they said to teach or how they said to teach it. I had a lack of self confidence and got easily frustrated because I felt I was not being very effective. When you're a new teacher there are so many things that can affect your teaching. I truly believe that in order to become an expert teacher you need to have experience in the classroom, have knowledge of your content area, and teach to your students needs. I feel that there are many characteristics that make up expert teachers and it is all about your abilities and being a continuous learner. Education is an always changing field and we, as teachers need to keep up with the latest teaching ideas and with our curriculum. When we become teachers we are taking on a lot more than we realize and we need to be up for the challenge or we will not make it in this field.

Amanda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I became a teacher for the same reason Camden did, "to change students' lives." In fact, I believe that many people become a teacher for that same reason. I also agree on what you said that we do not know what we are signing on for. When taking college classes about teaching, those classes don't explain to you how you feel when one of your student's are going home to a bad environment, when you should or when you shouldn't call protective services on a family, and they definately do not let you know that you will have many sleepless nights thinking about your next day at school.
This is my fourth year of teaching and I have found it to be very rewarding. I have been teaching first grade for this time and I still consider myself to be a novice teacher. I try and change my lessons as much as I can from the previous years. In fact, I have to in order to reach all my different style of learners from year to year. However, as the years go on, I have found myself becoming more confident in my work. I believe there are some really really good teachers out there, but it takes many years to become an expert. Right now I am reading a book called "On Being A Teacher". This book has really helped me to go back and think deeply about my actions in the classroom. Chapter 2 in this book is entitled "On Being A Learner". This has been an effective chapter for me. It explains what teachers teach their students. I have realized that I really need to change they way that I introduce and say things to my students. Learning vs. schooling is a major issue happening in our schools today. We as teachers need to remember that students are at school to learn and to be original thinkers.

Kottler, J. A., Zehm, S. J., & Kottler, E. (2005). On being a teacher: The human dimension (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Amanda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with Camden in the fact that many people become teachers to "change students' lives." In college, your professors never mentioned to you how you would go home thinking about school each night. They also failed to mention that the students that you have tend to become your "own". You worry about them more often then not and you wake up worring about some of them and if they are in a safe environment.
I am currently reading a book entitled "On Being A Teacher". This is my fourth year teaching and this book has re-opened my eyes to the teaching world. Chapter two focuses on the difference between schooling and learning. Schooling is reminding students to raise their hand, to try harder, color between the lines, etc. Learning actually reaches the student interests. Your teaching should be aligned with what your student's are interested in and what types of needs they may have. I believe through the school year many teachers get off track and forget what learning actually is.

Kottler, J. A., Zehm, S. J., & Kottler, E. (2005). On being a teacher: The human dimension (3rd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press

Kelly's picture

Like several people here, I am a Walden student searching for blogs as a course requirement. I've spent several fruitless hours wading through a number of blogs that seem designed solely for the purpose of allowing teachers to vent. I understand the need--we all need to blow off steam once in a while--but I was hoping to find more productive discussion. I think I finally found it here!
It was heartening for me to read the initial post; I started my teaching career under difficult circumstances--but at least I had desks and chairs. The fact that learning was taking place at all under the conditions in Elena Aguilar's school is nothing short of a miracle. The lack of consistency in terms of resources among schools in our country is unbelievable.
I'm currently reflecting on the progression from novice to expert teacher and what impact our working conditions have on that. For those of you who consider themselves experts (or darn close), how long did it take you to get to that point? Was there a defining moment when you realized you'd arrived? I'm in my fourth year of teaching, and, while I no longer feel like a rank amateur, I know I have a long way to go before I can consider myself an expert.

cassiekat's picture

I have taught French part time at a Community College since 2005 and am planning to enroll in an alternative Teacher Certification program in the Spring, eventually leading up to another master's degree. I loved school and equally feel so good when I see my students/former students continue with French (that says to me I did not scare them away- I tend to be a real stickler with spelling/grammar and pronunciation)

I have seen my grandmother battle parents and have heard stories about little 8/9 year old horrors, and have watched my husband be ridiculed because of his accent by a class of 16 year-olds. It scares me but deep down I know if I can make that connection with one student, it would have been worth it ( perhaps I am a little naive....)

Melissa's picture

Like Kelly, I too am a Walden Student. I have been looking at several blogs and decided to read and comment on this one because I found the intial post to be both moving and, unfortunately, all too common. Looking back on my first year teaching, I remember team-teaching reading in a dimly lit auditorium classroom with anywhere from 70-120 students at a time. The seats were auditorium style seats, so if one student needed to get out of his/her seat for any particular reason, it usually required that a number of other students stand up to allow the student to squeeze through. The walls, which could be pulled back for performances because we were essentially in one of the balcony areas, did little to muffle the sound of the drama students rehearsing all types of plays and musicals or weilding tools in order to build sets. As someone with absoutely no education background, it was a shock, and yet I was fortunate enough to have taught with teachers who had much more experience that I did and who helped to guide me along. So, yes, I have progressed from being a novice teacher, but I am nowhere near being an expert either. What I do know is that, for now, I can not see myself doing anything else. There are days that I feel incredibly frustrated with my students, with parents, with administration and with myself. I occassionally feel burnt out and underappreciated, but I can't see myself doing anything else. There is a certain satisfaction and pride that I feel when I can tell that a student has really "gotten" something I've taught him/her, or when a student who rarely has academic success feels really proud of an academic achievement, that I cannot imagine that I would find in any other profession.

Francesca Muraca's picture

I would have to say that I am by any definition a brand new teacher. I was just certified this past year and I am currently searching for a position. At this time I am so focused on finding the job opportunity that I haven't really thought about what I will do when I get there. I would like to contribute as much as I can to other teachers, however, I feel that I will be more of a fly on the wall and absorb tools and strategies from seasoned teachers.

Vera Kaltwasser's picture

I just came across this blog and want to thank you all for sharing your experiences and ideas. I am writing from Germany, currently I am teaching teachers and students. At the moment I am working at at new book about how practicing mindfulness can alleviate stress and give teachers coping strategies for teaching from their heart and giving their full potential without burning out, which is a challenge every day. Yours Vera Kaltwasser, Frankfurt

Newtothejob's picture
Newtothejob
9th Grade Special Ed

I am a new teacher. This is my first year teaching special ed. I'm teaching a gamut of different types of students. Every time I get positive/negative feedback, my lesson doesn't work, or the hw wasn't clear, I feel badly. I stay awake at night worrying about what I'm doing wrong and whether what I think I'm doing right is even working. I have made strides with some students but two are have made it clear to admin, through their parents, that they don't feel supported in my class. At first, I felt like their behavior issues were to blame and then I realized that I wasn't supporting their individual needs. On Monday I will be talking with both students, admitting my mistakes, and telling them that we will be working together differently from now on. Part of me realizes that mistakes happen and the other feels horribly guilty for hurting two student' feelings and not realizing they needed a different kind of support earlier. When I get feedback from admin I automatically feel like I'm about to be fired. I know that teachers are supposed to learn from their mistakes, but learning sometimes means stressing out and feeling badly. There are days when I think I should quit and work in a job that doesn't involve papers, lessons, students, parents and admin. I relate to the stress and the anxiety and I wonder, am I really cut out for this profession? Has anyone in their first year made the same mistakes as me?

Elena Aguilar's picture
Elena Aguilar
Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California
Blogger 2014

Dear "Newtothejob"
Your description of your first year of teaching is resonates and is so thoughtful. All of us made lots and lots of mistakes our first year (or two, or three). It's what we do with those mistakes and feelings that's key. I can see that you're a very thoughtful teacher, learning and growing and asking for help. Don't quit! Not yet, at least. Give yourself a few years. I can hear how much you care about your kids. It gets easier--I promise! It gets easier and more rewarding and you'll see yourself grow and learn and make fewer mistakes and you'll see your students learn. You're in one of the hardest corners of teaching--Special Ed, in high school! No way that's going to be easy, but it might really be worth it. Stay connected to why you chose to enter this profession and get connected to other teachers, coaches, and supportive administrators. Stay in touch! Elena

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