Stressing Support, Not Stress: Easing the Anxieties of Being a Novice Teacher | Edutopia
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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 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.)

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Kerry A.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is reassuring to visit with teachers that have or are experiencing the same stress that I did as a new teacher. This is my fourth year of teaching, and I am just beginning to feel the joy of teaching more effectively. Wow! So this is what it feels like? How rewarding to think that it just gets better! However, I do agree that the classroom is ever changing and therefore teachers are always adjusting and finding new ways to reach students on academic, behavioral, and personal levels.

Novice teachers have so much passion, energy, and creativity. These very qualities are the building blocks to a myriad of strategies needed to reach all students. As a new teacher, I felt the stress of having very few techniques and felt ineffective. In fact, I wondered if I really wanted to continue teaching. My uncle, who is now a professor, told me to never make a decision about whether or not I wanted to teach during my first year of teaching. I am beginning to understand the depth of his statement as I continue this fourth year of teaching. As I move out of the novice stage, my confidence is growing, my voice is stronger, my teaching is more dynamic and I am making a difference. While I am not close to becoming an expert, it is exciting to think about the differences that I will see and feel in my teaching as I mature as a professional. Most of all, I have always said that if I forget the reasons that I went into teaching; then I need to quit.

Trent Klepper's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I too am having to blog for my graduate class. I find it interesting that you are discussing the growth of a novice teacher to a expert teacher. I have been teaching for seven years and I feel that I am still learning every year. I am like you in that it hard to believe we can become expert teachers. If I believe that I have reached that goal of being an expert teacher, then I am not growing and changing with the students. I agree that there are some expert teachers out there, but they are few and far between. Teaching takes such a toll on you that it is hard to stay up to date, be creative, deal with your family, and teach effectively. The experts that are out there need to be watched by novice teachers to help them to use their time wisely, be an effect teacher, and understand what curriculum is important and what to put to the side.

This is my sixth year in second grade and I feel that every year our second grade team has to adjust to the students. We are always talking about what worked before and how to make it work for the new students. I have been fortunate to only teach two grades, fourth in my first year and then second the last six. Hopefully you haven't switched grades often. But do what you know is right as a teacher and you won't feel overwhelmed. Do the best you can, I'm sure you are helping the students everyday.

Holly Vaughan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a first year Pre-Kindergarten teacher. Before this year, I was an assistant in a Pre-Kindergarten classroom for two years. By the end of that second year, I was ready to lead a classroom. At the same time, I was extremely nervous. I wasn't sure if I had enough skill and I was afraid that the new school that hired me would realize they made a poor decision. This year has been such an amazing learning experience for me. I have learned that I will make mistakes. It is inevitable. However, I have learned that making mistakes can become a very valuable learning experience. I will only become an "expert" teacher by pushing myself to take risks and not be afraid of failing. Also, veteran teachers are an extremely valuable resource. Just this week, the head of a school that I have always loved asked me if I would be interested in a teaching position there. The position, however, is for a second grade teacher. At first, I thought no way. I cannot do this. I am not familiar with second graders. My experience is with Pre-k children. The more I thought about it, the more I realized, why not? Why can't I do it? I have the drive. I am a capable person. I am frightened and thrilled at the same time. I never imagined that I would teach second grade. I see this as an opportunity I shouldn't pass up, especially if the only reason why I am apprehensive is because of the unknown.

I guess my point in all of this is that I am not alone in feeling scared of failing as a teacher. There is also that reassurance that I won't be a complete failure.

Rebecca's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

How wonderful that you are beginning this journey. I am in my ninth year of teaching and still feel that I am not an expert yet! I would say that experience and enthusiasm has a big part in moving up to the expert. I have taught at 3 different schools and have had many experiences in working with several teachers and administrators. At each school, I have learned quite a few different things about teaching. Each school is like moving into a different country. The culture of the school says a lot about student and teacher learning. The school I am at now in Corona, California is wonderful. I have had the opportunity in working with an excellent fourth grade team of teachers. Our motto is "Let's make good ideas great!" We work together on everything. Our collaboration has made me a more effective teacher for my students. Remember, being a new teacher doesn't mean you have to reinvent the wheel. Seek out some great mentors and steal their ideas! Have fun!

Michelle O'Hara's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Although I am in my fifth year teaching in the same district, this is my first year teaching third grade. I feel as if I am that novice teacher again. I also have great support from my colleagues, however, it still has been an overwhelming change for me this year. I am happy that I made the switch to third grade because I really enjoy the students, the building,the staff members, and our principal. This grade level has been a refreshing change for me.

Do I believe I was an expert teacher before I moved grades? No, I do not. However, I was very comfortable with the curriculum I was teaching. Do I believe I will be an expert teacher? It is something that I will constantly strive to be. I feel that education is continuously changing and as teachers we are always learning something new. This is one of the reasons I am also starting my masters degree, so I can then reach my goal to someday be that expert teacher.

Michelle O'Hara's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Rebecca, I can really relate about moving districts,grade levels and that feeling of being that novice teacher again. However, you certainly do learn a lot from all the moving! It is reassuring that you have a great group of teachers to collaborate with. In our building it is very hard to collaborate with the whole team. We have a team of thirteen teachers teaching just third grade alone. We are divided by hallways which make it very difficult to collaborate together as a whole team. There are six of us, who are down one hallway together who try to come together to collaborate and work together. We communicate on our own, by instant messaging or by email. There isn't time scheduled in to team meetings like some school districts have. We do meet once a month as a building. Do you have time scheduled in to meet as a team. Any advice on how your team makes that work?

Melissa George's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently a Master's student taking online courses at Walden University. Over the past two weeks, we have been discussing the novice-to-expert teacher continuum. As I was reading through the discussion posts, it was very interesting to read that many of us in the course define novice teachers in very similar ways. Many of us defined novice teachers as teachers who are new to the field who are full of energy, yet often unsure of themselves so we seek out information. One of the things some of us discussed were successful strategies we ourselves or our districts have used. In the district I work at all teachers are required to take part in an induction program to help ease the anxieties of novice teachers. As part of the program, we are all given mentors to guide us during the first year. Our mentors are there for us to go to with any questions we may have about curriculum, school policies, discipline or anything we need help with as novice teachers new to teaching. However, our district also assigns mentors to teachers who transfer positions within the field. While these teachers are not necessarily new to the field they are still new to their specific grade level. Elena mentioned that she felt like a new teacher when she transferred from elementary to middle school, so she would have benefited from a mentor. My mentor was extremely helpful to me. She really helped to ease my nervousness. It was nice to know that I had at least one person who was there for me and who wanted to help me. I think more expert teachers need to step up and help out novice teachers, just out of the goodness of their hearts. They were once novice teachers and know how it feels to be where novice teachers are so they should step up to help new teacher and I am sure when they were still novice teachers they also wanted support. Did anyone else experience a mentoring program?

As part of our course, we have a DVD to watch in which Sonia Nieto is the main speaker. In the Teacher Expertise and Development portion of the DVD she addresses the novice to expert continuum and how teachers progress along the continuum. Nieto suggests that in order to be experts there are three types of knowledge teachers need to have, knowledge of subject matter, pedagogy, and culture. One of the main things that helps a teacher develop along the continuum is constant reflection. Teachers considered experts are more reflective. However, Nieto does point out that while teachers strive to be experts, it doesn't mean they'll ever get there but the goal is still to develop expertise. What are your thoughts? Do you also support what Nieto says about some people never finding themselves at the end of the continuum?

I am a Special Education Teacher and I believe I am somewhere in the middle of the continuum. While I believe I have moved away from the novice stage, I am one that wonders if I will ever make it to the expert stage. I do not think it is possible because the field of education is always changing and just when we think we have it figured out something changes. We may be experts as far as knowing the subject matter, but we always have to be willing to learn new strategies. As a result, I believe we will never be experts because experts usually know everything there is to know about their fields, but ours is always changing.

I also think that becoming an expert in the field of special education is nearly impossible due to the wide range of disabilities and how unique each student is, even thought some of them may have the same labels. As a special education teacher I am constantly having to reflect on what I am doing. Every year I must spend the first few weeks of school getting to know my students and their unique learning styles and then must seek appropriate strategies to meet their needs. Each year I also encounter different behavior issues so I must always seek new behavior modification strategies because a one - method approach does not work for Special Education Teachers.

I look forward to seeing if anyone has any great strategies they used to help them

Elizabeth H's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would certainly have to agree with Kerry about how it felt to be a new teacher. When I first started teaching I felt overwhelmed and stressed out by the amount of things a teacher had to do. Learning to get organized and stay organized is something that really helped me reduce the amount of stress I was feeling. Ten years later I certainly have found ways to reduce stress and feel less overwhelmed. I read a statistic somewhere that says a high percentage of new teachers usually quit in the first 3 years. I think this is very important for the administration to take note of. I also think that Kerry's gave her great advice about not deciding if teacher was right for you in the first year. The first year for everyone is stressful and tiring.

J. Nackley's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a newer teacher (of two years), and novice teacher, I enjoyed reading this post. Until I began my master's coursework, I felt as though I were one of the only teachers feeling the way I felt: frustrated, overwhelmed, and overworked. At times I felt like I was thrown into the ocean without a life vest. Once I feel comfortable with the curriculum at hand, it changes dramatically, and I feel like a brand new teacher on my first day all over again. This year, my district decided that it would change the pace of the reading program it uses. They condensed ten month's worth of work and told us that we need to teach it within seven months. I hope that I can help my students meet these increased expectations and feel more comfortable as a teacher, and am eager to learn from other teachers in order to do so.

haikki's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would like to add the idea of project assessment. At the alternative high school I work at we are encouraged to be creative and are blessed with more flexibility than many district schools. Thesis Writing.

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