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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Fresh Start: A Novice Teacher Tries Again After a Tough First Year

Mark Nichol

Editor / Writer

In my last entry, I recounted my challenging first year as a teacher. Here, I'll describe my second-year misfortunes, and my decision to call it quits after my third strike.

As my second year of teaching began, I felt a renewed sense of hope that I had chosen the right career. One week into the new calendar, however, the school district announced that, because of budget cuts, each school's most recently hired teacher -- me! -- would be laid off. Other district educators had been hired even more recently than I had, however, and the higher-ups told me I would be reassigned to another school to fill the position one of these people would vacate as a result of being sacked.

Parents throughout the district rallied in their opposition to this absurd plan -- after all, it would require many class rosters to be reshuffled -- and the administration somehow found another way to trim the budget. My position at my school was secure, but it was another awkward start to a school year.

I volunteered for the district's New Teacher Task Force and chaired a committee charged with preparing a model support program for newcomers to the classroom. After a round of after-school meetings, I proudly typed up the final draft of our report and handed it to the district administrator who facilitated the task force. Though he was a sympathetic and universally beloved fellow, he rewrote it drastically to ease bureaucratic digestion (basically gutting it), and nothing ever seemed to come of all our time and effort. I was crushed.

Again, I had many wonderful kids that year as well as a few who were great sometimes and difficult at other times and a few I grew to dislike but tried to treat fairly. Again, my classroom-management skills left something to be desired, and again I was buried under mounds of homework and class-preparation materials, and again I fell behind and despaired of ever mastering the art of teaching.

Still, at the end of my second frustrating, exhausting year, I was granted tenure. I accepted. But as I began my third year, I contemplated it being my last, and as the months passed, my resolve deepened. By spring break, I had all but decided to give it up. Regrettably, I told no one at school about my decision, and I didn't officially resign until midsummer, but when I did, I felt a sense of relief that surprised and saddened me. What of my bloodline? What of my youthful enthusiasm, my determination to be a vigorous, creative, progressive educator? I was a failure.

Not quite. Despite my poor classroom-management and organizational abilities, despite being overwhelmed by my responsibilities and flustered by my more troublesome students, I was popular with not only most of my own students but also many in other classrooms, and for every parent who complained to my face -- or, more commonly, behind my back -- about my class, another effusively thanked me for making his or her child's school year so rewarding and memorably enjoyable.

As every teacher must, I learned a great many things. Among them was that I might have succeeded in a less traditional educational environment, or with older students, or with a better system -- hell, any system -- established to support me and others in the first few years of our teaching careers. The significance of this last point cannot be overstated: It behooves every school and every district to establish and maintain a carefully considered and faithfully implemented program for recruiting, orienting, supporting, and retaining teachers.

Even now, more than fifteen years after the end of my crash-and-burn teaching career, many new educators fall through the cracks and decide that, despite their passionate desire to make a difference in children's lives, the systemic pressures, the degrading bureaucracy, the long hours, and the low pay are just not worth it. What a shame.

Have things improved since my short-lived public school career? If you're a relatively new educator, please share your experiences with us. If you're a veteran, describe the changes, if any, you've observed in new-teacher induction and mentoring over the years.

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N. Phillips, Selmer TN's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely sympathize with you. I was hired on the second day of school into a special education kindergarten to fourth grade class with eighteen students (diagnosed with autism, mental retardation, emotional disorders, cerebral palsy, ADHD - and several had a mix of these combined with speech and language disorders) and no curriculum. To say I experienced panic would be a severe understatement. I had the help of two paraprofessionals, and an experienced teacher that mentored me throughout the hardest year of my nine years in teaching. A good mentor can make a huge difference in the success or failure of a novice teacher.

I had to create individualized curriculums for each student that covered all core academic subject areas. (I actually asked if I could have the same curriculums as Kindergarten and first grade had and was told that my students did not need a curriculum.) As time has passed, I have won desperately needed reading and math curriculums to use in my classroom. No curriculum is perfect, but it does give me a base to work from.

Things are much better now. Do not give up on your class or your students. Have faith in yourself. It is very hard when you first start with nothing, but as the years go by you gather and create a solid base of materials to pull from. Do you have a mentor? Is there anyone that can help you? If you do not have a mentor assigned by your school district, then find an experienced teacher and ask for help. He or she could be flattered by your request, and be more than willing to help you. I have found that most professionals enjoy sharing what they know.

Burning out is really easy to do during your first year of teaching. All I can say to encourage you is to hang on, build what you need for your classroom a piece at a time, and find a mentor. Someone to talk to and collaborate with can make your job much easier.

Linda's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The experience that Mark had seems to occur all too often. New teachers are given a classroom and really no time to prepare and not much direction. I was hired two weeks after the school year began and was given more than my fair share of students with behavior problems. I am reading a book right now by Sonia Nieto titled "What Keeps Teachers Going? " It explores this issue.

Abby's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I echo Patrick's message entirely. I feel that I am somewhere on my way from being a novice to becoming an expert. What I am learning is that not all teachers make their way to expertise. Having only two years experience in the classroom (and three bouts of summer school), I am slowly but surely learning that the novice experience differs from school to school. I feel that I also work with angels who are constantly offering a new perspective or experienced reasoning with topics or situations unfamiliar to me. However, in summer school, I felt left high and dry.

It comes down to the teacher. If you want to excel in this profession bad enough, it does not matter whether your hand is held or if you feel your way around blindly: you will succeed if you want to. I am at the point in my career where I need to make the final decision: should I remain a teacher or venture elsewhere? I am finding (in the midst of my first summer off from your typical ROUGH first few years of teaching) that though I feel unsuccessful and lost at times, I always manage to survive. And perhaps we are too hard on ourselves; perhaps if we asked our students, their families or our colleagues how they see we are doing, we may receive more positive feedback to keep us going.

I also am reading Sonia Nieto's What Keeps Teachers Going for a graduate course. I find that reading blogs like these and knowing I am not alone is what helps, despite her renowned success in the education world. Books are great (I do teach English after all), but having a community of real people in similar positions to bounce ideas and drudge on through years of being a novice with is so much more beneficial to me.

Angie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can completely understand what Mark has gone through. I just started my fourth year teaching, but I remember my first year like it was yesterday. For starters, I moved a thousand miles away from home to come to Florida because I heard that they were in desperate need of teachers. Not to mention, I couldn't pass one of my exams in PA, and it wasn't likely that I would find a job; I would be be subbing for a while just like everyone else.

So, my first day of teaching was awful! I guess I didn't quite know what to do with them! I came home sobbing - thanking god that I moved so close to a college, and I could go back for a new degree. However, after speaking with other first year teachers, I found out that I was not alone. About two months went by and I thought I was finally getting the hang of things, even though I was the teacher that the janitors were kicking out at night because they were getting ready to lock the gates. Then, that awful phrase "re-calc" (re-calculation of the students - AKA: sink or swim). Unfortuanally, I was on the sink side....budget cuts kicked it, and I was the one to be cut. It was so devastating to me, especially being my first year. Luckily, there was a 5th grade teacher in my school getting ready to retire early, and I got her position - - the class from...you know. The evening cry began yet again!
However, I found myself beginning to like the 5th graders; I was able to connect with them on a different level.

My second year, I begged my principal to move me back to 2nd grade, in which she did. I am so happy now, but still find myself becoming overwhelmed or frustrated. I just recently started my Master's degree - and I have found that it is really giving me a boost. After reading the research and being able to relate somehow makes me feel a lot better.

Angie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I would also like to add a little something that may be inspiring to you. In my Master's course that I just started, we are reading a book by Sonia Nieto - What Keeps Teachers Going? I found this to be very comparable to some of my experiences thus far, espcially the part about how "Teachers Make A Difference." Instead of this book being a lecture or a 'How To...,' it provides many real life experiences that you can relate to. I hope you find it helpful and will reconsider the teaching field.

truzella's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a career changer who started teaching a little over a year ago. I had zero training and was placed in the classroom with a stack of textbooks, no lesson plans, curricula, county regs, state regs and a lot of reading material that was sure to help. I worked 7 days a week to write lesson plans, grade, and understand what the heck I was doing and more importantly what I was supposed to be doing. Every night it was me, the custodian, and the mice. In some ways I am embarrassed to say that I have resigned. I am not a quitter by nature however there comes a point where enough is enough. I really wanted to be a teach and be a good teacher. The fact is that I couldn't do it myself. I needed guidance and support and that never came. I really feel that I helped some students along the way and improved my classroom management. I wasn't able to grasp teaching techniques and curricula by osmosis. I don't know what line of work I will do now. My heart is still with teaching but I don't believe I will be given another chance since I quit. Also know I couldn't continue under the current circumstances for another day.

truzella's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After being thrown into the classroom with enough material to make the CIA proud but with no training or direction to go with it; the evening and morning sobs became a regular event. I finally started to understand bits and pieces here and there but not before I started having evaluations that needed improvement. Due to many other circumstances I opted to quit. Maybe some of you here can tell me how I was supposed to learn techniques and structure when I was in the classroom by day and preparing for the next day by night? I have been in a number of professions and never encountered such sink/swim mentality and isolation. I must say that I am struggling with feeling like a failure even though I fully understand that I did everything I could to make it work.

Vanessa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I tend to leave out my first year(not even a year) of teaching when I discuss how long I have been teaching. I was first hired into a very poor school in a second grade classroom. The district supposedly had a mentoring program, but I never saw it. I really felt clueless and frustrated. I was going to have 20 children coming into my room and I felt so unprepared. Whenever I would go to my assigned mentor I got nothing from her. I lasted at the job for two weeks, walked into the principals office with a letter of resignation. I told her I am cleaning out my room and I will not be back tomorrow. I did not go near a school again for 3 years. When I did start going back it was in a daycare position. I am now in my 8th year in a different school district and luckily have had the courage to continue on even through those tough years. The lack of support in the first year was really what made it worse than anything else I experienced. It is so important that first year teachers have that mentor to fall back on and help support them through those times when you really feel like a failure. We have lost to many people because of something as simple as supporting our own teammates.

BRV's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is really helpful to read this and know that their are other people out there struggling as I am. Although I was prepared for my position and even student taught in my current school, I often feel so far behind I will never catch up. On top of everything, I advise a student organization of nearly 100 high school students with community service and leadership projects several times a month. Although I have been assigned a mentor, I usually feel like I am being monitored rather than mentored. I can't count the number of times I have looked for other jobs. I have degrees in things other than education and know I could get more regular hours with better pay...so why am I going to stay for another year? I feel like teaching needs to be less demanding than other jobs for this up-front investment to pay off. My mom is a teacher and despite her 30+ years of experience, she still works 50+ hours a week and doesn't really like it. I just do not want "overworked and underpaid" to be my career. I see other teachers with only 1 or 2 courses a year while I teach 8 different courses, yet we all get paid the same amount. The lack of potential advancement, no reward (other than intrinsic satisfaction) for a job well done, a view from society as a para-professional, isolation from other adults, nearly non-existent social connections, and the thought of doing essentially the same thing for the next 3o years makes me want to run in the other direction. Despite that I have always been an achiever, I can't be certain I will remain in education.

Louisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just received notice of non-renewal in my current position. Schools are closing all around me and my principal decided long along that my position was more valuable to another teacher. No matter what hoops I jumped, I was doomed from a long time ago.

Will I quit teaching? The thought of another unsupportive administration and low school morale makes me say "yes". I'm a smart, educated, creative person who has been demoralized and degraded. It's going to take me the whole summer to gather myself back together and talk myself back into thinking I'm not the "horrific" teacher that my narrow-minded, self-serving principal would have me think.

I have felt all of the above, including frustration, lonliness and overwhelmed. Why would anyone want to work at a job that makes you feel like less of a person? I know that in the right fit, I will flourish. But teaching in a public classroom isn't it. There are other careers in which I can still work with kids and use my teaching expertise. But Florida Public Schools won't be the place.

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