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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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Michelle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hello Mark,

I am new to the blogging experience but I have found it very enlightening to communicate and connect with other professionals.

I made so many connections while reading your post. After I graduated in 2005, there were no teaching positions available unless you had inside connections. By the middle of July, I began to feel discouraged. My confidence began to rise after I received an offer to teach 4th grade at a charter school. The principal stressed how challenging the students were but I was ready to stand up to anything. I was in for the ride of my life. There were fights almost every day and most of the students had no respect for any adults. Their only motivation was food or candy but I was a new teacher and could not afford this type of reward system. The school building conditions were very poor and the teacher turn over rate was very high. Morale was low and I felt like the teaching profession was a mistake.

I did not let this teaching situation get the best of me. By spring, I began searching for a job. I was teaching 4th grade but my licensure was Pre-K through 3rd grade so I was looking for the correct fit. I signed my contract in April and I could not wait to begin my new job. It seemed like the perfect job. A brand new building with state of the art equipment, parent involvement, mentor program for new hires, and a resource room filled with classroom supplies. This school is rated one of the best schools in Ohio.

Now that I am in my second year at a new school teaching first grade, I still feel some discouragement but it is the opposite. My school has to keep their high ratings and the student standards are set very high. Parents have a very competitive nature and one of their major concerns is identifying their children as gifted. If their children do not qualify, they want the classroom teacher to develop a gifted program specifically for their child. I have about eight parents who wish this for their children and it gets very frustrating. I never knew first graders took so many tests and had such a rigorous curriculum. My teacher friend and I often wonder what happened to just making friends and having fun. I can feel the stress coming from my students. They are consumed with their reading levels and test grades.

I have come to realize that no teaching situation is perfect. There are stressful student, parent, and curriculum challenges within them all. A teacher must be prepared to take on these challenges and make the best of any situation. At the same time, I wonder how long teacher's can sustain working in these stressful teaching conditions.

Jo's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have been in Education for 12 years and have seen difference in training and retaining new teachers. I am a mentor too and really do get to see the benefits of the program. Teachers have many responsibilities and duties not to mention all the data. Mentors are there to support them in the classroom with management, keeping up with responsibilities, and professionalism. Also, I have had the fortunate opportunitis to work in schools that have reading, math, and gifted and talented resource teachers. All four of these positions seem to help support all the teachers in the school.

Jamie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am also taking the Teacher as a Professional class and agree completely with you and Xandra. Teacher educational programs DO NOT prepare you for the realities of teaching. I, too was overwhelmed by so many things in my first year. I went home in tears so many nights and actually thought a job at Pottery Barn would be less stressful and more enjoyable than teaching! Fortunately, I hung in there and ten years later I am glad I did. I've learned so much over the years. Like you, I try not to get myself too worked up over the every day stress of the job.

A two year preparatory class sounds like a great idea. One semester of student teaching is certainly not enough. Even a whole year would be better than just one semester. That way the student teacher would get to see how the classroom is run from start to finish of the school year.

One of the things I find now though, is that when my school district has a mandatory inservice days they seem to provide us with useless insevices. With so many issues in education these days I'd like to see more inservice on things such as classroom management, inclusion, differentiated instruction or Autism and Aspergers.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Rachele, your words ring true, and I feel certain that every teacher out there has felt exactly what you are feeling at one time or another. As a matter of fact, I would argue that most people, in any line of work, has uttered those words out of frustration...we are human, and we have feelings, and it is perfectly acceptable to question our choices. Before I became a teacher, I worked as administrative assistant, in retail, and finally, the airlines as a ticket agent. As much as I started out each job with good intentions, I ended up resenting each choice knowing that this was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. My first years of teaching were not easy either. I don't think they were supposed to be easy...after all, it is a job filled with challenges and uncertainty, ever changing as expectations differ from year to year, and there were many days when I cried myself to sleep thinking that I had made the wrong choice, again...but I stuck it out, changed schools, was placed in a different grade level and what do you know, I ended up really liking it. So, keep doing what you're doing, and if you ever feel like you cannot continue teaching, try another school or grade level before you give up. I think that some people are destined to teach. I believe you may be one of them!

Tabitha's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When I first started teaching 10 years ago I had a good mentor to help me. I didn't have a contract. I was considered a long term substitute teacher. This I found out did not count towards my actual teaching years under contract. The next year I was hired and signed a contract. My mentor was my cooperating teacher so I knew I would be okay. It was chaotic and hectic, but I loved teaching second grade. Then the principal that hired me and told me that he would hire me with a contract got a promotion and left. I was left with nothing and I had to apply with the new principal again. It just so happened that the new principal liked me and hired me, but for fifth grade. I was freaked out because my student teaching placement that I had in fifth grade didn't leave a good taste in my mouth for the tweens. I taught fifth grade for 7 years and loved it up until two years ago. I got burnt out and couldn't take the lack of support for the bad behavior and since I am a teacher that shows tough love I got all the tough kids. Two years ago I was seriously thinking about quitting because of all the pressure being put on us for state testing and no support from administration, parents, and kids.

Last year I transfered to a new school and am now teaching third grade. The kids are better, but I have the pressures of parents who like some other posters wants their kids to have individual plans to push them. I have some parents that don't care about their child's education. I have some that call me every single day or write me a note about their kid. I do have a supportive administration, but the district I work for doesn't really think about the policies and plans they create and how they effect the classroom. So we are expected to do more and more on top of teach. I am happier in my new school and I have a great team of teachers that I work with in the school and as a grade team. We support each other and encourage each other to keep going and ask for help if we don't know what to do.

I felt that when I first started teaching 10 years ago I was a novice teacher. I do not see myself as an expert teacher, but a scholar practioner. Since I stitched grade levels I have been put in the place of feeling like a novice teacher because I have to learn new curriculum all over again. I am constantly learning new strategies and techniques to help teach my students. I know that I have much more to learn and that I am honestly learning more now that I have started my masters degree and am taking a class called Teacher as a Professional. I have been taking a look at who I am as a teacher and how I handle things more indepth. This has made me rethink how I connect with my students and my colleagues. I am making a conscience effert to really focus and listen to my students, colleagues, and administration. I want them to see that I do care about my students and in turn my career.

Thank you for sharing your first two years of teaching and showing us that in the end we are all in this education game together and that no matter were you are in the world as a teacher we all feel and go through the same.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Paul, your attitude about teaching today sends a clear message, and although you have some valid points, I disagree with you. Yes, the educational landscape has changed, as has parent, teacher, and student expectations, but let's not be so negative! As a teacher, I have been under the microscope of parents many times (commonly referred to as helicopter parents...) and sometimes it gets ugly. However;the parent in me understand the need to question expectations (i.e. homework, assignments, grading policies, etc) because our generation, unlike our parents, feel the need to be fully involved in our children's lives. Expectations have risen in all areas...this is evident by the sheer amount of testing we do, and the expectations we have for our children are completely different today than they were only a decade ago. It seems that today we expect all children to be accomplished athletes, A students, well rounded, and involved in all types of community service, and quite frankly, it is hard to keep up. I am not sure who is to blame for this phenomenon, but I don't we think we can point the finger to parents and students alone. Perhaps teachers can share in some of the blame also. We were told to raise expectations- we did, and look what happened...what next, and what is the solution?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Don't give up! What you need is a change of scenery. Find another school, a new administration, new colleagues. Clearly, you are not happy in the school you are currently teaching in, but this does not mean that you should give up teaching all together. There must be some reason that you have stuck it out this long...is it the kids, and are you fine as long as you can close your doors and shut the outside demands out? I spent the first 3 years teaching at schools where I was not happy either. When I finally got hired in the school I currently work in, it all fell into place and I was happy again. I love my class, the staff is supportive, and the parents are generally well-meaning. I love my job and wouldn't want to do anything else but teach now. I hope that things work out for you also.

Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with everyone who has been commenting on how novice teachers need as much support as possible. When I first graduated from college and became certified, I had no choice but to work in a public school in New York City because without a master's degree in lower New York, it is very hard to find a teaching job in the suburbs. It was either being a substitute without benefits or working in a preschool for very little pay, which is what I am now doing. I took a teaching job in the Bronx because the pay and benefits were good for a 24 year old who just graduated college. I was assigned to the fourth grade, but I didn't have my own class. I pushed-in to the fourth grade classes to teach Science and Social Studies because all the teachers were only teaching Math and ELA test prep. Because I didn't have ownership over the students, it was incredibly difficult for me. I felt like a substitute teacher. I broke up fist fights. I was cursed at,etc. By January I was ready to throw in the towel.

At first I thought it was the kids who were the problem,and it was,but then it also became the administration who was the problem. My assistant principal was constantly picking on me about my lessons and behavior management, instead of giving suggestions. She would constantly ask me if I was in the right profession. I wanted to say, "This is my first year and I'm inexperienced. I don't know what I want to do for the next thirty years, but right now you are not helping me feel like I made the right career choice!" The more she asked, the more I doubted myself. It was like a self-fulfilling prophecy. Whenever I would voice my concerns to her, she would twist my words and make it seem like it was all my problem. She would make recommendations for me that she knew were hard for a first year teacher to do. She would change the subject whenever the topic of behavior came up. One time she said, "would you like me to make them act like robots?" I wanted to say, "No, but you can do something about the kid who throws a chair everyday. You ever heard of a little thing called a consequence? Because GOD knows me calling home isn't doing anything!"

With all that said, I really hesitated going back into teaching after that nightmare. I was warned about the hardships in college, but I never thought it would be this difficult. In order to keep my NY certification, I need to complete a master's degree within five years, which is what I am doing now, but I honestly sometimes ask myself if it's all worth it. Is this really what I want to do. I think I saw the real ugly side of teaching, and it's made me jaded. I feel teachers should be given at least five years to become acclimated and then go for a master's. They need to get their feet more than wet. I recently read that 1 in 3 teachers leave the profession within their first 2-3 years!

Cindi's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I guess I am the "real" veteran here! I have taught for twenty five years. My first year of teaching was unbelievable. I was lucky that I loved teaching and the teaching part came naturally to me. But Oh my goodness! Was it a mess! The principal never ever came by and observed. Nobody gave me any assistance. And the one time I was overheard saying that if the children (third graders) could not behave I would send them to the principal, I received a lecture from the principal that I was not to "USE HER" in that manner. SOmehow I made it through those first few years in a Catholic School. My fourth year was spent in Baltimore in a Catholic School. I had 35 students! Unbelievable.

But with time and lots of reading and personal development in many areas I was able to become what I could consider a veteran teacher who, though not perfect, is able to offer support to other younger and newer teachers.

I am fortunate to be a part of a system that has a great teacher mentoring program in place. The union, together with administration and the local state university provide lots of assistance to new teachers. They are given a mentor teacher and they have specific staff development opportunities based on the needs they express. Teachers are paid a small stipend for working with the new teachers and can use the hours outside of school hours towards pay increases.

I feel sad when I see new teachers leave so soon after entering. But I certainly can understand it. The demands on teachers today is so much greater than when I started years ago. We are no longer educators as much as we are social workers, substitute parents, and test givers. It is discouraging.

I count my blessings each and every day that I can get up in the morning and go to a "job" I adore. Teaching ESL Kindergartners has been such a blessing. After teaching third and fourth grade for a long time I have welcomed the absence of the test mentality and cherished teaching these little ones so much. Though the pressure is on even in K, it is diffferent than what is being put upon upper grade teachers.

I have enjoyed the conversation and all of your comments. Happy teaching!

Stephanie Bowen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I know that the first few years are full of challenges. I feel it is important for teachers to remember these feelings and help those who come behind them with warm and welcoming attitudes. It is amazing how far a warm & friendly face can carry someone throughout a tough day. I will carry this thought and try to be more friendly to my co-workers tomorrow. Do unto others, right? Hurray for teachers!

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