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Fresh Start: A Novice Teacher Tries Again After a Tough First Year

Mark Nichol

Editor / Writer
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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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B. A.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

How unfortunate to hear of someone wanting so desperately to succeed, fail due to a lack of support. I have taught for fourteen years now as a specialist, and have started over in two districts and five buildings within that time. Prior to that, I spent my semester of student teaching under the mentorship of a cocaine addict, who spent most of his time sleeping in the training room while I struggled to keep my head. It took me several years to figure out what I was really supposed to be doing as a teacher, and another couple to start getting it right. I had very little support during those years.

I am amazed and greatly dismayed at the demands placed on our newest teachers. It is shameful the lack of quality support they get. Of course, they are pulled from their classes for "professional development," or training related to new curriculum. Anyone who ever took a sick day however, knows it is twice the work to prepare for a substitute and then return to pick up the pieces. It is counterproductive to take the new teacher away from the classroom, as it places even greater demands on their workload and time.

A quality mentoring program could make all the difference between teachers like Mark Nichol leaving the profession, or staying. Mentoring programs are a cheap, yet effective way to help new teachers. However, the programs need to be thoughtful in their design, be easy to follow and not too time-consuming, provide strategies for goal-setting and set timeframes for meeting the goals, and have built-in accountability for both the mentor and mentored.

New teachers cannot recognize the things they do not know (which is why Mark should never have chaired a committee to develop a new teacher support program), and a mentor cannot mind-read, and automatically know what questions to ask of the new teacher, or what struggles they may be having. Too many mentors I have encountered rely on asking one question; "Is everything going okay?" The obvious response, for obvious reasons, is too often, "yes." One person does not want to put the other on the spot, and the other does not want to admit any weakness. Both require something to help guide them in their discussions; a checklist, a set of benchmarks or talk-points. Such a thing could act as a support for both parties, forcing one to ask the hard questions, and the other to prove their recognition of their strengths and weaknesses.

Now that politicians have recognized the evils of NCLB, and with so many touting quality teachers as the new answer, how about an initiative to leave no teachers behind? A quality, national teacher-mentoring program might be a good start.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Unfortunately I too have experienced a terrible year of teaching. I had four wonderful years of teaching in a rural school in Ohio. I had a co-teacher who was the most amazing person I have ever met. He was very supportive and encouraging. I then moved to Kentucky and had the worst experience ever. I had to deal with a principal who would question my ability in front of parents. I dreaded going to IEP meeting because I never felt like she trusted me or my ability. It was that year that I decided not to go back to teaching. I sat out for almost 5 years. I ended up working in the office of a pharmacy after we moved to a small town in northeastern Kentucky. Every day I missed teaching. I missed the students and celebrating their successes. I then got back into the classroom by substituting. I am now an insturctional assistant and love being back in the classroom everyday. I am working on my Masters in Education in hopes of catching up on what I missed out on while I was out of the classroom.

My suggestion to you, after leaving the teaching profession myself, is to find a new school system with different administration. I know it is frustrating to have poor administration. I also know that you probably have heard over and over to hang in there. I hate to hear that administration is pushing out a good teacher. Please reconsider your decision.

Good luck and I really hope things get better for you.

Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree whole heartedly that we need good teacher mentoring programs in every school district. My school had a mentor that was a stipend position (put into place after I was hired). It was a beneficial program. The teacher who had the position did a great job and I think the new teachers were grateful to have her. Unfortunately, new administration decided to take the position away and give it to someone who feels there is only one way to do things, hers. I don't believe the new teachers are getting as much from this program as they did before, and I don't think many new teachers are going to her for suggestions or advice.

Lisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is sad that after 3 years someone who was probably a good quality teacher would feel it necessary to resign, and then feel good about making that decision. That is often a problem in education today. However, I commend you on your ablility to realize this was not the profession for you, and to walk away from it before it was too late. Teaching is not for everyone. It's not the army, but teaching, that is "the toughest job you'll ever love". There are many teachers in every school district in the country who should have decided that teaching was not for them, and walked away. But they didn't. So many years later, they're still teaching, and hating it. Because they hate it, they're doing it badly, and doing a disservice to our children. But of course, someone newer and better may be willing to come in and take their place, but may end up leaving after a couple of years because it's just too hard. This country needs to find ways to take the politics out of education so that good teachers can teach. After all, it's supposed to be all about the students, right?

Cassiday's picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Thank you for the encouragement. I am from Walden as well and thought that this would be a wonderful blog to get involved in. This is currently my third year teaching and frankly, I am tired. I never had a "mentor teacher" because I did my student teaching, practicum, etc. at the school that I am currently at. They didn't feel like I necessarily needed one. They discussed it but nothing fell through. It is a difficult situation because I do know a lot of the teachers really well at my school. is not as easy for me to say "I'm feeling tired." It would have been really nice to have a mentor who was not just there academically but emotionally. Beginner teachers need to be supported on much more than the surface. I do not know how this will ever happen because all districts know that many teachers quit within the first five years of teaching but what are they doing about it?

Now, in my third year of teaching I have to get my masters to keep my license. Yes I most definitely want to continue my education and learn more about reading and literacy but because of the lack of support it is really hard! Luckily I have support at home but it would be nice to have the schools support as well. I have to agree that the article that is required about burn out is very helpful.

I came to another article that we were to read and was discouraged rather than encouraged as a novice teacher. It reads:

"Staff developers know the full journey from novice to expert teacher is not one that all teachers make. David Berliner speculates that the novice stage might last for the first year of teaching and that most teachers would reach the third stage (competence) within three or four years. Only a modest proportion of teachers move to the next stage of proficiency, and even fewer to the expert stage (Berliner, 1988)."

(Becoming Expert Teachers (part one), 1998,p1)

If this is the truth, how are we as novice teachers supposed to be encouraged to progress in our education. If most teachers do not move to the stage of proficiency how are we supposed to feel proficient in what we are doing? I sure would hope that if I have taught for 20 years or more that I would have become an expert teacher. I think with support from mentors and other 'expert' teachers we would be encouraged to grow as an educator and not remain stagnant. What do you think?


Garmston, R. J. (1998). Becoming expert teachers (Part one). Journal of Staff Development, 19(1). Copyright 1998 by National Staff Development Council. Reproduced with permission of National Staff Development Council in the format electronic usage via Copyright Clearance Center.

Denika's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mark, I was in your shoes. When I started my first job, I took over mid-year 2nd grade. The parents were irritated that their children had been through 3 subs and now a new teacher. I did not have a mentor. I was hired and I spent every evening from January to May crying my way through this job. The other teachers in my grade level were also new but leaned on each other and had connecting classrooms. I was out in left field, and I really just needed a mentor. I did not return to full time teaching the following school year. I was overwhelmed and sick of school. I took the long-term sub assignments for the same school in 2nd and 3rd grades. I did a better job in some cases than the regular classroom teacher. I was glad that I stepped back and used this time to reevaluate and self-reflect on whether this was what I really wanted. The next school year I took a full time 3rd grade teaching position and was so eager to begin. I worked closely with another 3rd grade teacher who was also my mentor. She was awesome! I had a wonderful year and would have remained, but my husband was transferred and we had to move. Now, I'm looking to try again. I am thankful to have had that mentor relationship. It helped me to validate my teaching abilities. Mentors are a must in the education world! Since I had such a horrible experience my first year, I know I will be a great mentor for other teachers. I know exactly what new teachers need - someone to guide them and encourage them. That's what you needed too. If you still have a yearning for the field of teaching, I would highly recommend that you substitute teach. It is a great way to build your classroom management skills. That's the greatest challenge with subbing, and I think it makes you a better teacher. If you have classroom management skills down, that's half your battles won!

Cassiday's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I think about my post I am discouraged. It is easy for me to get wrapped up in a discussion that I am passionate about. I am currently trying to change this attitude.

Instead of looking back on what I wish would have happened my first few years of teaching I am lead to think about how I can keep moving forward in a positive way. In reading these posts I think about how discouraging it can be what we as novice teachers need to look at the future and what we can do to be encouraged. In my masters class we are reading a book called What Keeps Teachers Going by Sonia Nieto. It has been encouraging to me during an exhausting time. "Experience alone, as John Dewey reminds us, is hollow without reflection" (Nieto, 2003). I have found it very therapeutic to truly reflect not on what I could and could not do better in the classroom but what I could do different to support myself. I reflect on my first few years of teaching and see how I created many of my stresses. Sure extra help would have been nice but I also need to take responsibility for what I needed to do. This is just one small thing that the book discusses. There are many autobiographies's that explain wonderful teachers and what keeps them going. It is a good read and I highly recommend it.

Karen Dunn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I want to make a comment about mentors. When I started teaching no one had any help. You were shown the classroom door, and you were on your own. Today mentoring is quite popular. I am a mentor for new teachers and for recertification in my school. I had no idea what a mentor was until about 10 years ago. What a boon for a new teaher. My advice is for all new teachers to find help, if one is not automatically provided. It can make the difference in whether or not a person stays in teaching or gives up and finds a new professon.

Caroline's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I understand how frustrating it can be when there is a lack of support from your school district. You did face many challenges during your first few years of teaching and I really hate that you let it defeat you. Just reading your story makes me wonder if just changing schools would have been more beneficial for you than totally giving up.

There are many teachers who need to let teaching go because it's just a paycheck for them and they aren't concerned about the students. I feel that you were really concerned about the welfare of your students.

If you still have that desire to teach, I suggest you try it again. There are many new teacher programs available and it just might work for you.
Keep the faith.

Sandy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agee that the first years are extremely difficult and even impossible without support and encouragement.

I, also, am a graduate student at Walden and am "new" to communicating through a "blog".

It is so important to have a mentor that can help and encourage you. It does not, however, have to be someone at your particular school.

You can be weighed down by the challenges and the negativity or you can be challenged to rise above it. Believe me, I know it is difficult. I had a mentor that was worthless.

I would encourage everyone to visit for ideas. Also, your state education site should have ideas and even newsletters for novice teachers.

I choose not to settle with being a teacher that does not make it to the "expert" stage on the continuum.

I believe teaching requires much more of us than we imagined which is one of the reasons we need to collaborate with our colleagues.

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