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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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Paul M,'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dear Mark,
I wish to let you know that the kids have not changed since you left the noble profession. The ones you left progressed and more kids came to schools with even higher expectations. The teacher's life is as demanding as your days - if not more. Parents' expectations are on the rise as the teachers expectations nose-dive! It is an inverse proportion issue with more demands for teachers from communities and less support mechanisms for teachers. Anybody out there to comment on this?
Paul M.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I suddenly do NOT feel alone! Although I think I knew I wasn't all along. I am in my second year teaching and have been very lucky to work in a school where support and encouragement for new teachers is greatly pushed-and not just the first year. I had a mentor last year, my first, and have continued in a less formal way this year to have the same mentor. She is very supportive and I feel comfortable going to her with everything. However, it's not just her. All of our teachers are willing to listen and help. I know that any of the veteran teachers in our school, but my grade level especially, as well as the administration, will be more than happy to help.

As for my own confidence, I have to honestly say that after my very first day teaching, I sat and cried for an hour after it was over! But I listened to the veteran teachers and didn't give up. Plus I was a little motivated by the amount of money I accrued in student loans to at least try more than one year. In my second year, I am more confident and more comfortable with what I am doing. I know that it will take more time to reach the point in my career when everything I do in or for my classroom is second nature. I just have to be patient.

I generally feel as though I am not accomplishing anything and that my students are not learning anything. Then I look at what they knew at the beginning of the year versus their end of the year assessments and I realize that all my efforts are not wasted. And it doesn't hurt when you hear five year olds get excited when they know they've learned something and shine a huge smile at you! I might try other grade levels, or areas, but I don't think I'll be leaving the classroom any time soon!

Krystal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my second year teaching and I can understand where you are coming from. The responsibilities that are put on a teacher are tremendous. We have to be a teacher, a role model, a friend, and sometimes even act as a parent to our students. When I went into my first year of teaching I was scared at all the challenges I had to face. I did not know how to gain control of an unruly class. I was pressed for time to teach all the standards in depth. The stress of being a teacher seems to be building every year. We are teaching standards that some students are not developmentally ready to learn. Parent involvement seems to be non-existent with the group of students I have this year. It can all be overwhelming, but I try to remember why I went into teaching in the first place. I wanted to make an impact of the lives of children and I know that teaching will lead me to that goal. Even in my two short years of teaching, I can see that I am making an impact of some of my students' lives.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As an experienced educator it is sad to hear that a beginning teacher was given no support by her fellow colleagues. Teaching is a tuff job and novice teachers need as much support and mentoring as possible. I hope your friend will give teaching another shot in a more supportive district.

Stephanie Bowen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yes, my friend will teach again. Teachers are not provided with the information how to do the other aspects of the job. My first year I was asked to create course outlines for all enlgish and history classes with pretty much no help. We were trying to get UC approval for our courses. The point, is I feel that part of the reason teahers leave the profession is that the repsonsibilities other than teaching can prove too much.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a second year teacher and I definitly understand your frustations. There have been times when I feel like I cannot do this! However, all it takes is a smile or a hug from one of my students and I remember why I am there, to make a difference in their lives. As a second year teacher I do feel that I have some support. Our state has mandated that all new teachers have a mentor for the first and second year teaching. I also have a wonderful staff that is always there for me. I hope you are still finding a way to make a difference!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I must say that being a teacher is the hardest job ever. I have been teaching for the past six years and it seems that things are not getting easier. Between new policies, procedures and classroom management my job is never done. I am thinking about changing career. I don't know what I would do but anything but the classroom. I know some say I should stick it out but the administration is worse than the kids. I am getting sick of being sick and tired.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I know it's hard being in the teaching profession. I go through alot everyday but the bottom line is the children need us. They are the reason we are there. I have thought about giving up many times but when I look into their young eyes I know that I am making a difference in this child's life. So I stay and tolerate the nonsense. So I say again "KEEP ON PUSHING"

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a first year teacher and I am already looking forward to a nice, fresh start with my second year! This year has been a nightmare. I have a mentor who doesn't even like me. There is so much competitiveness on our grade level between the new and veteran teachers. I am still trying to figure out why because I have no clue what I am doing! There is nothing to be jealous of. I struggle each day just trying to jeep my head above the water. Our district's teacher induction program is literacy based, and I feel like it is more of a headache than a help for me. It just adds to my workload. After reading about your experiences, I am not so sure that my second year will be any better!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel terrible for your friend. She did her best to make the most of a difficult situation. It is unfortunate that the parents (& staff?) were more concerned with her lack of classroom decorations than how things were going in the classroom. It's a matter of common courtesy to see how the new person is doing. I hope she is doing better where she is now. :)

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