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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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Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my first time participating in a blog and this seemed like a good place to start. I am still trying to get a job in teaching - elementary is my specialty. It has been difficult to get in to the schools in the area I live, which has been quite discouraging. I started thinking that I didn't want to be a teacher any more, and I think those thoughts were mainly influenced by my lack of finding a permanent job. I have been subbing in numerous districts as well, but it's just not the same. I strayed away from teaching for almost a year now, and am recently getting back into it, which is good. Thinking back on the experience I have had, I know it's what I want to do.
I agree though, it is hard to be motivated and survive as a new teacher - but we have such an important job to do!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can completely understand your feelings! I was hired as a social studies teacher in a school that was beyond help. A week before school started I was informed that I would be teaching math instead of social studies. Math was the one subject I swore I would never teach, but as a first year teacher I was enthusiastic. That year was like a crazy roller coaster. I would not have survived the ride had it not been for my roomate who was a math teacher at the same school. Due to her having several years of experience she was able to help me. At the end of that year, I was one of only two new teachers (the school had hired about 12 new teachers that year) who was willing to stay. Thankfully, I am no longer a novice teacher, and I am well on my way to becoming an expert (although I am sure this process will take several more years). In my four short years of teaching I have watched many good teachers give up what could be a rewarding career because they did not have the proper assistance at the beginning of the year. How many more educators must we lose before someone opens thier eyes?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

With the need of teachers available for the posted jobs, anyone who takes a year of subbing to find a job should take the hint.

Mark, they didn't hire you because they knew you would not be good. Teachers need a strong foundation as individuals and most seasoned teachers can sense that (or the lack there of) in others.

Differentiation and rolling with the punches of teaching is a critical survival skill.

Teaching is taken for granted, because bad teachers make it look like their fault (organizational problems, managing classroom behaviors) while good teachers make it look easy.

But it's not easy, not at all. When choosing managers, most private sector companies take only time-tested employees with proven track records of good interpersonal skills.
This is especially true when choosing managers of 30 people involved in intellectual pursuits.

The dearth of what people call "qualified" teachers (teachers with the natural ability to interrelate individually with 30 children and bring them along academically) is due to the fact that the core element of teaching is not a skill which can be taught. You either got it or you don't.

Yes, I agree with you, there needs to be a better organization for retaining teachers. "Qualified" teachers are like talent in a news organization or the entertainment industry and should be compensated accordingly. Unfortunately for teaching (just as in those other two professions) people are promoted for their innate talent and usually are atrocious managers.

Mark, you got a double whammy. You didn't make it because you weren't right for the job, and the system didn't support you. Of course in your case, I'm guessing from reading your post, no amount of support would have helped.

Kristen S.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Like many of you, I finished my first year with a smile on my face at the fact that it was finally over! I am the kind of person that likes to feel in control over situations. The last thing a first year teacher has is control over situations! I felt as thought I was just keeping my head above water, learning what worked and what didn't, and planning for how I would change myself and my classroom for the next year. Where I differ is the fact that I had an incredible amount of support as a first year teacher! The two weeks before pre-planning were dedicated to system wide new teacher training. I was assigned a mentor in my grade level and was taken under the wing of a few other incredible teachers that were willing to help me along the way. Our school also planned new teacher days once every two months. The school would provide a substitute and the new teachers would meet with our Instructional Lead Teacher to discuss specific subjects and classroom managment. We were allowed to observe other teachers around our school and were welcomed into a family of truly talented educators. I can only imagine how much more difficult my first year would have been if I had not had such a system of support surrounding me everyday.

Melanie Ferris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It sounds as though you are content and happy in life. that is really what is most important. When you are happy you are able to perform your best. I hope that one day I too will find my place. I am currently waiting for the teaching position I have always wanted. I started to substitute, but couldn't afford it. I am an autism therapist in a different classrooms. Although it isn't my dream job...I am trying to stick with it until I get a teaching position.

Melanie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I completely understand your feelings. I am totally with you. My area is so political. It is ridiculous how people get their jobs. It isn't how qualified you are, it's who you know and how much you will pay. I began looking for jobs in different fields as well. It didn't seem to interest me and I felt guilty, like I was giving up. I still haven't gotten a job. I don't know if I will ever get a teaching position because teachers that have been substituting for years ( and are good educators) still have not gotten a job. But, I am pursuing my teaching career. I have been out of school for ten years and out of high school for 15, so for me I really want to start teaching. But, for some reason, I still feel like it is possible to get a job. I am going to college and hoping this will increase my chances. I am just hoping this isn't a mistake and I will just owe more money and not have a job~!!! I think that by specializing in a certain discipline maybe I will have a better chance. Who knows what the future holds. All we can do is hope for the best!! So, never give up on your dreams.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Why don't you move to an area that is less politcal. I live in Wyoming and we are screaming for good teachers. In the next 3-5 years, many teachers will retire. There is no way that in-state graduates can fill all these openings. You might want to check into it.

Pam's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I give you credit for realizing this was not for you. I think there are way too many teachers who should not be teaching still in the schools! I hope you still find a way to make a difference in the lives of children.

Nathan P. Butler's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I suppose I was one of the lucky ones in this regard. Our school made certain to support new teachers, following the example of Wong and Wong (1998). We had an induction program that lasted about a week, followed by a year with a mentor (when necessary). We were also expected to read through the Wongs' book, The First Days of School.

It isn't the most supportive environment on a daily basis, but they at least tried to get us off to a good start.

Wong, H. & Wong, R. (1998). How to be an effective teacher: The first days of school (2nd ed.). Mountain View, CA: Harry K. Wong Publications

Stephanie Bowen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I wanted to comment first on being a new teacher. Recently, my best friend was hired for her very first teaching job. I will not mention which school or which district, I will only say it is in Southern California. She was hired after school had started and had about 4 days to change a classroom from a storage area to a working learning environment. After 11 to 12 hour days, her class was set up. Once she recieved her students, she also received parents who could not believe her room was not decorated! She received NO help from her team. She only received snotty responses when asking for help from both her BTSA support person and from those who were supposedly on her "team". Where is the help for first year teachers? Why are some veteran teachers so unwelcoming to new staff members and when did parents think that they know how to run a school better than a professional teacher?
My friend was released from her contract and told she did not fit in. Despite the fact that she pulled together a working classroom with no support from her team, and constantly being criticized for lack of decorations in her classroom, she was let go. How can people expect to keep quality teachers with work environments that resemble battle fields where we must be on the defense all the time?

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