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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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Melanie Ferris's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Ok so you didn't stick with your initial instinct of teaching. So do you regret giving it up? Do you still work with children? I think you made the right decision. You are responsible for your own happiness. No one can change it except for yourself. So, if that was not where your heart was then it was better for you and the students. But, I have been trying to get a teaching job for about oh lets say TEN LONG YEARS! I would "die" for one. My area is so political. If you don't know anyone or can't "pay the price" then sorry, no job.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

That is really sad. I think our current public education system is done. It has now become irrelevant to true success. We all saw it coming. It's time to admit it, and create something new. I would not wish public school on any children I know, or my own who are thankfully grown now.

This is not a problem with actual teachers, don't get me wrong. But, who in their right mind, would go into teaching anymore? Have any presidents or national education directors BEEN in classrooms (and not just to read a book and make an appearance) lately? Nope.

It's a hopeless system that has somehow outlived its usefulness. Last year, Western Union FINALLY realized the telegram was dead, it's time we did the same with public education, and created something new and useful.

Shannon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a second-year teacher and have also considered leaving the teaching profession more than once. The very idea brings tears to my eyes, if only for the fact that I love my students dearly and want to be with them, to teach them, to have an impact on their lives in any way that I can. What frustrates me more than anything, though, is the administration. I feel so often that I am fighting my principal and vice principal instead of working with them toward the common goal of the ultimate wellbeing of our students. Does anyone else ever feel as though administrators are only worried about looking good to the state board of education instead of what is best for the children?

Shannon
Viva La Musica!

KellyAnn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I share in your thoughts and feelings. My first year was a mess also. Different from yours though, because I was a young female teacher in an all boys school. Man! Was it difficult to get their respect, but I did.

Mark Nichol's picture
Mark Nichol
Editor / Writer

Melanie:

I had much more success later teaching editing in continuing-education courses, so my instinct was correct, though I am happy in my current profession (and happy to be applying my skills to the work of such a worthwhile organization). I initially chose elementary school because I like children, and I didn't want to specialize, but I realized later that I would have been more successful teaching older children -- perhaps teenagers (though a subsequent attempt at an alternative high school did not succeed, either). A respondent to my first entry mentioned how much happier she was after she had transferred from a kindergarten classroom to an upper-elementary grade; I think that finding the ideal age group to work with is essential.

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?

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