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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.

Comments (175)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Lily Lanthier's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I hope to offer some encuragement for your efforts as an ESOL teacher at your school. I am an ESOL Program specialist at our district, and my job is to support our teachers with encouragement, strategies, testing, etc. I really came by this position by virtue of classroom experience and the fact that I speak other languages.I have much to learn.

Over the last year in my position, I have come across many useful training and products that our teachers cling to for practical classroom support. One of these is the A+Rise program of support for teachers. Really it is simply a flip chart of skills to be taught, (for example English vocabulary), suggested activities, and suggestions for differentiated assessments for ESOL students. When teachers are at a loss for strategies that really work, they flip their chart for new ones.

If you ever feel the need to just chat about your situation, I would love to "listen." I am very new to blogging, but look forward to chatting further. Lily Lanthier

Caycee H.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am also a student going through Walden University. We have discussed what we think novice and expert teachers are as well as where we feel we are at on the spectrum. I believe that I am still a novice teacher and have many things left to learn. I can understand the writer of this blog and how it is not usually the children that you are teaching that can sometimes make you wonder if you have choosed the right profession. I love teaching children but sometimes I think that the school system and the state are not always wanting the "best" for the students. I feel that sometimes it only comes down to money. I want every student in my classroom to learn and understand what I am teaching. I know to run a school and a system, you have to have money but money is not everything. I wish that sometimes the focus really could be more on the students rather than on the amount of money they could bring in. As the author said, I wish that some of the good teachers that leave our profession could be caught from "falling through the cracks."

Dolores Gutierrez-El Paso, Texas's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Mellanie Ferris, I agree with you, you have to go with what makes you happy and not what others tell you what would be right for you. If you walk into a classroom and the kids are not happy then you have got some serious soul searching to do. I read where you have been waiting for ten long years to get a teaching job. That just about killed me, I feel for you, there are teachers who have a teaching job and they don't have what it takes, patience, love of children, hours and lots of them to be a teaching, maybe their in it for the vacation time, the money? If you are then you need to get out of this profession and find something that will fulfill what you're looking for. When I am out on summer vacation, spring break I am not on vacation because I am always looking for new, fresh ideas for the next year. I like new shoes, and getting new ideas are new shoes for me and I am not in it for the money. So I wish you the best of luck in finding a teaching position. Come to New Mexico we need teachers!!

Dolores Gutierrez-El Paso, Texas's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with you when you say that the schools need a program for first time teachers, when I started I wished I had that help, resource let alone a mentor. I didn't have a mentor I needed to teach myself, it was tough but the two things I learned from that experience was that if you want something bad enough you will do it, and to document everything, believe me it comes in handy. It takes a little more time on your part but now a days you HAVE to back yourself up.

Dolores Gutierrez-El Paso, Texas's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Kesha I understand where you are coming from. My thought on your blog is that the administors have a lot to with tranquility in the school, for the sake of the students, and teachers. You're right when you say that when you don't have the support then it's hard to give your all.I teach in an elementary school we don't have to many fights and if we do thery are very petty. The worst thing that has happened that I am aware of is that a second grader took knife to school and anothe student reported it, this little boy tried to slip it into his teacher's pocket. Where are the type of educatioal environments gone to? I remember when I went to school I was afraid of the principal, teacher(s)and my parents. These days the kids have NO respect for anyone, or themselves. Please don't quit altogether, relocate schools, district. True when you say that no matter where you go the same problem is there, but we as teachers have another hat to wear ontop of theaching math,reading, and all that other stuff but now we have to be councelors too! We jsut have to make the best of a bad situation. "When life hands you lemons, make lemonade!" :) Things have a way of working out, stay tough!!!!!

Tonya R's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Not to long ago a fellow colleague of mine who is a novice teacher received her final evaluation. Unfortunately, her contract was not renewed and she has not been recommended to teach in the district. She is a caring and hard working teacher who needs support. She received support from teachers but administration was unsupportive. It appears she was expected to go in as an expert in her first year. I believe if the administration took some time and gave her guidance she would be a more productive teacher.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As another poster mentioned, I am also a graduate student at Walden University. We have spent the past week discussing the spectrum of the novice to expert teacher. We have read many articles and I myself have learned a huge amount. I have only been teaching for four years, but feel I have come so far from my first year experiences.

I had a similar experience in my first year of teaching. It was horrible in many ways. I taught at a grade level I had no previous experience in and felt very overwhelmed. At many times, I thought I was ready to quit and find something new to do, but I kept at it. I would wake up each day and start over. It was very hard. It was partially my fault; I had no classroom management skills to speak of. I was learning as I went. However, I also had very little support from administration and was given a classroom full of behavior problems sadly as many new teachers are. I did have a very supportive mentor teacher and attended an "Induction Teacher" class once a week for the first semester of school. This class was somewhat helpful, but really was just another time commitment when I seemed to have no time at all and was exhausted!

Luckily, I survived that year. I learned a tremendous amount. I also learned I definitely was not at the right place for me. I took a chance and moved to a different school and back to the grade level I loved. It was the best move I ever made. I have now been teaching for 4 years and the last three have had their difficulties but have been wonderful too!

I know that I am nowhere near an expert teacher but I do feel I am learning each year and gaining more knowledge daily. Tasks that used to take forever seem to go faster and easier. I do not have to spend as much time on classroom management and I am able to focus more on my students' learning. I do not have everything figured out by no means, but things are getting smoother as I gain experience and knowledge.

I also hope that this article will not discourage young and inexperienced teachers. If your first year is tough, keep trying. It may take you a few years to find the right grade level, subject, or area for you. Teaching is hard work, but for me it is all worth it. There is nothing else I would rather do.

Victor's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a fifth year teacher and still consider myself as a novice teacher with a little more experience. I think that school districts like mine do a good job with their mentoring program for those beginning, first year teachers. However, with this being my fifth year I am experiencing something that I have never felt. The overwhelming feeling, I know that a lot of what our staff is feeling is because for some reason our administration this year is not addressing the issues being caused by the students that need counseling, gang problems, and behavior issues. Teachers are feeling as if there is no support and therefore the teacher moral is down. I think that schools not only need to support new teachers in their first years but through out their career in order to keep and give novice teachers a chance to become more and more experienced and better professionals at what we do!

T. Busherd's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is currently my first year of teaching. I graduated from college last year, so when I say first year, I mean first year. I drive 75 miles round trip and 40 minutes one way to drive to my classroom. I teach 7th grade Language Arts in the mornings. Although the students are in seventh grade most of them are at a 3-5 grade level. I hear on a daily basis from other teachers at this school that they cannot believe the situation i have been put into. One of my clssrooms has students whose reading level is a 2-3 level. Many of these students are also on behavioral contracts. I have to sign 4 contract sheets a day, as to what the students' behavior was for the day.I do have a mentor teacher at this school who does help me along the way. However, there is not a new teacher handbook. Items that people assume I should know, I don't. I feel as though my college experience left me unpreparred for the real world. After I teach in the mornings, I complete my lunch and planning. I then leave this school and drive to the next one. In the afternoon I teach K-1 sciecne enrichment. When I first entered this setting there was not a curriculum. I had to design the curriculum for the science enrichment. Not only has this been very demanding on me, but I also have two children of my own. Needless to say, i can see why teachers burn out......

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree. An expert teacher cannot be defined by how many years they have been teaching. I have learned many new things from very new teachers. Teaching is a life-long process. The more knowledge and experience we get, the better our skills become. Some teachers have the experience but are not motivated to become experts in the classroom. As in all careers, you can become very successful or you can do the least bit of work possible.

I also feel that administration needs to provide positive feedback to new teachers and provide them with a support system. Teaching is a challenging profession but the first few years can be overwhelming for a new teacher. If criticism is not presented in a positive way to make improvements, a teacher can feel as though they have failed, leading to negative feelings towards the profession.

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