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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

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently a student in the MSED program at Walden University. This past week we have been discussing what the definitions of a novice and expert teacher are. I am wondering what those participating in this blog believe the defintion of each is and what it takes to move from being a novice to an expert. Thanks in advance for your feedback.

C. Clark's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my 7th year teaching, but it feels like my first. For six years, I taught 4th grade. Although the first few years were difficult, I started feeling more confident in my abilities and the job became easier. I enjoyed working with the kids, but I became tired of the pressures of testing.

I switched positions and schools this year. Now I am an ESOL teacher. I was hoping to get a lot of support, but this is not the case. I spent the first several weeks totally stressed and thinking about quiting. I am responsible for teaching grades K-5 and developing my schedule and of course a large amount of paperwork. We have over 11,000 ESOL students in our county and many new teachers. The county only has 2 mentor teachers. Because I am the only ESOL teacher in the school, I didn't know where to turn for advice. I tried to contact the mentor teachers, finally almost a month after school started I met with one. Long story short, I have been teaching myself and learning through experience so far. I am not sure I will continue with this job next year, my thoughts change everyday.

I think it is sad that many novice teachers do not have support. We are surely losing good teachers, novice teachers that with better support could become experienced "expert" teachers.

MGB's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can totally relate to your first years as a teacher. After 3.5 years I also left teaching. I left for some of the same reasons you left, but there were also several others. The morale in the school was almost non-exsistant. The year I left, 17 other teachers also left. Most of them for other teaching positions. I, however, left teaching altogether. I vowed I was never coming back. Two years later I found myself back in the classroom. I knew teaching was not just what I did best, but what fulfilled me. I returned as a long term sub and was placed at a bilingual school, for what was suppose to be 4 weeks. I was asked to stay on for the remainder of the year and before the year ended the principal asked me to fill the vacant Literacy Coach position.Compared to my experience coming right out of college and into the classroom, this transition was incredibly smoother. I was working in the same district, but this new school was an environment that I had never worked in. The students were incredibly respectful, the teachers amazingly supportive, and the administrators were hands on and eager to assist their staff.If this had been my first experience, I never would have left. I am still at this school 5 years later. I have never worked anywhere for 5 years, and I can't imagine ever leaving. I would never change the path I took to get where I am today, I am extremely lucky to have landed on the doorstep of this fine school. I am thankful everyday for the wonderful students and staff I have the honor of working with. Three strikes and you're out is just one at bat. You never know when you'll hit a homerun. You just have to keep trying.

MGB's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can relate to many of the things that you said regarding why you continue teaching. I am in my eighth year of teaching, but I did leave for two years. Since I have returned to teaching I find that I am a mcuh happier person. I am happier because I have a sense of purpose, a drive to make a difference, a commitment to ensure that the teachers and students that I work with be better because of my efforts. This is not to say that I am full of myself and I believe that I am "all that." But rather, that I hold myself to a very high standard, one which I also have for those I work with. Over the years I have seen a change in education. I see a push towards Professional Learning Communities, standards based teaching, and a new emphasis on differentiated instruction. I see shrinking budgets, higher expectations for teachers, and an overabundance of acrynymns. I see children who need their teachers more than ever before. Which inspires me to care more and be more for them. Public education is always in the news and rarely presented in a positive light. The success stories are seldom told with the same intensity as those that make us cringe. I keep showing up despite the bad press because people do notice what happens at our school. We have made the front page of the paper. Our hard work is being recognized, which only drives me to work harder.

MGB's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hang in there! The first two years are the hardest. It is great that you have found a support person because that really does make all the difference. Remember not all teachers are like Ms. Take the Money and Run. There are mentors out there that do sincerely care and actually "mentor" new teachers. There are also administrators who back their teachers and provide them with the assistance they need to be successful. Don't give up. I have spent the last year and a half trying to convince one of the best teachers in our school not to leave education. Just a month ago she came to me and told me that she had thought long and hard and has decided to take my advice. She is going to stay in education, maybe not at our current school, but she isn't going to abandon it all together. I was very happy to hear that because it would have been a huge loss. She is staying for all the right reasons, mainly because of the kids.I am sure your reasons for becoming a teacher are profound. Don't forget them.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am in my 5th year of teaching and still enjoying what I do. My first year of teaching was challenging. I had about 5 boys who liked to goof around and cause chaos in the classroom. Being a new teacher I didn't know all the ins and outs of classroom management and how to control them. My 2nd year was much better! I then moved out of state and taught 4th grade and hated my year. It was the most difficult year I've ever had teaching. So it's hard to say that each year gets better because as I have found each year is different. A lot depends on the class you have and the classroom management you hold. I continue to teach and love it most of the time. Although there are days when I get frustrated. Good luck to all of us!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You are totally correct. You just have to keep trying. I had a similar experience to yours. I too left teaching after having a series of unfortunate events but because of medical reasons. I had been teaching for 5.5 years and moved to a new school district. There were a number of challenges from not having a computer (which was needed to write and submit lesson plans) to not enough textbooks in two subject areas. That was just the beginning. Mentors were available but only to first year teachers. The experience was totally stressful in addition to the medical issues. In spite of all that, I still loved "teaching". The paperwork and excessive meetings-major detractors but I chose to focus on the students and meeting their needs. My adventure did result in my leaving but I plan to return. In the meantime, I am a parent volunteer at my chilren's school. Like you, teaching was not just a job. For me, it is a calling. I feel compelled to help students even though I'm not in the classroom. I also agree with you that one should not give up. You never know when you will hit a homerun. Sometimes it takes two years or three. After my first year of teaching, I wanted to leave teaching altogether too. Again, there were administrative problems and I had a mentor who did not do her job. My first year experience was truly on the job training. Even so, that year made me a better teacher the next year and taught me lessons I will take with me throughout my teaching career.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently enrolled in a Masters Program. We are currently discussing the topic of what makes a novice and expert or veteran teacher. I think that no matter how long someone teaches we all have things to learn. I have been teaching for over twenty years and I can relate to most of the challenges I am reading about on this blog. I was a mentor for one of our new teachers a few years ago. I learned just as much from her as she did from me. Learning is life long. I think if we keep that in the forefront of our mind, we can even learn from our students.
I can certainly relate to the frustratioins of teaching. I have been teaching for over 20 years and it has change over the course of time. Discipline and lack of respect toward authority are some areas I have noticed a decline. I keep teaching hoping I make a difference to students.

Susan L's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

How do you survive this career? I am 54, recently divorced, and received a post-professional graduate license in 2006 to teach social studies only to find out there are very few jobs available in this endorsement.

I was offered a long term substitute position with the promise of having a contract if the teacher I was replacing did not return. By the time I had walked into this rural middle school classroom the discipline was beyond belief. I could get four of the six classes under control but not two others.

Three different substitute teachers before me had left a pile of referrals on the desk for the same student which I gave to the principal who, in turn, dumped them in the waste paper basket. Wouldn't you know, the same student had me fired within three days for claiming I had called the classroom, 'a bunch of dumb blacks.' What I had actually said was: "Don't act as if you are all as dumb as a bunch of rocks." It never occurred to me that administration would side with the student, who was then allowed to call his parent that same day from the school. His father came and immediately demanded I be fired.

I am so traumatized by this event that I finally had to seek out out counseling. Thank god I have relatives that could take me in since I was not making enough to pay the mortgage on my house which I lost.

In any case, I love students and socials studies and could not wait to spread my knowledge in creative ways. You think at my age I should have known better. Now I am barely audible at job interviews.

For those of you who stuck it out, I don't know how you do it but honestly, you have my admiration for going in there and facing those uphill battles everyday.

Susan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I hope this story doesn't discourage young teachers. There are many days when I come home feeling like I am ready to quit. Then, I get a good night's sleep and start again. I realize the challenges teachers have are sometimes enough to make you want to throw in the towel. But, if something doesn't work, that is where our education comes into play...try something else! Each year I get new students as well as some from the previous year (I teach preschool). There are some students that were stinkers last year who have matured and are model students this year. Not every year will be the same.

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