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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

Cristy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently in my first year of teaching. I completed my undergraduate work in December of 2006, substitute taught for the rest of the school year, and then was hired in mid-August to teach 4th grade starting in September. I am also working on my masters degree.

There are days that I get so frustrated and upset that I seriously doubt my abilities. It is reassuring to read most of the postings here.

Much has been said about mentor teachers. I was assigned a mentor teacher when I was hired. She has been wonderful! I am also very lucky in that I know I can go to any of the other teachers with questions and they would be happy to help me out. Mind you, I work in a school where there is only one teacher per grade level, K-5, so access to another 4th grade teacher isn't "at my fingertips" so to say. My point being, support is vital to a new teacher's success.

Many of you who have posted here feel that it has gotten easier with the passing of time. I sure hope so!

Eric's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am so inspired by your story. First let me say that I thankful that they caught the cancer before it spread. I commend you on your courage and strength to not forget about your teaching responsibilities through this extremely difficult time. I do not know if I could have continued. I tought I had it difficult with some misbehaving 2nd and 3rd graders running around after I blew my whistle letting them know to get back to their lines. You are a real inspiration to never give up hope and to never forget about your responsibilites as a professional. Thank you for sharing your story.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

WOW!!!!!
What a story! I don't even have the words to express my thoughts or feelings about your story! You are an inspiration for all teachers. I think if others read your story, then they will have the desire to continue on. If you can teach and create new curriculum while at the same time battling Breast Cancer, then so can we! Thank you for sharing your story :) I am glad that you are a survivor!!!

Tabitha's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My first year of teaching had it ups and downs and even this year I am finding that it is still not perfect. The way I look at it is what job is perfect? What job does not cause you any stress? Well if someone knows, then please let me know :) But the simple fact of the matter is that I love what I do, I love teaching, and I continue to wake up everyday (or at least 99% of the time) with an excitement to go into work with a positive attitude and that desire to make a difference.
My first year of teaching I was asked to teach a 5/6 split. Not an easy task for a first year teacher (or at least I thought so) but it didn't matter to me because I had a job in my first choice district and I was at a great school with small class sizes. I had to learn how to multi-task in a way that I thought was not possible. This year I still have to multi-task but now it is at an all time new level. I now have to teach 2 reading grade levels and 2 entirely different math curriculums but I am managing. I have spent A LOT of time in the classroom before and after school and on the weekends BUT I still love what I do.
Yes, I hate the excess amount of meetings that we must attend the curriculum issues, political issues and so on, but overall I love my job. I hope that this is something that I will be doing for the rest of my career life.

Tabitha's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I grew up in Wyoming. I now live in Washington. I would love to move back and teach there but my fiance's job is here. I know that Wyoming just had a huge pay increase which it is about time. What grade do you teach? Good luck in your teaching career!!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yes, teaching is not as easy as one, two, three... you need patience, love, and of course ideas. I'm on my 5th year and still finding and learning the best way in teaching my biology class. Sometimes it's quite difficult to conduct an interesting lesson, and i have to figure out some ways to make it fun and enjoyable and we all know that not all topics can be makeover "fun &enjoyable", oh boy these are the challenge!! But now, after three years of teaching i've got these ideas popped up in my head minutes before i begin my lesson (this is crazy right??, but it does happen!!) and its all due to the process of teaching itself and this helps me to get attention from Anyway.. from my experience taching is a process and from the struggles will come bright ideas. Hope this can strengthen those who believes that teaching is possible.

Sharon P.'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I know first hand how hard the first year of teaching is. Mine was a nightmare!!! I came into teaching as a second career. I teach in the inner city and I did not know what I was getting myself into. The behavior problems, the fights, and the fact that most of my students were not on grade level. I used to go home crying every day. Eight years later and still in the same school, I feel that I have learned a lot from myself and the students on how to be an educator. I still have my bad days, but I love my students and there is no other profession that I can see myself in.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am also a first year teacher. I finished my degree in December 2006 and taught a newly started Pre-k class for the remainder of the year. I am now teaching third grade and hate every minute of it. I have put in to be transfered to the primary school in hopes of a better position. I was assiagned a mentor teacher who works two doors down the hall from me everyday, yet hardly even says hi. She has yet to help me with anything for my lessons or classroom. The discouragin part is the principal is aware and as far as I know the mentor teacher is still getting her extra $1ooo.oo for mentoring. I'd like to know who she is helping cause it is not me. Thank God I found a friend that has stepped up to the plate and helped, other than that I'd be quiting already.

Robin Doty's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am sorry your first year has been so rough. I can relate, when I had my first year of teaching, it was hard. My mentor was in 5th grade and I was in 1st grade. She did not seem to understand what I was needing. She did not have the ideas that I needed to reach 6 and 7 year olds. On top of that, she was out for 12 weeks with a complicated pregnancy and I was left with no one during that time. When I did not have things that I needed for paperwork, I was discouraged that the Principal would get upset with me and I was all about making a good impression my first year! Even though I am in my 6th year, I am only in my 2nd year at this school. I still feel very new and still feel like I rely on someone, but to be honest with you, it made me stronger and a lot more independant. I hope this brings some ease to your mind that it will get easier and it does make you a stronger person. Best of luck to you!
Robin

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

After reading about your experience I was saddened that the education system has lost one more teacher. I am currently enrolled in a graduate class where I have had the opportunity to examine why I stay in education. This is my tenth year and I have to say that there have been ups and downs, but I love it!! I stay because I have hope that I will have an impact on a student's life. I stay because I look forward to what I will learn from my students each day. I stay because my students are our future.
I don't feel things have changed within my teaching career. There will always be the outside pressures that will affect my classroom I guess I try to work with it or around it:).

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