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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)

The other 8th grade math teacher at my school was my 8th grade math teacher. He was a great help to me during my first couple years. He would offer help whenever I wanted, and would stay out of my way if he felt I wanted that as well. I agree that a good mentor can make all the difference in the world, and I don't envy teachers that don't get a good one!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow, I can't believe how many of you feel the same way I do. I am in my fourth year of teaching and had it not been for a teacher I sought out for assistance and guidance, I might feel like I have taken on more than I can handle. Many of you have stated how little real support you receive from your school and district. What a shame that something so obvious to us is continued to be overlooked by those who can help make the difference. Is it money concerns or what?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

When I first began to teach, I too felt that I was just thrown into my job expected to sink! There was little assistance in helping me to learn the ropes of teaching. It was hard getting to a point where I actually felt like I knew what I was doing (about my 4th year of teaching). There should be more support with novice teachers, especially in the critical beginning stages.

Jen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am in my second year of teaching and I feel extremely blessed. I teach in the Midwest, and would never be reassigned to such a drastic grade level change. Do those of you who mentioned such drastic shifts not have specific certifications? We are required to be certified for either K-3, 4-9, or 9-12. That way, we can specialize in our content areas and never be thrown such a curve ball of moving from middle school to primary grades.

I work in a very high pressure district. Most families are wealthy at my school and have very high expectations. This was the only thing that drove me nuts my first year, and this year. We are so lucky to be assigned a mentor teacher our first year. This teacher is preferentially in our same grade level and school. I could run right across the hall to mine. I feel I wouldn't have survived without mine. I do understand that overwhelming feelings, and I feel very saddened that no one was there to help save some great teachers from leaving the field. My principal asks me daily, still, if I need ANYTHING. She raises money to get us resources, etc. I teach 5 subject areas, tutor 6 sessions a week, am in Grad School, and work on the weekends part time. Even through the madness of my schedule and mess of paperwork, I have never once wanted to leave this field. The kids make it worthwhile. I leave school with a smile on my face every day, although exhausted, and look forward to my many tomorrows.

Survivor's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yes, my first year was tough, too. Shortly after accepting my first year position teaching middle school, I was diagnosed with Breast Cancer.

My first work day was 3 days after my first surgery. I had my second surgery the Friday night of my first week with the students. I was back to school the following Monday. I was scared to tell anyone, since I was newly hired. I feared that if I showed any sign of weakness they would assume they needed to find a replacement.

Along with writing curriculum from scratch for 8 different classes (5 different classes but several had different levels combined within them), I also had to make tough decisions about how to best battle my cancer.

My first decision was to stay positive and be grateful for everything. After all, I was one of the lucky ones who had caught it before it had entered my lymph system. I was going to live! I practiced being grateful for every day of life, even with it's challenges. I was grateful that I was teaching subjects that I cared about.

I was at school every night until the janitor kicked me out at 10 PM. Yes, I was tired, but I also loved those quiet evenings when I created new curriculum to try out the next day. It sounds strange, but I was happy.

There were triumphs when it would work and agony when it would fail but I always picked myself back up, figured out what worked and what didn't and put the pieces back together and tried again.

I spent Winter break having and recovering from a mastectomy. I spent Spring Break having and recovering from the first part of reconstructive surgery. That summer break I spent having and recovering from the second part of reconstructive surgery. How I envied those teachers who got to visit with friends and relieve their stress with recreational activities.

I can't even begin to tell you how exhausted I was. They told me to expect at least 2 months of recovery after every surgery. My energy was so depleted that my Dr. wouldn't even allow me to walk to the other end of our small school.

At the end of the year I heard that there had been a Mentor assigned to me. That had consisted of him leading several meetings. It was a nice try by the district, but I also could have used much more support such as someone to ask questions of, someone to encourage me when things were hard. And, yes, they were hard. Very hard. My administration was very tough on me. Most of us new teachers felt like we were running the gauntlet.

I found a couple of teachers who I could confide in occasionally. We supported each other and I thank them from the bottom of my heart. I couldn't have made it without them.

What I really want to tell you, though, is that I triumphed over cancer, have recently achieved permanent status and I am NOT quitting. Why? Because teaching is my one true calling. I'm passionate about it. I'm also passionate about most of the subjects I teach. Yes, the system is grueling. And unfair. But I can't think of anything else I'd rather do.

I guess that's what it takes to survive as a teacher. Drive. Commitment. Love. Passion.

P.S. Schedule your annual mammogram - it could save your life.

Jennifer's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree with the importance of being told or shown that what you do is important! Now, to me, this does not mean that you get daily pats on the back-but more that you are told every so often that what you do is important. Isn't it funny how that comment comes when you absolutely need it too? I'm in my 4th year, and I have considered leaving at least every 2 months. But when I start to feel that way, someone will tell me I work well with my kids, or that the strategies I'm using are good, etc. You know, it really makes me rethink my negative thoughts! I truly have never imagined myself doing anything else, and I would not even know what to do if I weren't teaching. This career is the most fulfilling thing I will ever do-next to raising my own children!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In October of my first year as a teacher, I found out I was pregnant (surprise!) and due on the last day of school. On top of that, I had a parent who kept trying to make things more difficult for me because she didn't seem to like the fact that her son had a first year teacher. Thankfully, I have a wonderful team that was extremely supportive, both professionally and personally. There were times that I felt like giving up, partly due to hormones, but mainly because of the stress of the adjusting to the profession. I thankfully made it through.
My second year was much better, but I did have a hard time with classroom management. I had a lot of rowdy children!
I finally made it to my third year, and still have some thoughts of leaving either the grade or school. The stress of keeping up with data and feeling like I'm not being effective makes some days harder than others. But, I love working with the children. Then I get complimented by them, parents or colleagues. There's also the 'ah-ha' moments that I see from the children when they get a concept and I realize that teaching is where I want to be.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

The teaching bug bit me and I've stuck to my guns for six years. The last part of your follow-up article struck a strong cord for me. Support is essential for new and even veteran teachers.I believe I have been fortunate. I had a very supportive principal in my first year of teaching. Not a lot of staff development...Yet, she was firmly in her teachers' corners. She even stepped down, for awhile, and went back into the classroom. (If only more administrators had or chose to do that)!

In the metropolitan school where I now teach..there is a lot more support. Through inservice meetings my colleagues and I have a voice in what and how we teach. I have the fortunate experience of, once again, having a hands on principal. The bureaucracy is still in place. However, at my school we are given the latitude to use "what works" in our individual classrooms. (The "testing data" still holds us accountable. I have a very cohesive team that meets formally once a week and informally whenever we choose. We also have a countywide peer review board that helps new teachers through mentoring and assessment. Any new teacher in jepardy is assigned a mentor. This is a great help to some. We also have great resource people at our school. Having said all of this.. The need for additional support is still felt. Teachers wear so many hats and are accountable in so many ways. Planning time, still, often runs into the night. I read Sonia Nietos' book "What Keeps Teachers Going" (College Press, 2003). There was a lot to applaud and nod in agreement to. But for the life of me the only answer I still have is "I do it for the kids".

Eric's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can relate to alot of people here. My first Two years of teaching was extremely difficult. I was teaching in a elementary school in a large city with 30-35 kids in a class. Instead of students learning and there being structure in the school, it was more like recess for the kids all day. Many teachers did not have control of their classes. I am a PE teacher so the kids really became out of control when they came to gym. I spent my days breaking up fights and calling security to have kids removed from my class then I did teaching the kids about the importance of exercise and diet. I remember driving home at the end of the day having to take several aspirins to relieve my pounding headache. Needless to say I either had to make a career change or move to another district. Having just graduated college and had a passion to teach, or at least I thought I did, I applied to other districts around where I live. Thankfully, I left the city and teach at a high school in a small rural town and I love it. I often think about if I would have stayed in the city how long I would have continued to teach. I have a new out look on teaching and love coming to work everyday.

karen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I can relate to what many of you feel. My first year teaching was extremely tough. I felt completely overwhelmed and didn't have the support from my team that I would have liked. I am a somewhat shy person and at the time I felt bad interrupting the other teachers for help I thought I needed. My mentor teacher had never taught first grade before and had no idea what to expect. The first week of school, she was looking at my students and questioning me, "Why aren't they writing complete sentences yet?" It was like I wasn't teaching them anything in the three days I had them. I felt frustrated and alone for quite some time. I made it through that first year and even figured out the process of getting one of my students the special education that they needed. My second year was better. I got to know my teammates a little more, but continued to basically work/plan alone. My third year was much better teammate wise. A new teacher was brought to first grade and we shared an office. The two of us had a lot in common, including planning and teaching strategies. We helped each other out and had a fun year teaching. Now I'm in my fourth year and feel I have a much better grasp on teaching then I did in the beginning. I feel like I'm even ready to switch grades and start the process all over again! I just hope my support system will be there for me this time. I believe that makes a world of difference in the everyday life of a teacher!

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