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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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Karmen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am in my second year of teaching and I have felt and continue to feel the same feelings. I spent my student teaching in 6th grade Science and then spent the rest of that year as a long-term sub in 6,7 & 8th grade. I was very fortunate to get a job in the school district teaching 5th grade. I was so excited because I was teaching at the same school as my kids. My first year was tough because the team that I was teaching with were not the most helpful and my mentor was a 4th grade teacher. My mentor was helpful however she was not able to help wtih curriculum questions. In the spring of that year, I was pink slipped however called back to teach First grade. I could not believe it because I spent all of my time in upper el or middle school and had NO desire to teach first grade. Unfortunately I did not have a choice, so I went to first grade. I am telling you, I think first grade teachers should be paid more because it is totally exhausting being with 6 & 7 year olds all day long. Not only that, I come home to a 7th grader, a 5th grader and 2st grader of my own. There are days when I feel like I want to throw in the towel and call it quits however I just can't imagine that. I love teaching and have a lot to learn to become a master teacher, however right now I can say that I feel used, not paid enough and at my wits end many nights at home.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my fourth year teaching and when I first started, I was fortune enough to have a mentor. She was very helpful and knowledglaable, which helped alot. However, with or without a mentor I believe I would still be teaching, I have such as strong desire to help children and to make a difference that I was will to do what ever it took to succeed. I guess what I am trying to say is, if you what something bad enough you will do what ever it takes.

Roxanne's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Guess what! I too, did not have a mentor that worked. I had to learn everything for myself. It would be nice to have had someone to warn me of pitfalls, tell me that it was normal to feel overwhelmed the first year, and many other things. I could have been a more effective teacher if I had the proper leadership from the onset.

Kari's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree 100%. It is hard to say where I would be today without the assistant I received my first year of teaching. I started out as a long-term sub in a special education class. The problem was- I was not certified in special education so I had no idea what to expect. It is due to wonderful administration and an even more amazing co-teacher that my goal now is to become special education certified. I strongly agree that first year teachers need support from a mentor who will make the time to help them. Novice teachers need all the help and encouragment they can get the first year or two. My college courses helped in preparing me academically but as far as the every day situations that we encounter, I do not feel like I was trained well.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my third year teacher and I must admit that I have questioned whether I should continue teaching. In fact, when it came up to end of the year evaluations, I told my principal that I was considering not returning to the teaching field. I felt overwhelemed with a difficult class and loads of paperwork for documentaion for spec. ed., behavior issue, social work referrals, and of course the actual curriculum planning. My principal talked me into staying and told me what a difference I had made thus far and that she was willing to support me in any way. THAT IS KEY! That day I actually received confirmation that teaching was what I had to do. I received a phone call form a parent thanking me for the differnce I had made in their child's life, and I thought about the progress that some of my studenst made that year. I went to school the next day and saw the faces of my students (despite the challenges) and I could not find a job that would be more rewarding for me than this one.

The faculty and staff and my school are so supportive. There is always someone I can turn to for help and my principal fosters that environment. It is unfortunate that many individuals quit. Many realize that teaching is not for them...there's no passion. There are only a few that have the ability to mantain in the face of adversity with not help. These few individuals pull through becuase of their love for the children and their drive to somehow make a difference and make it work. However, for those that quit because of frustration and lack of support something needs to be done. I agree that an effective support plan needs to be set in place for new teachers.

Beth's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It sounds as though many of us realize the need to support one another, but many of us have found it hard to find the support we need. I myself have had wonderful support during my first three years teaching. My fellow teachers helped me set up my classroom, and I have been mentored by the teacher right across the hall. We have team meetings each Tuesday to plan during lunch. I think that more schools would create programs like this if the veteran teachers felt supported themselves. The day to day stress of teaching can make it hard to give energy to others.

Devon's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I feel a sense of efficacy with your situation. At the time of my reading your Blog I am in my second year of teaching. I feel that this year is a crunch time for me. I love teaching and I feel that this is what I am meant to do for the rest of my career. However, I know that I have much to learn about self preservation in this world of education. I have to agree with many of the statements of the quite a few people. I work and live in a very high pressure district in the Midwest. Our curriculum standards are high and so are the expectations. I have come to use this information as motivator rather than something that will deter me from my chosen profession. I find that if I rise to the expectations then I will achieve great things in my classroom. The expectations are high in my district because they want only the best. If you want to run with the big dogs you have to be willing to work.

I have learned a few things from these big dogs that have drastically improved my teaching in the last year and a half. First, if you want to slide through on someone's coat tails as an educator and do what everyone else is doing then you will fail. You have be resourceful, looking for new ideas, and exciting. If you read about a cool lesson or a way to get a concept across to you classroom take the idea but then be willing to find your own way of presenting the material or adding your own twist to the lesson. Second never be satisfied with status quo. Now is the time that you need to look at it and see what you need to modify to meet the needs of your students better. Children always change and you have to be willing to meet their needs at all times. And third, love what you do. Come to work with a joyful heart. Build meaningful relationships with your students. It doesn't have to be a dictatorship in your classroom. Democracy works give it a shot. If you empower your children with the love of learning that you possess then they will soar off into the sunset and achieve better than you ever imagined. I now step off my soap box.

Annie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

My first year of teaching was overwhelming and difficult. I spent so much time getting ready for my class than I did teaching it. Also, I didn't get much help from the other teachers at my grade level, and I was too shy at the time to ask them when they were so busy. Luckily I had a excellent reading coach who helped me tremendously with organization and more importantly classroom management.

Then, my second year of teaching was challenging at first. I changed grade levels from first to fifth, so it was like my first year of teaching all over again. My class was the most difficult class to manage that I was the only teacher who would accept that position (I was the last choice since I was temporary). Again I struggled, but I had another awesome reading coach who helped me to better manage my class and helped me differentiate my lessons and activities. Teaching was getting easier, but I still needed a lot of help.

I too considered choosing another profession by my third year of teaching because of the overwhelming stress, but I had a passion There were really good days and really bad days, but with the support of my fellow teachers and principal I knew that teaching is best for me.

It is now my fourth year of teaching and I am still temporary because of the declining enrollment in our district. However, every year I am blessed to have another contract. I admit that teaching gets better and easier every year. That's not to say I don't learn something new, have more challenges, or am already an expert teacher. I am learning everyday and continue to focus on something new each year.

Kacey's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This really hit home for me. I am in my third year right now and I am struggling. There is so much stress outside of my classroom this year that I am started to feel like I can't even teach my students. I was always told that if I was in the same grade level for third year would be a breeze, but I have not felt "any breeze" come by yet.

I know I was meant to be an educator so I am going to stay with it. I recently just started my masters in education and I hope to learn new concepts and meet new people. I am even thinking about changes grade levels next year to switch up my confidence, but only time will tell how I feel at the end of the year.

I guess it was just nice to read how others feel the same way I do at times.

Annie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

We are very similar in our teaching situations. However, I started teaching first grade during my first year of teaching because that was the only job that was available to me. You're right, it is a difficult grade to teach and at the end of each day I was drained. Then I was transferred to fifth grade. I too was frustrated, overwhelmed, and feeling at my wits end well into my third year of teaching. And what's worst is that every year my contract was up because I'm still at a temporary status due to declining enrollment in the district every year. Of course that added more stress to my teaching. Talk about not feeling appreciated. I have to say that it does get easier, and remembering the positive effects you've made on students' lives definitely helped me to keep going. Maybe that grade, school, or district is not right for you, they are all different, but you have a passion for teaching and that's what you are good at. Give it a couple more years before you call it quits, you'll find each year is different.

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