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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

AH's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am very sad that teaching did not work out for Mark. I understand the frustration though. My first teaching job was 6th grade special education (inclusion) at the middle school I attended as a pre-teen. This was not the ideal job, especially since my degree was in early childhood education. The whole situation was bad. I had a principal who let it be known if he wanted you gone ( luckily he liked me), and an assistant principal who walked around yelling and belittling teachers in front of students and coworkers. Needless to say, I began to think I had chosen the wrong career. The students did not respect me. I came into the job in December and was youngso they thought they could just walk all over me. Luckily, I was offered a transfer to third grade for the following school year. I was provided a mentor, but I was also pregnant with my first child. I was out for about 9 weeks total and while I was gone, everything about teaching language arts had been changed. I was so clueless and totally overwhelmed. I did not have much problem with discipline, my students were, for the most part, well behaved. I came back to the same job this year and things were less than perfect. We have such a large group that we have had to totally change our teams. The sutdents are very hard to manage and I feel like I do not have the time to save the struggling ones. I am very frustrated thus far, but still believe I am in the right profession for me. Nothing worthwile ever came easy!

Erica Houle's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have to say, it is somewhat of a relief to hear someone else share some of the same frustrations I feel day to day. I have spent my first 2 years of teaching in a charter academy with little to no mentoring or assistance for new teachers. I have clawed my way through year one, learned where I made mistakes, tried to correct them, and in the midst of year two, still can't seem to keep my footing. I try so hard, and I still feel like I am drowning. I hope against hope that what doesn't fit is the school environment I am in, because I am so afraid to discover that what doesn't fit is my chosen career.

Kristin's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I did not start teaching during my first year until October, so my students had already been in school for a little over a month. I was hired because the school's numbers were high. I got about eight students from each of the other three kindergarten teachers. Although I am told that the selection process was random, I still find it very "convenient" that I got each teacher's worst behaved students. My class was a very rough group of kids who had a lot of severe behavior issues. It took everything in me to maintain control over the class throughout the day. It was difficult, but I did my best to see the best in each of these students and remind myself that I would be saying goodbye to them at the end of the school year. Looking back, I realize that having such a difficult class and surviving that school year made me a better teacher and helps me appreciate the students that I now have in my class. When I see those students who gave me such a hard time now, I am so grateful to them for "breaking me in" my first year.

Marni's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree it is very difficult to teach, not only do you have to teach the students but you have to learn how to be organized, fill out paperwork ,and communicate with parents. This is my second career, I was a paraleagal for six years and decided that I needed a fulfilling career. This was a big decision and my first year teaching I second guessed every decision I made and thought why did I leave a job I knew how to do well. I had many days like that, but I was lucky to meet an excellent teacher who took me under her wing and showed me the ropes. It is only my second year teaching, but I am lucky I stuck it out and continued on this exciting path.

anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have to agree with you. I have been teaching for four years. Every year gets easier, but there will always be "those days". It is important to remember that there will be better days. I am glad that you enjoy your new students.

Navongela's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a first-year teacher and so far, my experience has been wonderful. I am blessed to have such wonderful colleagues who offer me lots of support. The one thing that has been difficult is planning. It takes me so long to plan for the following week. Being a novice teacher I do not have the knowledge to be able to recognize right away, what works and what does not. I continue to expand my mind through research and suggestions from expert teachers. One day I will be that expert teacher sharing my knowledge with other novice teachers.

Mary Lowery's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

How deeply frustrating and disappointing!

This year, I requested to take a course required in South Carolina, which is for teachers who are interested in mentoring student teachers or novices to the teaching profession. I can't stand to watch them used! And though that is an abrasive word to use, it is true. And so I decided that the only official way to have an impact was to get certified in this "new teacher evaluation" tool that we use.

I've watched new teachers not have a clue where to find things while other teachers looked the other way.

I've watched new teachers without a classroom, forced to "float" from class to class.

I've watched new teachers juggle new teacher orientation classes for hours after school, family, long range plans, evaluation meetings, etc., and how they surface, I do not understand!

I've watched these floating teachers NOT be given a cart on which to place materials as they traveled. One teacher even asked a local grocery store for a shopping cart!

And we expect these new teachers to "stick it out?" Unreal.

In my opinion, I agree whole-heartedly when Mark said, "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."

I am working on this now. But the keys words are CAREFULLY CONSIDERED and FAITHFULLY IMPLEMENTED. Without these key factors, such a program would be futile.

New teachers should have their own classrooms; they should be afforded every advantage and luxury to make their transition from college or the workplace to the classroom a smooth one. We all know that you're never prepared for what you actually get once you start teaching ... it's sort of romanticized for you outside school walls.

Seasoned teachers should be floating or sharing rooms, as they are used to change, adaptation, and can modify and adjust with more ease than a first year teacher.

Oh, goodness. Why can't we just get it right?!

Laura's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is now my fourth year teaching kindergarten. While some days can be very frustrating, others in return are extremely rewarding. From my own experiences, it's not the students that cause my stress, it is everything else outside my classroom doors. The parents, the administration, the paperwork, NCLB and yet it seems there are times, when I am the only one that cares to take time to find help for a student. My first year teaching I had two mentors, a building mentor (a peer), as well as a retired teacher. They were both ale to offer many different ideas and strategies. I think that was a major assest to my accomplishment as the teacher I am today. I now take all new kindergarten teachers in my district and train them on all assets of teaching a room full of kindergartners. I am also there for them throughout their first year, if they need help or guidance. In my opinion, I believe and hope this makes a positive impact on their career as a teacher.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am currently working on my 5th year of teaching. I still consider myself a "rookie." I have recently begun studying for my master's degree, and I have come to the realization that I know way more than I give myself credit for! I have more confidence now than I did when I began teaching. Of course, much of this comes with experience; however, this is the first year that I have gotten to teach the same thing and same grade that I taught the previous year. It is wonderful!

For all of you who are stressed out, I have a few suggestions to help you get through because I promise it is one of the most rewarding careers! First, find a good mentor. Most districts assign new teachers an official mentor, but many times (unfortunately) they are in it for the money only or they do not share the same teaching assignment that you do. Having a veteran teacher to help you when you need it will be a tremendous relief. Many new teachers try to do it all by themselves, and most times it is impossible. Second, don't try to do it all! Learn to say no. Focus on reflecting on what works and what doesn't, note any changes you would make, and then MOVE ON. Too many teachers dwell on what went wrong, and that is not productive. Third, admit when you are wrong and ask for help...even if it is from the kids. You are human and will make mistakes. Kids appreciate the down-to-earth approach of coming clean when you are unsure about something. I used to tell the kids all the time, "I am not sure about that. I will look into it tonight. If anyone else finds the answer and shares it with the class, I will give you extra credit." The kids love the challenge. Lastly, (even though I could probably list many more things!) get involved in some sort of positive professional community. Go to professional development and learn something new to try. Surround yourself with positive people!

I hope all of my hints help. They are just a few things that I have learned in my short life as a teacher. Good luck!

Audrey Buchanan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

You are so blessed to have colleagues that offer lots of support. This will definitely keep you inspired and motivated. Speaking of planning being a difficult task, have any of your grade level colleagues mentioned doing lesson plans as a team. I am a kindergarten teacher at a kindergarten center of 10 teachers, we are put in teams to cover each content areas (such as math, comm arts, science,and social studies). Each team is responsible for getting together to plan in their content area. This makes it so much easier and less stressful for all of us, it also, keep us on the same units through out the school year. I would also, suggest that you attend at least one workshop each quarter of the school year, this will keep you abreast of the latest trends in teaching and to understand and apply a variety of resources available. Bureau of Education & Research (BER) has a lot of great workshops. Also, do you have a mentor, this would be great support for you.

Good Luck and have a Great Year!

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