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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

BRV's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

It is really helpful to read this and know that their are other people out there struggling as I am. Although I was prepared for my position and even student taught in my current school, I often feel so far behind I will never catch up. On top of everything, I advise a student organization of nearly 100 high school students with community service and leadership projects several times a month. Although I have been assigned a mentor, I usually feel like I am being monitored rather than mentored. I can't count the number of times I have looked for other jobs. I have degrees in things other than education and know I could get more regular hours with better pay...so why am I going to stay for another year? I feel like teaching needs to be less demanding than other jobs for this up-front investment to pay off. My mom is a teacher and despite her 30+ years of experience, she still works 50+ hours a week and doesn't really like it. I just do not want "overworked and underpaid" to be my career. I see other teachers with only 1 or 2 courses a year while I teach 8 different courses, yet we all get paid the same amount. The lack of potential advancement, no reward (other than intrinsic satisfaction) for a job well done, a view from society as a para-professional, isolation from other adults, nearly non-existent social connections, and the thought of doing essentially the same thing for the next 3o years makes me want to run in the other direction. Despite that I have always been an achiever, I can't be certain I will remain in education.

Louisa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I just received notice of non-renewal in my current position. Schools are closing all around me and my principal decided long along that my position was more valuable to another teacher. No matter what hoops I jumped, I was doomed from a long time ago.

Will I quit teaching? The thought of another unsupportive administration and low school morale makes me say "yes". I'm a smart, educated, creative person who has been demoralized and degraded. It's going to take me the whole summer to gather myself back together and talk myself back into thinking I'm not the "horrific" teacher that my narrow-minded, self-serving principal would have me think.

I have felt all of the above, including frustration, lonliness and overwhelmed. Why would anyone want to work at a job that makes you feel like less of a person? I know that in the right fit, I will flourish. But teaching in a public classroom isn't it. There are other careers in which I can still work with kids and use my teaching expertise. But Florida Public Schools won't be the place.

Rizwan's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This is my 1st year in teaching, not only that but abroad. I start the school and I feel completely lost and useless. I have no teaching experience and I am expected to teach grades 6 to 9, firstly I am teaching ICT and some areas which I have to cover which I have no experience in, how do I get round this,. We have sacrificed a lot to come abroad and if I quit I will feel that I will have let down my wife. I don't know what to do. Please can anyone give me some guidance?

Nicole Shepherd's picture
Nicole Shepherd
Sixth grade communication skills and social studies teacher

I am a second year teacher, I seem to be having roughly the same experience that you had. I had a VERY difficult first year, I came in after the school year had started and the students seemed to decide that since I wasn't there since the beginning, they were quite literally going to bully me, I wasn't the greatest at classroom management and my first year had me quite ready to pull up my roots and go home. I stuck it out for my second year but it doesn't seem to be going much better. I attended at least four workshops over the summer to better myself and my experience and came in looking forward to a much better year but then I got given two classes which were rather large of students that were basically branded as the troublemakers, it seems in our school if you are in that group then they put every single one of them together in one class, or in my case, two and I only teach two, at the end of the day I am so drained and most of the time if I assign work the kids don't do it or act like I am speaking a foreign language. I am flabbergasted by the lack of respect and caring I get from these young minds, I can't help but think that I was never raised that way and I would have never spoken to a teacher that way and it is taking all of me some days to not just get my stuff and walk out of the building to never come back. I don't know where the world is going but the children we are putting into it seem to have a lack of respect and honor for authority and don't really even seem to know why they are in school, they would rather play video games and talk to their neighbor all day and I can't seem to get through to them, I understand where you were coming from and it is a very disheartening profession when the children don't even seem to care as well.

Amy's picture
Amy
8th grade Physical Science Teacher from NY

I am also a first year teacher and I am reaching the end of my rope. With (literally) 25 school days left, I don't know how I am going to survive until the end of the year. I am horrible with consistent classroom management and have been struggling with it all year (I was hired the day before school started and did the one thing they tell you not to do... be nice). Where I think my classes are manageable, my administration sees it as unacceptable and I am worried I will not be renewed for next year. My administration provided me with some support but was more along the lines of "ask if you have any questions" type of support. Also, their criticism was, to me, very harsh and always after a formal observation (hardly ever an informal meeting just to give pointers).

After reading a lot of these posts, I am very happy to find support. I wish I had found this site earlier (I literally just joined 2 minutes ago). I don't remember who said it (or if it was even someone from here) but I read and agree that administration should provide more positive feedback to help make improvements because if not, "a teacher can feel as though they have failed, leading to negative feelings towards the profession." Positive feedback should also be direct. My administration tried to give me "subtle hints" to things I should improve on, which was overlooked by me (I am horrible with subtly). If my administration had stressed some of their concerns as they are now (maybe with the added positive feedback as well) earlier in the year, maybe I wouldn't be as neck deep as I am now. I definitely feel like a failure in light of my most recent meeting with my administration and am seriously considering my future as a teacher. I literally feel like I am doing nothing right in their eyes. And now I am also worried that, if by some miracle, if I am renewed for next year, my second year will be just as tough. I have lost the passion I once felt for teaching and it kills me to dread going into work every morning.

With all that being said, if anyone can give me any advice on how to be consistent with classroom management or any tips on surviving the first year I would greatly appreciate it :)

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal

Hi Amy-
I've been there. My first year was a disaster. An absolute mess. A lot of what you describe here resonates with me in so many ways. In a nutshell (and in hindsight) ere's what I learned that year:

Not every school works for every teacher.

It sounds to me like there's a mismatch between what you need and what your schools thinks you need. There *are* schools out there with good induction programs, schools that support new teachers in clear, systematic ways. You can find them through organizations like the School Reform Initiative and the Coalition of Essential Schools (among so many others). I wonder if you might not be better served by choosing to move on?

If not, (and of course I can't know all the details of your situation), then I'd suggest a couple of things. First, keep doing what you're doing here- connecting, looking for support, asking questions. I'd suggest you check out Teaching With Soul (http://www.teachingwithsoul.com) and the new teacher chat (#NTChat) on Twitter. You'll find lots of support and ideas there. Find teachers you respect and want to emulate and ask a zillion questions.

Next, TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. The first years are so, so hard. You need to be in top form- physically and emotionally- if you're going to stay on your game.

Finally- come back here. Keep asking for help. We'll do what we can to keep you going. (And please- feel free to email me directly if you'd like. I'm happy to help if I can!)

Good luck Amy. You can do this- heck, in 24 days, you'l have done it!

Laura Bradley's picture
Laura Bradley
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher
Blogger 2014

Hi Amy! Congrats on making it to the end of teacher-boot camp. After 25 years of teaching, I still shudder when I remember my first year -- and while I have forgotten a lot over the years, the chaos and fear and frustrations of that first year are sharp and clear in my memory. You are right in so much of what you say about the kind of support that admin should be providing.

What I also remember is that for many years after that first year, I honestly felt that my second year of teaching was absolutely my best year because it was SO MUCH BETTER than my first year. In the second year, I wasn't facing the demands of the job for the first time: curriculum planning, classroom management, parents, grades, etc. I had faced them before, and that experience had a huge impact on my classroom, on my students, on my own self-confidence.

As far as helping you with classroom management, you already said the magic word: consistency. And the easiest way to be consistent is to have a plan that doesn't require too much of you. If you have to keep records of all kinds of classroom activity/behavior, etc., then I think it will be too difficult to be consistent. Not knowing what you've already tried, I'm not sure I can give you a specific plan to use. But I do know that simpler is better, and consistency is key.

I understand your concern about being "too nice," but I also know that mean doesn't work well either. I learned (after many failed systems and angry days) that if I could hand out whatever discipline had been earned without showing anger or frustration, both the students and I fared better. I learned to take deep breaths, walk away from disruptive students, calmly write out a referral or whatever form was needed, calmly hand the form to the student, calmly direct them to the office or their seat, etc. In fact, "calm" became my plan for teaching in general -- after I broke a desk drawer when I slammed it in anger after a student once again pushed my buttons to see me react, I decided I would never let a student push me to that kind of anger again. Training myself to react calmly (and smile often!) helped me a lot in my early years.

Do you know where your curriculum is going for the remaining weeks? Do you have support from other teachers in the same department? Maybe they can help you with a plan for making your last month a positive one. I feel your pain, I really do! And it does get better -- your experiences this year will inform your work next year, and you will improve.

Laura

John S. Thomas's picture
John S. Thomas
First & Second Grade Teacher/Adjunct faculty Antioch University New England

Amy,

I agree with others- YOU HAVE MADE IT! No matter what, you have been able to make it the best you could given the circumstances. It does sound like you may be a better fit else where, but you never know what life will bring. Sometimes when your in the middle of stressful situations it can be difficult to see the big picture. I do know that EVERY experience a teacher has helps build an even stronger educator. It doesn't matter the experience, positive or negative, they are ALL important and helpful. I had some rough experiences when I started teaching, but when I became a principal I had a horrible experience...that is why I sometimes say I am a recovering principal. The one thing I learned from that experience is that it just wasn't the place for me. I look back upon it now and I learned quite a bit from that negative experience. I am now back in the classroom and I know I will eventually get into administration again and be better because of that experience. Hang in there Amy.

When I do reflection with my students, we always focus on the fact that we can not go back and change anything, we can only look forwards at what we can change. At this point, what can you change? First and foremost you MUSt find ways to take care of yourself. Exercise, enjoy a good book, sign up for yoga or mindfulness class, whatever takes for you to find your happy place. Every educator must find their happy place. If you have ever seen the Corona beer commercials...you must find your beach. What you are feeling is completely understandable given your circumstances. Know that it will pass and things will all work out.

Your in the middle of the absolute most stressful time of an educators career. The last month of the first year of a career. You should focus on finding ways to wrap up the year, find support from a peer, enjoy the Memorial Day weekend, and relish in the successful parts of your year. I would like to hear what are some positive interactions, experiences, quirks, or tidbits you have had this school year. Something funny, silly, or crazy that happened. This is the time of year for reflection. All too many educators use it as a time to say "I should have...", or "if I had only..." Instead, it should be a celebration of our successes and a focus on what we might change.

My current school does what we call Plus/Deltas. We do them with students throughout the year and at the end of each school year as a staff. We list on a T-chart the plusses of the school year and the Delta (changes) we would make next year. It is a reflective experience we use to help us feel great about our efforts and also focus on what changes we would like to make for our next opportunity of being an educator. for a child I suggest you try and find a peer or a grade level team that would do a Plus Delta chart with you. They can be very helpful. Good luck and keep asking for support- we are here for you!

Brian Sztabnik's picture
Brian Sztabnik
AP Literature teacher from Miller Place, NY
Blogger 2014

I am saddened to hear so many stories of despair and frustration from teachers in their first few years. I do believe the profession has lost so many creative minds as a result of loss of heart. However, I want to encourage all of you to not give up on teaching as a whole, even if you separate from your current school for one reason or another. I, too, had a difficult year of teaching. It was not my first year of teaching but my first year in public school. And it wasn't because I was an incompetent teacher, that school just wasn't the right fit for me. As a result, I left that school and found my current school where I have grown professionally and feel supported by my administration. Please try a new school before leaving the profession altogether. You may just find an administration that respects and appreciates the unique perspective you bring to your classroom.

When seeking help and advice, I would (as a few others have mentioned) expand your PLN outside of your current school. I have found a great deal of personal growth since joining Twitter. There is a new teacher chat that just might provide the kind of specific support you may need, and there are education chats going on each and every night of the week. Check a few out. It just may give you the spark you need to make it through some difficult moments, and arm you with helpful strategies for the future. Good luck to each and every one of you!

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