If you look at books for new teachers, a trend emerges: Dozens of them, including four of the five best sellers on Amazon at the moment, include some form of the word survive in the title or subtitle. Outside of books for doomsday preppers or outdoorsmen, no other genre uses survive so liberally.
This constant stress on surviving says something important about the lens through which the education community views new teachers. In the end, what generally defines them is not their skills and contributions but the things they must survive: the struggles, long days, and missteps.
Anyone who has been a new teacher knows that significant struggles, embarrassing missteps, and brutally long days are a big part of the first few years. A recent Atlantic article called “The First Year of Teaching Can Feel Like a Fraternity Hazing” talks about how new teachers often skip meals and whittle their personal lives down to nearly nothing in an effort to stay above water, and yet many still struggle with effectiveness.
While that is part of the story, it shouldn’t be whole thing. Every year new teachers do a lot more than stay in their classrooms too late and struggle to control classrooms. They also create and innovate, connect with and inspire students, and breathe new life into old curriculum—but these things hardly ever get a headline.
The one-sided new teacher narrative is a serious problem because constantly being stigmatized for one’s deficiencies can take a toll on new teachers and the job they do. There’s a strong and unsurprising correlation between low teacher morale and low student performance. Further, the feelings of incompetence that often go along with first-year struggles can seriously impact new teachers’ personal lives and likely play a significant role in why up to 50 percent of new teachers leave the profession in the first five years of a career.
One of the biggest things mentors of new teachers can do to help our mentees is to show them that they are more than their struggles. We need to make sure they see their current contributions and show them how to better leverage their strengths and advantages.
In Embarrassment: And the Emotional Underlife of Learning, Thomas Newkirk discusses how having even one known strength can infuse us with the confidence to get through life’s toughest lessons, and it turns out that new teachers regularly do bring certain strengths and have some advantages over more veteran teachers that help them to navigate the tumultuous seas of those first years.
Common New Teacher Strengths
New teachers have new ideas: Last week a colleague confided to me that he wished he had more new teachers in his department because his group regularly struggles to innovate—much more so than other departments, in his understanding.
This is a point I’ve heard before, and it indicates a core strength for many new teachers: They bring fresh ideas. For example, a new English teacher at my school saw that the new SAT required kids to have a deeper understanding of rhetoric and persuasion than previous versions. To improve student understanding of these topics, he created a festival—based on the hilarious BAHFest—where students had to argue absurd hypotheses using rhetorical and persuasive techniques.
This idea was an immediate sensation and got students using techniques like pathos, juxtaposition, and parallel structure at a depth I had never witnessed before.
New teachers have new perspectives: Alongside new ideas, new teachers can use their fresh perspective to identify gaps that those within in a school can’t see. During my first year of teaching, I worked at a small school that had a number of sports teams but no track team. Track played a massive role in my development, and the fact that the school didn’t have a team horrified me, so I decided to start one.
Within two years, the team was the largest in the school, with over a quarter of the student body running, jumping, and throwing for us, and when I left, nearly everyone mentioned the creation of the team—which to me was the most obvious idea possible—as my defining accomplishment.
New teachers often are experts in areas that veteran teachers might not be: Teaching takes up a lot of one’s bandwidth, so even the most committed veterans may struggle to keep up with innovations and research. This means that while veterans have a knowledge advantage over new teachers in many areas, new teachers often have significantly better understanding of the most recent research, best practices, and pedagogical or technological advances. This expertise, if tactfully and thoughtfully shared, can add a lot to a department, school, or even district.
New teachers have a unique energy reserve: Someone who has been in a relationship for 10 weeks is probably going to have a different type of energy than someone who has spent the last decade in even the strongest relationship. The same principle holds true for new teachers, who, because their journey is so fresh, often have a unique type of energy. This exuberance can help them to connect with and inspire students, who are often drawn to their energy and excitement, in ways that even the cagiest veterans can’t.