Stressing Support, Not Stress: Easing the Anxieties of Being a Novice Teacher
For the first few years that I taught, my stomach hurt constantly in the weeks before school started. The anxiety was a mixture of dread and excitement and anticipation. Every year, I mourned the end of summer, but I'd also get revved up, ready to start and get my hands messy with learning.
Now I have insomnia. In 2007, after teaching in the school district in Oakland, California, for twelve years, I stepped out of the classroom and into the role of instructional coach at one of its middle schools. During the weeks before school starts, I often spend 3-5 a.m. making mental to-do lists and solving issues. Last night, I brainstormed about how to get furniture donations for one of our brand-new teachers. Today, I will give her a tour of the school, but when I open the door to her portable, she'll see an empty room.
I'm particularly sensitive to this scenario. To be honest, it triggers my teacher posttraumatic stress disorder. My first year of teaching was in an overcrowded, underresourced elementary school in East Oakland. They led me to a carpeted space and told me to teach bilingual second graders to read. There were no desks, chairs, or books -- or walls.
Back in the 1970s, some people who had never spent time with children promoted "open classrooms." Imagine a long, wide corridor, and add 200 kids but no dividers or doors or sound barriers. Then, lump 30 (or 36) kids with each teacher, and include a teacher who teaches everything by singing and chanting.
Next, consider that this is a school with a rapidly growing population, so that when new classes are created, everyone has to squeeze closer together. Also note that this school does not purchase furniture, and that your fellow teachers hoard supplies and books (which were published twenty years ago), but if you teach a bilingual class, none of that matters, because no one knows what teaching a bilingual class means or when or how the students should learn English.
Now, stick a young, uncredentialed teacher in that room, one who doesn't know anything about how kids learn to read and can't remember her own year in second grade, but who quickly finds herself caring deeply about her students.
But this blog is supposed to be about you, the novice teacher. It's not a place where I plan on processing my own teaching traumas. I do hope that these posts might make a tiny dent in the agony and confusion beginning teachers often feel.
Though there is never enough support for beginning teachers (or any educator), I'm hoping I can enlist the community of Edutopia.org visitors to engage in a discussion with new members of our profession and dish out some practical tips and a few morsels of advice, consolation, and encouragement. I hope that new teachers will find this to be a forum where they can ask any and all questions and brainstorm about any problems. I'm going for a peppery blend of logistical and emotional support.
On a side note, my definition of "new teacher" is very broad. After teaching elementary school for five years, I became a middle school teacher, and I felt very much like a beginner again. Some aspects of teaching will be (and should be) new every year. So, I hope this blog can be a place where we pull back and zoom in and take a close and scary -- and sometimes anonymous -- look at what's going on in our schools and classrooms.
Back to the pre-school-year anxiety. I have insomnia because there's so much to be done. I want to do this year right. I am overwhelmed and afraid I'll fail. I want to sleep more and exercise more and spend leisurely afternoons in the park with my son, but it's all about to start, and it'll be a year before I can read another novel. Is anyone else experiencing this?
I'm learning how to deal with this without the help of pharmaceuticals. I often get up and do the work I'm lying in bed thinking about. I make long lists and plot when and how I'm going to do them. I ask for help and know that not everything will get done. And I constantly remind myself of why I do this job.
And that's my number-one piece of advice to any teacher: Know why you're an educator. Remind yourself about it regularly. Write it up and post it in a prominent place in your classroom. Ask yourself many times throughout the year, particularly when things are hard, "Why am I a teacher? Why do I do this?"
And after a few years, if those reasons aren't loud and compelling, don't do it. When the reasons are really strong, teaching is much, much easier. It becomes enjoyable about 90 percent of the time. As challenging as my job is, I can't imagine doing anything else.
So, why do you -- new, or veteran, educator -- teach? Please share your stories.
In my next post, I'll share my own reasons, and I'll give some practical tips on getting ready for the school year. In the meantime, let me point you in the direction of some recently written blog posts by experienced teachers on Teacher magazine's Web site. Check out Jane Fung's "Teaching Secrets: The First Days of School" and Cindi Rigsbee's "Teaching Secrets: Five Tips for the New Teacher." (Free registration is required.)