Have You Helped a First Year Teacher Today?

Surviving the First Year

It was just weeks into my first year of teaching. I knew at age 22 that teaching would be the hardest undertaking of my life, but I didn't realize how hard that would actually be. Now I was on my lunch break, and sitting in the small teacher's lounge with my head hanging down. I was feeling completely defeated. I honestly didn't know if I could go back into my classroom to finish the day.

But, I did. And I scraped my way to winter vacation. And after a week off I was recharged enough to make it the rest of the way.

I didn't make it through that first year alone though, obviously. I had other teachers in the building helping me out in all kinds of ways. They showed me how to put up a decent-looking bulletin board. They gave me pointers on classroom management. Sometimes they just reminded me to find some fun in what I was doing.

Now, I'm in my eighth year of teaching. I never thought I'd be here during that first year. I teach in a school with several new teachers, and I constantly feel grateful to not be in their shoes. So, I'm doing my best to "pay forward" the kindness and support I received during my first year.

Why is the first year so hard?

The fact of the matter is that the beginning of any new job is going to be a challenge. But teachers have it especially hard. Many school systems, especially urban ones like New York City where I teach, do not provide adequate support for their novice teachers. Too often, it's a "sink or swim" approach. New teachers need consistent mentoring and coaching, but often they receive little to none of either.

In addition, as I told a new teacher recently, it's not just teaching that new teachers are learning. They're learning how to navigate the bureaucracy of a public school system. They're learning how to navigate the politics of a school. Teaching is a big enough challenge on its own. I'm still in awe of how difficult this job is. The politics and bureaucratic headaches don't make it any easier.

So, What Can Veteran Teachers Do to Help?
1. Provide perspective. One of the hardest things for me as a first year teacher was the gap between my mental vision of my classroom and the reality. I knew that learning could be fun. I knew that teachers could accomplish amazing things. But that wasn't happening, and so I felt like a failure.

Veteran teachers can let new teachers know that struggling isn't failing, and it's completely normal. By being honest about our first years (and tenth years) we can break down the superhero myth of teaching to provide a more realistic point of comparison for new teachers.

Additionally, we can let new teachers know that it's normal to go through phases. That initial excitement will give way to panic and disillusionment. And those feelings won't last forever either.

Providing this perspective might help new teachers feel less alone, and more successful.

2. Check in regularly. A simple, "How are you doing?" went a long way during my first year. I was constantly juggling the many tasks of teaching, and always stressed about the upcoming assessments/report cards/formal evaluation. Sometimes I just needed someone to press pause, and express interest in my basic human condition.

And sometimes teachers just need to vent, right? Providing a non-judgmental listening ear can be a real gift to someone who's probably going through one of the hardest experiences of their life.

3. Give bite size tips. One of the hardest parts of my first year was trying to sort through all the "best practices" from coaches, supervisors, and grad school professors. I knew they were all right, but where was I supposed to start?

Veteran teachers can help our novice colleagues wade through the flood of feedback, and just focus on something small and actionable.

At the end of the day, we just need to be human. If we can admit the hard parts of teaching, crack a few jokes, and just show some overall empathy, we might just make a lasting difference on a teacher's first year. And maybe that teacher will be able to "pay it forward" five or ten years down the line.


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