Studies examining first year teachers have sadly shown that 35% of teachers leave the profession during that first year. By the end of the fifth year, 50% of teachers have left the field! (From Teachers Helping Teachers, Springfield Public Schools, Springfield, MA) For those of us who have made it beyond that fifth year, we know it never gets easy, but we’ve found ways to make it meaningful enough to stay and thrive.
In mentoring new teachers over the years, I’ve become familiar with these phases.
Now, this is not to scale, but a representation of the dips and rises in attitudes toward teaching that are predictable based upon the research of Ellen Moir*. But I think many of us veteran teachers still experience these same fluctuations in our perspectives about the challenges and rewards of our profession.
Anticipation– For new teachers the excitement about finally getting our own class, being autonomous, taking all those years of study and getting to apply it is an almost giddy feeling, tinged with a little anxiety. For veteran teachers getting our rooms ready, looking forward to a new crop of students, remembering why we got into teaching in the first place are often hallmarks of this phase. We’ve had a chance to rest and rejuvenate so we can come to the year energized.
Survival- For new teachers, the reality of the complexities that couldn’t possibly be covered in college classes comes at us full force. We begin to compile a list of Why didn’t somebody teach me about this? concerns. We don’t have a toolkit of experience or resources to dip into as needed-we are often spending 70 hours or more on school work each week. For veteran teachers, trying to balance the completion of assessments for dozens of students, building relationships and classroom community, and implementing a curriculum with new students is challenging. We quickly begin to notice which students are going to need more support and scramble to put those in place as early as possible.
Disillusionment-For new teachers, the long hours and stress begins to take its toll. Many of us begin to doubt our ability to do this job for the rest of our lives. Parent conferences and report cards add another layer of anxiety, especially when there are challenging students. Classroom management is a huge source of stress for new many teachers at this time-we feel like we can’t teach when we have to keep putting out fires. Many new teachers get sick during this phase. For veteran teachers it may not be disillusionment as much as discouragement. The shorter, colder days take it’s toll, balancing family holidays and commitments with work is a challenge. Our eating and exercise often falls by the wayside which can cause us to feel less well.
Rejuvenation– For new teachers, coming back from a winter break often gives us a fresh attitude. Surviving those disillusion months gives us a taste of positive growth mindset as we experience a sense of accomplishment. Our toolkits are beginning to have some resources that have been successful and we are feeling a part of the school community. For veteran teachers, we know this is prime teaching time where routines have been established and some solid learning is happening. A few vacations thrown in breaks down our work into manageable chunks of time that don’t feel as overwhelming.
Reflection-For new teachers, we look back over the year and realize we made it. We are often asked to reflect on challenges and successes and really notice just how much we’ve accomplished. We think about what we wish we had known before, and appreciate that we know it moving forward. For veteran teachers, we are in the homestretch. We know how much our students have learned during the year and there is a tremendous sense of pride in working with these children. We know our time with them is coming to an end and in a bittersweet way, helps us to appreciate them more.
So What? Awareness of the predictable phases of teaching is not intended to scare or warn anyone about the challenges for teachers- we are already well aware. Rather, understanding the ups and downs as cycles that are somewhat universal can help us realize it’s normal not to be euphoric each day we step into the classroom. It’s normal to feel stress and it’s not just us experiencing it alone. We can reach out to one another to give and ask for support.
Don’t wait for new teachers to ask for help, check in with them and be a shoulder. Giving unsolicited advice may add to their sense of disillusionment as they question, “Why didn’t I think of that?” or worry, “She doesn’t think I’m competent.” A kind note, some chocolate, an invitation to go for a walk might be just what they need to get through a tough day.
Don’t assume veteran teachers are “all set”. Each year they have a new group of students with new challenges. Most are trying to balance work and home and suffer from guilt that they aren’t doing enough. Be there for each other. Sometimes when we are most stressed, doing something kind for someone else is the best prescription for what ails us.
Teaching is tough, but remember we are all in this together. It takes a village to raise a child-let’s make our villages as loving and supportive as we possibly can-whatever phase we are in.
*Moir, E. (1999). The stages of a teacher’s first year. In M. Scherer (Ed.),A better beginning:Supporting and mentoring new teachers, 19–23. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.
One More Off My TBR Stack!
The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden
WOW! The way Ann Braden is able to weave the layers of complexity for her lead character, Zoey, into a compassionate debut novel has blown me away. Ann takes us into the lives of people struggling below the poverty level to help us understand it’s not as simple as “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” to overcome the crushing challenges that prevent so many from making ends meet and getting ahead-challenges that most of us haven’t given a second thought in our own lives. Interlace the topic of our recent gun debate and how our initial convictions might be confronted by thoughtful and reasoned debate, and I think most readers will walk away from this book with a sense of enlightenment as well as enjoyment from a well told tale. A must-read (for mature readers as this deals with difficult subject matter).