In the toughest time of year for new teachers, encouragement helps

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Ask a few experienced teachers you know why they chose to teach, and you’ll get a sense of the optimism and enthusiasm that leads so many bright, energetic, devoted new teachers to the profession. But talk to a first-year teacher right now, and you may be surprised to find yourself in a conversation focused more on self-doubt and frustration than how he or she wants to change the world.

Since they first set foot in the classroom this past fall, new teachers across the country have been quietly struggling – too often in isolation – to meet their own high expectations, as well as those of their principals. They’ve lost precious class time managing student behavior. They’ve spent sleepless nights wondering how to meet each and every need of each and every student. They’ve worked hard to create engaging lessons that meet state standards. By early winter, few have seen results from their hard work. In fact, it’s around this time of year we at New Teacher Center hear from new teachers who feel guilty about letting their students down and who, consequently, start to talk about quitting.

Their frustration is disheartening, even more so since it’s not uncommon. So many new teachers start the year feeling confident about what to teach, and then find themselves totally unprepared for how to teach. Right now they’re at their lowest point, struggling just to keep up.

In my article, “Phases of First-Year Teaching,” I describe how first-year teachers move through several phases: from anticipation before they begin, to survival in the first month, to disillusionment in early winter, to rejuvenation in January, to reflection in May, then back to anticipation over the summer.

It’s important to let new teachers know it will get better, and soon. First-year teachers who work with a mentor as part of a high-quality new teacher mentoring and induction program are at an advantage. A mentor, an accomplished teacher trained to coach beginning teachers, provides the exact support new teachers need to thrive in their classrooms, to remain teaching, and ultimately to improve student learning. As new teachers hit the Disillusionment Phase, mentors can guide them through it with proven strategies and reassurance that they’re not alone.

In this video, elementary teacher Dana La Rue describes the difference her mentor made during her first year: “My mentor was like a light that helped guide me through. I felt like she was giving me that light, and then I could give back some of that light and that energy to my students.”

Hearing stories from teachers like Dana brings into focus a critical need in our schools. We must dramatically change how we bring new teachers into the classroom by making sure each has access to a support system designed to help them become the incredible teachers all students deserve.

But we must also make sure every first-year teacher we know hears these three words: It gets better.

Ellen Moir is Founder and Chief Executive Officer of the New Teacher Center, a national nonprofit organization that she founded in 1998 to improve student learning by accelerating the effectiveness of teachers and school leaders, especially in underserved areas. Today this organization has a staff of over 150 who work closely with educators and policymakers across the country to ensure that the nation’s low-income, minority, and English language learners, those students most often taught by inexperienced teachers, have the opportunity to receive an excellent education.

4 Comments

  1. While I appreciate, and often cite, the work of the New Teacher Center, I believe that their “It gets better” exhortation is becoming increasingly misleading. Mentorship and induction may help patch up the lousy teaching assignments offered to newcomers, but they don’t address gnawing structural problems.
     
    Here in California, the reality is that a new public school teacher looks forward to unstable employment, job dissatisfaction, and a declining standard of living. The person will, as a matter of course, endure three or four years of substitute, temporary and (repeated) first-year probationary employment, including annual economic layoffs. Built-in preferences for longevity at the hiring level and seniority at the assignment level mean that the new teacher will serve in the state’s worst districts, worst schools, and worst classrooms — hardly conducive to a sense of satisfaction. Finally, wages and benefits that were low to begin with (for professionals with 5 to 6 years of post-secondary education) are being cut further,* with pension reductions now on the political horizon. Spending the first few years of one’s career as substitute at $100 a day with no benefits and no experience credit, despite taking on full teaching responsibilities — or as a beginning contract teacher at $37,000 to $40,000 a year in an inner-city school district — represents a huge opportunity cost.
     
    The message to young people who are considering teaching should be an honest one: if you want to keep a job, to be happy in that job, and not to be consigned to a life of poverty, pick a different field. It’s getting worse, not better.
     
    P.S.: I write this after having received a $130/day long-term substitute, no-benefits, full-responsibilities job offer at a charter school in the San Francisco Bay Area, despite having a subject-matter master’s degree and being credentialed and NCLB-compliant in several different subjects, one of which is math. And it has been the same story for several years. Despite my love of teaching, and the good results I’ve achieved in working with students — even in the difficult environments open to newcomers — I am returning to my prior career. For me, at 37, it was an exciting journey and has become a life lesson. For a 22-year-old with no other education and no other work experience, it would be a devastating setback.
     
    * Apologists will cite average starting wages, without admitting that the attractive, high-wage districts included in those averages hire few, if any, junior teachers. They will also assume that teachers receive the stated wages, when in fact, practices such as “series of substitutes” are used to drive down effective wages.

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  2. Just seeing this post now, so apologies for my tardy comment.  Ms. Moir’s “Phases of First Year Teaching” model does a great job depicting a first year teacher’s attitude through the first six months.  Since I am a first year teacher, I can only attest to the August – January portion of the curve.  As a former engineer, I must add that the real curve is much noisier with many of the phases of the year-long cycle occurring daily, sometimes multiple times, reflecting the frenetic experience of this first year teacher.  However, her smoothed curve makes it easier to see the underlying, longer term trend over the first year, which effectively conveys her ultimate message: it gets better.  And at this juncture in the academic year, I now believe it!

    For those of you who have not taught in a primary or secondary school setting, please think twice before you cast stones in a teacher’s direction.  Teaching is the most challenging job I have ever held in my thirty years working, and I am no slouch having worked for start-ups and sleeping on my office floor, or commuting via regional jet multiple times in a week for years in a row (a three-hour commute each way, with a full work day sandwiched in between).  Much of my challenge teaching is a result of the newness of the role, however, a significant amount is also due to public education’s arcane structure, systems, processes, and roles, some of which lies squarely on the teaching profession itself.  As an example, I was chastised twice in my first two weeks for not following the proper procedure when requesting a couple of pens and a white board eraser.  Needless to say, I have rarely requested anything since.  As someone who teaches algebra 1, I naively thought that there might be a tried and true “course in a box” available to me that contained daily lesson plans, activity worksheets, assessments, etc. which was honed after decades of use.  No such resource existed.  Although, I am most appreciative of the algebra 1 teacher edition textbook and the student workbook, without which I would be even further stressed each day as I envision what needs to be covered in the next day or two.  As someone who spent most of three decades in high-tech, I felt as if a traveled through both time and space when I started teaching, landing in an environment reminiscent of a visit to a circa 1970′s DMV on one hand, and like a new start-up with one employee, you, and success rests solely on your ingenuity, commitment, and desire.  And while many of the individuals within a district care tremendously, and help when and where they can, they are also stretched very thin, and hamstrung by a century-old architecture for educating our youth.
    By the way, Ms. Moir’s comment about mentor teachers and induction programs is directionally correct, in my experience.  Having someone to talk to about your challenges, or to stop by and offer an unsolicited, encouraging word can be powerful.  At the same time, I question the descriptor “high-quality” for mentoring and induction programs.  I do not question most of the people involved with these programs, mind you; they can be terrific, of the highest quality, and with the sincerest intent.  However, the induction program itself is more of a loadstone around, than a load off of, a first year teacher’s shoulders with nonsensical requirements to collect dispersed, disparate information which should be provided to first year teachers on or before their first day teaching rather than compiled by an overburdened first year teacher as if the act itself provides a deeper appreciation for the content.
    While I understand that many of these requirements are part of an induction program due to the many stakeholders involved in, and concerned with, the induction process to include federal, state, and local departments of education, districts, boards of education, schools of education, community groups, teachers unions, elected officials, education pundits, the public writ large, and etcetera, it nonetheless is an ineffective, and grossly inefficient, instrument for its purpose, at least when coupled with the sink or swim rite through which new teachers must pass.  In a scene that reminded me of a World War II movie, a colleague told me recently they did not bother learning the names of new teachers like myself until they made it past their first two years.  Nothing oozes encouragement like that!
     

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  3. I wanted to share my website for new math teachers with many resources for all new teachers.
    http://www.loveteachmath.com
    After teaching for over 30+ years, this website is back online with many resources.
     
    Thanks!

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