“Is teaching really supposed to be this hard?” I asked Dr. Carlos; the professor I worked with as a teacher’s assistant. It was my first semester teaching a class with him and my fifth year of teaching altogether. It was nowhere near the halfway point of the semester and I already felt overwhelmed. I had dealt with difficult classes before, but something about this class made me reconsider teaching as an occupation altogether. I could see that Carlos was saying words when he answered, but my mind was somewhere else… spiraling into a hole of darkness created by the idea that I may not be cut out to be a teacher. My eyes began to water.
“It’s okay. You can let it out,” I heard Carlos say. I looked up at his understanding eyes as he nodded, encouraging me to stop holding back the tears that desperately wanted to rush down the sides of my face. I did as he recommended and loudly sobbed in the middle of the English faculty office. Carlos gave me a pat on the back, lifting the embarrassment I felt from crying at work for the first time.
I know I’m not the only one who has felt this way before. Being a teacher, particularly a first-time teacher, isn’t easy, and crying happens a lot more than students or parents may ever know. One factor that contributes to first-year teacher stress is curricular freedom. In the article, First-Year Teachers and Induction Support: Ups, Downs, and In-Betweens, the results of case studies conducted involving first-year teachers found that it was a struggle for teachers to come up with enough curriculum while also “spending 10 to 12 hours a day juggling lesson planning; grading; and the myriad demands of paperwork, committees, and extracurricular assignments” (qtd. in Goodwin). New teachers feel overwhelmed with the demands of a dynamic job in addition to not having a template to come up with their own curriculum.
This lack of a template for teaching can also be intensified by another factor in first-year teacher stress: unsupportive environments. Unfortunately, there is a sink-or-swim culture that first-year teachers experience wherein new teachers are unable to receive support from their colleagues or veteran teachers. Fry noted that “new teachers often report difficult interactions with colleagues, ranging from ‘benign neglect’ of administrators to lack of cooperation or even hostility from veteran teachers” (qtd. in Goodwin). Curriculum freedom and a lack of support are only two of the many factors that contribute to teachers having a difficult time in their first year of teaching.
Although the difficulties first-year teachers face can be overwhelming, there are strategies to help teachers experience a smoother first year. One strategy is to take the time to get to know the students as individuals. By getting to know the students, teachers can be open to change and adjusting their teaching based on the needs of their students. In Experienced Teachers Reflect on Their First Year, Judy Willis discovered upon interviewing various seasoned teachers that “educators revealed how they were open to learn about, evaluate and, when appropriate, incorporate changes to their teaching. [Teachers] displayed this responsiveness when it came to new strategies, curriculum….as well as changes in student populations, cultures and needs.” It is by getting to know their students that teachers can best understand what strategies work and don’t work within the classroom based on the students.
New teachers will learn early on that every class is different and it is based on the dynamic of the students which is why it is important to get to know them better. Knowing this, however, doesn’t always make the tough days of teaching any easier. Although making mistakes in the classroom is difficult to experience, another strategy to help first-year teachers along is to embrace the fact that mistakes happen and to realize that it’s okay that they happen. New teachers want nothing more than to be their very best, but there are sometimes classes that veer away from the lesson plan. It’s normal for new teachers to feel badly about it. Roxanna Elden, veteran teacher and author of an advice book for teachers called See Me After Class, said that “Lots of jobs are hard but with teachers, it’s like, ‘Wow, I’m hurting kids because I’m as bad as I am’” (qtd. in Anderson). For me, one of the most important lessons I learned from my first mentor, Thomas Satterwhite, was that making mistakes is okay and admitting them makes teachers feel more human, to themselves and their students. Teachers that can break away from the disillusionment that they have to be perfect will have an easier time accepting their mistakes and an easier time teaching as the semester moves forward.
Another strategy that was helpful for me was having a mentor to talk to and guide me through these various lessons of teaching. A study conducted by the Santa Cruz New Teacher Center on teachers in New York City found that there was a higher retention of teachers that were part of a mentoring program. The results of the study also reported that “teachers claimed mentoring affected teaching; more time with mentor showed higher achievement in math and reading.” Having a mentor is not only helpful to first-year teachers, but students benefit from the teachers that have a mentor as well. Mentors can provide first-year teachers with emotional support in addition to providing new teaching methods that can be integrated into the classroom.
The last and perhaps the most overlooked strategy for first-year teachers is to create time for themselves and their own well-being. Being a teacher is not an occupation that one can easily clock out of when the bell rings at the end of the school day. Teachers have to grade homework, meet with parents, facilitate extracurricular activities, and respond to emails. Without proper boundaries, first-year teachers might find it easy to push their personal lives to the wayside in exchange for their profession. In fact, the inability to create a healthy work-life balance is one of the reasons many teachers leave the occupation altogether, according to Liz Riggs in her article, Why Do Teachers Quit? First-year teachers need to make a conscious effort to make time for themselves because their mental health is just as important as their desire to be a great teacher for their students. Without that healthy boundary, first-year students may find themselves like I did—bawling my eyes out in the middle of the English faculty office.
I loved being a teacher. Teaching is truly one of the most inspiring occupations that exists. And while it is truly a commendable profession, it is also one of the most difficult and emotionally exhausting. There are some difficulties that are unavoidable, but perhaps some of these strategies will help teachers navigate through their first year of teaching.