How to Survive Your First Year as a Teacher
Research shows that around ⅓ of teachers quit the field during their first year. It’s a seriously challenging job, and the first year is usually the hardest. Every school year has distinct phases, with peaks and valleys that change like the seasons. In this walkthrough, we’ve shared the characteristics of each phase, so you can prepare for what’s to come. And as you go through the phases, remember that there are thousands of new teachers experiencing the same feelings across the country.
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As student teachers get closer to their first official year on the job, anticipation starts to build. During this phase, student teachers are nervous with excitement and uncertainty about their future career. This is the highest peak for most first-year teachers. They might also have an overly idealized view of teaching that doesn’t match reality. For example, they might put pressure on themselves to transform students’ lives and make a huge difference at their school.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with being bright-eyed about the job; you just don’t want to lose that spark that got you teaching in the first place. If you push yourself too hard at the beginning, you run the risk of burning out fast. Instead, try to use the Anticipation phase as an introductory time where you get to know fellow colleagues. By building a support system at your school, you’ll have friends to lean on when times inevitably get tough. You can also start an idea notebook that you fill throughout the school year, with future lesson plans and classroom systems that you might want to implement.
During the first month of school, new teachers are forced to adapt quickly. It’s a hectic and exhausting time, where many established ideals about teaching get thrown out the window. Instead, first-year teachers have to deal with unanticipated realities. It often feels like treading water or running in place. You use a ton of energy, but you don’t feel like you’re making progress. During this phase, many teachers will spend nights and weekends just trying to keep up.
The Survival phase is brutal, so don’t be afraid to ask for guidance and mentorship during this time. Solicit veteran teachers for advice about lesson plans, and use their learned wisdom to avoid making easy mistakes. If you’re in the trenches with a few trusted colleagues, the experience will be much more enjoyable. You’ll learn so much during this phase, and you’ll develop lessons and process that you can reuse in future years.
By November, most first-year teachers will reach their lowest point. They’ll start questioning why they got into teaching in the first place, and whether they’re right for the profession. Many teachers will get physically ill, because their immune systems aren’t used to the stress and crazy work schedule. They’ll also feel overwhelmed by their first parent-teacher conferences and formal evaluations. Remember: if you stay strong during the Disillusionment phase, there’s nowhere to go but up.
Stay close to the teacher network that you’ve built over the first semester—they know what you’re going through. You may not get out of the slump before winter break, so we recommend reaching out to close friends and family for emotional support as well. Keep a journal, write down 3 things about teaching that you’re grateful for every day, and focus on the positive. You can do it!
Once you’ve experienced the highest high (Anticipation) and the lowest low (Disillusionment), you’ll feel more equipped to handle teaching. In January, you’ll come back to school well-rested and ready to get back on the horse. Winter break will have a huge impact on your overall well-being. You’ll finally have time to breathe, rest, reconnect with loved ones, and focus on self-care. You’ll also be able to regroup and organize materials for the next semester.
To make the most of the Rejuvenation phase, put the Disillusionment phase in the rear-view mirror and focus on the now. Give yourself a pat on the back for getting through those difficult times, and then use what you learned to forge ahead. Continue building your professional relationships, experiment with new teaching strategies, and toss out what doesn’t work. You’ll have a pep in your step from January to April, so take advantage of it!
As the school year winds to a close, most first-year teachers will feel like they summited a mountain. They’ll look back at the year’s accomplishments, setbacks, and surprises with a new perspective. Now that summer vacation is finally within reach, they’ll have the space to reflect and make plans for next year.
The Reflection phase is the perfect time to journal what you’ve learned, refine your teaching vision, and dip back into your idea notebook. Use the best insights and ideas to inform next year’s strategy. We recommend setting a few new goals as well, and asking a friendly colleague to hold you accountable. Finally, don’t forget to throw an end-of-year party with your class! After making it through the five phases, you deserve to celebrate.
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