First-Year Teacher Blues

Written by Donna Boucher

Donna has been a teacher, math instructional coach, interventionist, and curriculum coordinator. A frequent speaker at state and national conferences, she shares her love for math with a worldwide audience through her website, Math Coach’s Corner. Donna is also the co-author of Guided Math Workshop.

The question was easy enough–What advice would you give to a first-year teacher who is feeling stressed out and overwhelmed? It came from a concerned father by way of my hairstylist. He was making small talk during his haircut, and a happy coincidence had me sitting and waiting to be shampooed. I gave her some ideas he could pass on to his daughter, but by the time I had finished my shampoo, I realized I was writing a blog post. I offer these suggestions for surviving the first year and thriving as you move toward your second.

This post contains affiliate links, which simply means that when you use my link and purchase a product, I receive a small commission. There is no additional cost to you, and I only link to books and products that I personally use and recommend.

Find a mentor

The demands of being a first-year teacher are so widely recognized that many districts and/or campuses have an official mentor program for new teachers. If yours does not, find a teacher in your building that you respect and like and ask him or her to be your mentor. Partnering with an experienced teacher has many benefits. First, they have had years to fine-tune their classroom organizational systems and they can give you great tips for finding ways to work smarter, not harder. You’d be surprised how much time you can trim off everyday tasks just through efficient organization. Ask to spend time in their classroom and have them explain how they organize their instructional materials, files, papers to be graded, etc. Next, every veteran teacher vividly remembers being a new teacher. They know what you are going through and what helped them in the same situation. They understand the emotions you are experiencing and can be a huge source of support. At the end of a particularly difficult day, they will understand if you come in their room, close the door, and break down in tears. They will be there with a hug and encouraging words. You don’t have to do this alone. Finally, you can learn from their mistakes. My classroom management system the first year I taught was to yell increasingly louder. Of course it wasn’t very effective, and I am the first to admit it. You will find that experienced teachers don’t try to hide the mistakes of their past, they want to share them to help others avoid the same mistakes. Mistakes aren’t bad if we learn from them, and it’s so much better to learn from someone else’s mistakes than your own!

Connect with other first-year teachers

While you may be the only first-year teacher in your building, there are plenty of other first-year teachers that are feeling exactly the way you do right now. Connect with teachers you attended classes with who are teaching in the same area as you. Make it a point to get together and support each other. There are even Twitter hashtag for newbie teachers. Check out #FirstYearTeacher. and #ntchat. Connecting with other new educators can help you realize that you are not alone, and that is powerful.

Think like a business person

Yes, that’s right. Anyone in business knows how important it is to do a cost/benefit analysis before engaging in any activity, but teachers rarely do the same thing. Remember that math workstation you spent 4 hours copying, laminating, and cutting out? Did you really get 4 hours of benefit out of it? Time is a precious resource, so you have to look at each and every activity and choose those that give you the most bang for your buck. Along those same lines, consider outsourcing some of the work. If you are on a campus with an active volunteer group, be sure you are using their services. This was hard for me, because I felt that it would take me more time to give the volunteers directions than I would save, but that’s not the case. Once you learn to turn over some of the work, you’ll look forward to handing it off.

Reflect on your classroom management

As I look back, learning how to effectively manage classroom behavior was, hands down, the hardest part of being a new teacher. Still, to this day, it’s the one area that I am constantly looking to improve. Teaching is about interacting with students, and if that interaction is not done effectively, learning will not occur no matter how well you can explain the process for long division. Consistency is the key. Your students must know your expectations and understand that they are non-negotiable. What Great Teachers Do Differently: 17 Things That Matter Most, by Todd Whitaker, is a book with the potential to transform your teaching. At a scant 126 pages, it packs a powerful punch and is a great book to read over the winter break. Want to change the culture in your school? Do a staff book study and examine staff expectations (but I digress…). In the chapter titled If You Say Something, Mean It, Whitaker states:

     A teacher who bellows at students, “I have told you at least a dozen times!” may think the students are slow to learn. But who keeps saying the same thing over and over without learning that it hasn’t worked? It’s the teacher, of course.

     When the very best teachers–like the very best coaches—say something, they mean it. They don’t depend on a commanding presence and a booming voice to manage their classrooms. Rather, students respect their authority because they express expectations clearly and then follow through.

Where was Todd Whitaker when I started teaching? I sure could have used that advice!

Focus on the students

When you feel you are at your breaking point, take a long walk. As you walk, picture the smile of the student whose hatred of math is starting to melt away. Hear the voice of the student, written off as lazy because he had given up hope of success, as he wishes you a great weekend with a big smile after successfully solving a tough math problem. Feel the embrace of the girl who hugs you each time she enters or leaves your room, because she doesn’t have a mother at home. That’s why you chose this profession.

It will get easier after the winter break

Trust me on this one. ALL teachers are feeling stressed out and overworked at this time of the year. The fact is, teaching is emotionally and physically demanding. I used to feel guilty because I thought that looking forward to a break meant I didn’t care enough for my students. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Breaks give us time to refresh and recharge our batteries. If we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t be the best teacher for our students.

Don’t give up

If you are feeling stressed and worn out because of the 12-hour days, you are the kind of teacher we need. You will learn to manage your time, both in and out of the classroom, and it will get easier.

I welcome both new and veteran teachers to leave a comment on this post! We’re all in this together. 🙂

16 Comments

  1. Carolyn

    I always say, things will be better next year.
    Find someone you can laugh with, daily!
    Keep it simple.
    There is so much to learn! Every day a new teacher is doing everything for the first time!
    We are all in this together and it WILL get easier!! Plan with other teachers in your grade level. There is no sense in everyone creating everything. If you find someone who will share ideas take them up on it.
    Use your parent volunteers if you have them.
    Good luck and don’t give up.

    Reply
  2. Brooke

    Thank you so much for this post!! I am in my second month of my first year and this is by far one of the hardest things I have ever done! I am anxious for the break to come however, I know that I will spend a good part of it planning just so I can get ahead. Another word of advice to new teachers, first year teaching and first year grad school don’t mix especially if you have a family at home.

    Reply
  3. Pamela Lilly

    REMEMBER the reason you became an educator?. No doubt you had and have a love for children. I’ve been an educator for 17 years and I still find myself asking questions of others, both new and veterans. If you start strong, you will continue with a strong attitude. It’s your classroom, take it one day at a time. Everyday will be a new experience and you will definitely learn something from each one. ‘A closed mouth will not get fed.’
    We are in it to reach more than one life, but reaching one can make a big difference?

    Reply
    • Carolyn

      Agreed, Pamela. Veteran teachers have so much valuable experience but NEW teachers have wonderful enthusiasm and often are aware of innovative ideas. Everyone has something to offer.

      Reply
  4. Kristy

    A well written post full of ideas for new teachers. I have mentored several new teachers, and they all were shocked at how hard teaching is in the first five years. Thanks for this post.

    Reply
  5. Anna Martine

    I am not really a new teacher (5th year), but I love your blog posts! I was looking for a way to contact you and it seems you reply to your readers fairly often, so I thought I’d try posting my question as a reply. I am in my second year of teaching 3rd grade math. Thankfully, I started under the new teks so I don’t know anything else, but this year is not going so well. I have a 3 way split, which means I have 75 minutes give or take with transitions. I am struggling to use my time in the most effective way. I want to do facts, and in depth problem solving. Mental math and daily review. Whole group and small group lessons. Oh, and integrate technology and manipulative use. But… It seems each piece requires 15-20 minutes at least and I can’t seem to fit it in. When I eliminate things, the students ability suffers. My question is, what would be your suggestion on how to use my time most effectively? I thank you for any suggestions and for your truly wonderful blog!

    Reply
    • Anna Martine

      p.s. we also use pearson envision, lonestar math, and motivation math, all of which are supposed to “fit in” too…

      Reply
    • Donna Boucher

      Hi Anna! You sure are packing a lot into your 75 minutes! All very worthy tasks. You didn’t mention how your instruction is structured, but my preference is a math workshop approach. You could devote 15 minutes to Number Talks (mental math) and still have one hour for math workshop. Laney Sammons is really the authority on the subject, and any of her Guided Math books will get you going. In her Strategies for Implementing Guided Math book, she outlines the GUIDE framework for organizing math workstations. I think it’s brilliant! You can see a sample explaining the GUIDE structure here.

      Reply
  6. Lisa

    I think some of the best advice I got as a new teacher is to pick one subject to focus on for your first year. Whether that be math, writing, reading. Trying to excel at every subject is unrealistic, but if you can put a lot of energy into one thing, then the following year you can focus on something else. This kept me from losing my mind. 🙂

    Reply
  7. Aly

    Hi. I am a first time teacher coming out of the corporate world as a scientist. I have always wanted to teach and accepted a position teaching 7th grade science/math. During my interview, I was supposed to teach 4 science classes, including 1advanced; as well as 2 math. Upon signing the contract the classes were completely the opposite.
    I am overwhelmed and often times frustrated. I know the first year is the most difficult, not just with planning, training, and certifcations, but i feel like there is more babysitting than teaching.
    I’m enjoying readying everyones posts so if anyone has any advice on how to really get a handle on the classroom and keep them excited about math, please let me know.
    Aly

    Reply
    • Donna Boucher

      Unfortunately, Aly, you quickly learned the importance of being flexible as a teacher! Assignments change all the time. Classroom management is truly the key to engagement in the classroom, so I recommend that you focus your efforts on establishing great classroom routines. If you do not already have a copy of Harry Wong’s The First Days of School, I’d highly recommend it. The Todd Whitaker book I mention in the blog post is also excellent. Good luck! Hang in there!

      Reply
  8. Nichole

    This blog post was wonderful! I am a first year teacher, fresh out of college, teaching third grade. I absolutely love my students, and have wonderful amazing times with them. However, I also have times where I feel like I am a circus trainer trying to keep everyone where they are supposed to be. I know that I all I can do is my best. I spend so much time on Pinterest, looking for new ideas and tricks. I know I will look back on this year in the future, and awknowlege how far I have come. I do know one thing for sure, being a teacher is the most challenging, yet most rewarding job, out there.

    Reply
    • Donna Boucher

      I am so glad that you connected with this post! Take care of yourself and find a good support system in your school. I wish you the best of luck on the rest of your first year! 🙂

      Reply
  9. ToTeachTakeTwo

    Great advice! I got my teaching degree 10 years ago and had a disastrous first job that didn’t even last 8 weeks. I am now looking at getting back into a classroom and have been reflecting on what I need to do differently. This list encapsulates much of that reflection. Thank you.

    Reply
  10. Prabhjot Aulakh

    I am a student teacher feeling very low today when I was lost in grade 8 class. I am teaching math I am personally a very quiet person. I found it very hard to manage the class. I am feeling this is not for me. I am very stressed. I am feeling it is very tough to do planning for lessons every day.

    Reply
    • Donna Boucher

      I’m so sorry to hear that you are feeling so low and questioning your choice. Classroom management is hard! Reach out to a mentor or veteran teachers on your campus, if you can. If possible, go and observe other teachers to see what strategies they use. You might also consider if maybe it’s middle school that’s not right for you. Maybe you’d feel more comfortable in elementary school. There are options. Keep in mind also that many veteran teachers feel stressed out at this time of year!

      Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This