Education Opinion

New Teacher Disillusionment: Inevitable or Preventable?

By David Ginsburg — August 18, 2013 3 min read
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Here’s the second of two previous posts about first-year teaching that I’m reprinting this summer (this post was originally published August 26, 2011):

In the next week or so, like every year at this time, thousands of new teachers will sprint into schools, ready--or so they think--to change the world by teaching and inspiring kids to do great things. Thousands of veteran teachers, meanwhile, will saunter into those same schools, glancing at their new colleagues and thinking, “just wait.”

It’s not that veteran teachers relish the thought of idealistic rookies having rude awakenings. It’s just that many of us experienced them ourselves. But those who’ve survived their early years and thrived in later years know that teaching in general--and each school year in itself--is a marathon rather than a sprint. And achieving excellence as a teacher takes time. Lots of time.

It’s these unrealistic expectations of instant stardom on the part of many first-year teachers--including me--that, I believe, makes them especially vulnerable to the disillusionment I discussed in my last post. The message, new teachers, isn’t that you need to lose your idealism, but that you need to balance it with realism. Here are a few suggestions to help you do this:

  • Avoid highs and lows. In my experience, those new teachers who are sky high after an “awesome” day are the most likely to hit rock bottom after an “awful” day. It’s better to avoid such highs and lows by not thinking of days as good or bad, and instead seeing every day as a step in a never-ending process to become a better teacher. Reflect at the end of each day on what went wrong and why it went wrong so that you can adjust accordingly. But also reflect on what went right and why it went right so that you become more intentional and consistent with your effective practices.
  • Let go of perfectionism. Great teachers hold themselves to high standards. They do not, however, expect themselves to be perfect and, in fact, are quick to acknowledge their imperfections (Great Teachers: Perfectly Imperfect). Of course you should do your best to minimize mistakes, but you’re still going to make them. And that’s a good thing in that, as a mentor of mine says, mistakes are the best thing that can happen to you as long as you learn from them. But it’s hard to learn from your mistakes if you’re beating yourself up for having made them.
  • Expect obstacles. Whether it’s lack of support or lack of supplies, there are circumstances at most schools that compound the challenges of teaching. It’s important, therefore, to expect--and, for the short term at least, accept--various obstacles rather than lament them. Sure certain conditions may be unfair and worth fighting to alleviate at some point. But devoting time and energy to what’s currently beyond your control means less time and energy for what’s currently within your control--and greater susceptibility to disillusionment.
  • Seek support. As I wrote in Mentors: The One You’re Assigned and the Ones You Find, it’s important to create a support system that includes veteran teachers who can help you keep perspective as you traverse the inevitable challenges of first-year teaching.

It would be naïve, of course, to suggest that even the most realistic, reflective, and even-keeled new teachers won’t experience setbacks. Again, it takes a while to excel at teaching, so there are going to be disappointments along the way. There’s a difference, though, between feeling disappointed and disillusioned. And it’s my hope--and belief, based on experience working with hundreds of new teachers--that the above suggestions can help prevent your disappointments from reaching the point of disillusionment ...

... and help you stay in the classroom long enough to change the world by teaching and inspiring kids to do great things.

Image provided by GECC, LLC with permission

The opinions expressed in Coach G’s Teaching Tips are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.