First Person

Getting My Sea Legs: How Things Got Better for a New Teacher

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Let's be honest: Teaching is tough. In how many professions do nearly half of practitioners leave in the first few years? And in how many fields is one put in charge immediately? Before I entered the classroom, other teachers told me that I might be at sea for quite some time. And they were right.

Completing my first year of teaching was one of the most difficult things I've ever done. I struggled to find the most effective way to teach challenging concepts and to understand what students needed.

Teacher Sarah Macway
Teacher Sarah Macway

Experienced educators say that in the second year, teachers begin to shift their perspective from the moment-to-moment challenges to a broader view of students, learning, and teaching and begin to crystallize and understand what works for them. They also develop stronger and more productive relationships with school leaders and peers as they adjust to—and feel more a part of—the school culture.

I've found this to be true. It was not until my second year that I actually got the chance to employ some of the skills I learned through my teacher-preparation program, the support I received from colleagues, and my participation in a national teaching-fellowship program.

A Matter of Style

I think the most important thing that happened that year was the development of my "teaching style." Because this aspect of teaching is unique to each individual teacher, it is not something that any teacher-preparation program or fellowship can teach you. Even if you have years of training before entering the classroom, this quality is something you begin teaching without but need to really be successful.

During my first year I waffled back and forth, trying out different techniques for discipline, classroom culture, lesson planning, and instructional style. I received a great deal of advice on each of these topics from mentors, other teachers, and the administration at my school. But despite all of their helpful recommendations, nothing really felt right to me. It wasn't until the end of the year that I realized that I have to do what works for me, not what worked for someone else.

I want to clarify. My second year of teaching was still highly challenging. But it was also fun. Unlike in my first year, I woke up at 6 a.m. excited to teach (almost) every day. I went to school and greeted students with a genuine smile and I was able to convey my excitement about biology to my students because I was relaxed enough to enjoy my job. There were still many stressful moments, but in the midst of them I was able to take a deep breath, call on my mentors for support, and handle each situation. I spent far fewer nights crying, more time with my friends and family, and less time stressing over school. (However, I admit that the lesson planning and grading took just as long as in my first year—improving my efficiency is something that I still need to work on.)

Building Professional Knowledge

I am by no means a veteran teacher, and I still have a lot to learn about all aspects of teaching. But as I step back and think about what made my work go a little more smoothly, there are some other clear things that stand out:

Teachers need time to collaborate and learn from each other. This is particularly challenging given that so much of my time is spent in class or preparing for class. What parents and the public often don't recognize is that what helps teachers improve their practice is not simply experimenting in their own classrooms but observing other teachers in theirs, asking questions of colleagues, and reflecting with them about what will work best to solve classroom and school-wide problems.

Relationships with mentors and experienced teachers are extremely important. Teaching is, in the words of Lee Shulman, former president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, "a thinking profession." Teachers must have practical knowledge about how to represent content, a solid understanding of the problems students experience in grasping that content, and the wisdom to choose the best pedagogical strategies to address particular learning needs in particular circumstances. Ongoing coaching and dialogue with colleagues helps novice teachers ingrain in their thinking what experienced teachers do, giving them a sense of the many choices they can make at a particular moment in the classroom.

Teachers must be constant learners who can model what lifelong learning looks like. Ensuring that new teachers can continue to be learners and raise endless questions about how to teach specific standards and content and how to address particular student-learning challenges is the best way to help teachers continue to improve on the job, build quality relationships with students, and deepen student learning. I readily admit to my students that I am constantly learning along with them. Having this attitude does not make me look less knowledgeable in front of my students; rather, it shows them that learning is an important, enjoyable, lifelong process.

I am now in my third year at my school, and as I become even more firmly established as a teacher, I look forward to strengthening my relationships with my colleagues, students, and the content that I teach, and to taking more of a leadership role in my school. Now that I feel more secure in my own teaching, I hope to have a deeper impact in the school community and in my students' lives.

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