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Facing the deluge, checking the disillusion


To all the new teachers out there, I envy you. Some of you have already begun teaching for a couple weeks. Others will start this month. You are about to be inducted into a field of utmost importance where every decision you make, every word you say and every ounce of energy you put in shapes our future. You have the power to close the achievement gap and inspire leaders.

It's a truly magical time. And at times, it can be truly painful.

For many of you, you will realize what defeat feels like after you spend 8 hours crafting a fascinating lesson on Africa only to realize that your 13-year-olds don't even know what a continent is. And that they don't care to find out.

(But soon, you will also realize that victory is in investing time to plan intelligently upfront and therefore avoid spending 8 hours designing one lesson plan [Hello, Backwards Design!] and that diagnostics go a long way. You'll also be pleased to discover that it's actually better for your students when you spend those extra 4 hours sleeping rather than cutting out laminated pictures of Africa. And you'll soon realize that your students really do want to learn. It's your job to prove that they can. Do not give up.)

For many of you, you will wonder if drowning feels like the unrelenting waves of ungraded assignments and administrative paperwork that keep crashing into you.

(Having never drowned, I don't know. But it's still pretty awful, isn't it? But you will soon realize that tracking your students' progress is a motivator for them. And a motivator for you to pace yourself in getting that grading done.)

For many of you, you will understand how 9-year-olds can truly hurt your feelings and make you want to cry when they call you dumb and ugly. You will understand how it feels to be helpless when "John Cena" decides to roll on the ground and neighs in the middle of class. You will understand how it feels to be scared when your students rally their peers to defy you.

(But you will soon realize that it takes a consistent management plan and strong lessons to really focus your students' learning. And it also takes a sense of humor and a couple steps back from the classroom to remember that it's actually pretty funny when John starts making like a horse in the middle of "Tom Sawyer")

For many of you, you will learn what tired really feels like. You will understand how disappointment feels when only 2 parents show up for Back to School Night. You will realize what confusion and frustration truly is when the administration makes decisions that seem to go against student achievement.

(You will also soon realize what it means to be both a team player and a leader. It means collaborating with your colleagues, parents and administrators, and rallying for changes when needed. It means being a humble and respectful member of the community. It means working hard, but also having fun.)

It'll be magical. It'll be crushingly hard. But you are not alone – at some point or another, thousands of your colleagues-- both new and seasoned-- are feeling a similar sense of being overwhelmed, under-appreciated, and at the end of their rope. But they are also feeling the same sense of victory, relief and joy from when our work pays off and our students achieve. There is always a light at the end of the tunnel, and legions of students grateful for your efforts.

(You'll also soon realize your students will express their appreciation in countless ways, like when John Cena brought in a piece of homemade frybread one morning or when he improved his reading by four grade levels. Those moments were worth every lesson-defeating neigh.)


Thanks for this, Jessica. I needed it :) I've been in school since Aug. 13, and every day has been an absolute challenge. I never know if my kids will come to me as 5th graders, or as 1st graders in 5th grader sized bodies. I never know if they'll remember what respect means, or if the self-inflicted drama they've created in their 10 year old lives will overtake everything I want to do and derail a perfectly good lesson. I am never sure that what I plan to help them learn is something they've already learned (or say they have), or if I'll have to fight them every single step of the way to get them to understand... I'm never sure if today will be the "Idon'tgetit" sort of day, or if they'll do what they're asked without complaint or feigning ignorance.

Despite all these unknowns every day, I go back to my classroom and hope that today will be the day that one or more of them will learn what they need to, and that some of them will remember that they're fifth graders, not 1st graders and that we don't need to create drama at every turn. I love my kids and want more than anything for them to be successful, to realize and understand that learning isn't torture...

I am an experienced special educator, severe disabilities, M.Ed., 24 years. My word to every new teacher I see is this: The first year is rough. It is the hardest job you will ever have. Even the first year in a new system for an experienced educator is difficult. Do not quit. Do not walk out. Do not take mental health days. Do not jump contract. Your babies need you. The kids will interpret your leaving as that they are not worth the effort. It will mess them up worse. The second year is easier and by the end of the third you usually know your job.

I don't know if even Jessica realizes this, but the most dificult child you have is the one you will have the most influence on if you just love him, work with him, respect him. That last one is real important. Show him the respect you would like him to show you. Convey the fact that you think he is smart and capable. I used to tell my students that they were "very intelligent" These were kids who supposedly had IQs around 35. They rarely heard anything good about themselves. Be a role model. Respect is not something you demand, especially if the children who are poor or do not have much home training. It is something you earn.

I have a hard one right now. He has Cornelia de Lang Syndrome. (Look it up. You might get one if you are in special ed because some are only mildly retarded. Always always learn your syndromes. It sounds like Jessica's child had FAS.) He tears up my room. He hit me in the head with a can and my glasses have been adjusted 4 times since mid August. His daddy says he is not an affectionate person. But he hugs me every day and eventually I will get him to sit down and learn something.

I also have a refugee child who knew no English and has never spoken in any language. Now he understands fairly complex commands like
"Go to my desk and get the screwdriver". It only took 3 weeks and he is doing great.(Ask your friendly neighborhood severe disabilities teacher. That is advanced understanding!!!) I had to fix a musical toy the other one threw before a third child, who loved the toy, went ballistic! My refugee hugs me too and the girl who likes the toy follows me around.

The hardest kids are the most emotional and they respond to a teacher who is real. Be real. Really care. Get your pleasure from your children, not by getting away from them.

ONe last thing. If you are in special ed, even if you are not trained, you are the only advocate your children have. Take it seriously. Don't allow anyone to bully your babies. They already have enough problems. If they are bullies themselves, explain and reexplain why it is a bad thing to do and you don't like it at all. Give them strategies to avoid the behavior.

Thank you for this Jessica. I really have been feeling alone in this frustration, and it's nice to know that others really do understand. The children keep reminding me, in their own ways, that every bit of it is worth the effort. I just have to hold on to that.

Thanks to Rhonda Browning for her comment too. It was also helpful!

If you are a new teacher, you have already noticed that students have a difficult time remembering what you have taught and often times look at you as though you are from Mars. MTTOP,Inc. has a solution that will give students an answer to the question parents ask every day, "What did you learn at school today, Johnny?" To which the child often responds, "Nothing".

MTTOP,Inc. offers a unique product that uses multi-media and computer technology to help children remember what the teacher has taught. Our product, MountainTop Mnemonics, features students using rhyme, rhythm, and motion to remember basic language, spelling and math concepts. MountainTop Mnemonics was created by a team of experienced teachers and studies have shown that the students using the MountainTop Mnemonic method have made improvements on both standardized tests and class work. Students in states as diverse as Texas, Maryland, and New York are using MountainTop Mnemonics. I am sure the student of new teachers would benefit from MountainTop Mnemonics. Now instead the standard answer, parents will watch as their child demonstrates what he has learned that day. For more information our website is mttop.net.

My name is Sara Gerlach and I am in my 3rd year of teaching very squirmy and loving 1st grade students. When I think back to my 1st year of teaching, I often wonder how I came out alive! I felt that I lived and breathed school; the worst part was that I felt no matter how much time I spent preparing the "perfect" lesson plans and bulletin boards, I never felt that I had done enough or that I had made a dent in my workload. Somehow, though, I kept coming back. As I have a few more years under my belt, I've begun to reflect on why I stay with a career that consumes my life and where I often wonder if I truly make a difference. As I reflect, I keep coming back to the same response: the hope that something I am doing is sticking with one of my kiddos and it will somehow make a difference in their life one day. I want to be held responsible for their learning! I want the challenge of not giving up on them when everyone else has. I know that school is an escape from hardships of life and that is their way out from where there at. Even if I don't see the difference I am making in a child's life, which is what I strive for everyday, my hope keeps me going that it is still there. Why do I teach? Because I am the only one who can teach the way I do.


All first year teachers need help, not just from fellow teachers and mentors, but from outside of the education arena as well. A case in point is the comment made by Dr. Roulf Dieck, PH.D in response to the teacher retention crisis expressed in the book "The First Year Teacher--Why you may fail"

Opportunity Denied
By Dr. Roulf Dieck, PH.D

Ms. Costigan’s review of The First Year Teacher--Why You May Fail, while intriguing and entertaining, seriously omits what I believe to be the quintessential point of this important work by Messieurs Sunskis and Jarvis. Throughout my career as a teacher and practicing psychologist I have counseled, both personally and professionally, scores of people who seem to share the same frustrations, rejections, and disappointments that are herein attributed to first year teachers. It is quite remarkable that common to all the successful therapies we’ve employed to overcome this disability is my patient’s newfound appreciation that the most powerful drive in man is the pleasure he derives in exercising his own skill. Man loves to do what he does well and, having done it well, he loves to do it better. You see this reflected in his science, you see it in his art, and you see it in his play. But where you do not see it, there you will find failure.

Our dawning realization that manifestations of this powerful drive are increasingly absent from today’s public education arena only serves to affirm the consequent: Failing available opportunities for teachers to express this drive, being denied the immense pleasure in exercising and pushing forward their skills, being denied the opportunities to partake in that movement towards perfection, our first year teachers fail. And today our first year teachers are failing in record numbers all across our country.

This book, if anything, is a call for help. It is a plea directed to parents, politicians, teachers, and school administrators. It’s a plea that asks, “Work with us to overcome the conflicts that together deny us the pleasure of exercising and advancing our individual skill. Help us set up the lesson. Give us the chance to deliver the lesson. We need the opportunity to teach.

I started a blog talking about my first year in teaching. It has been such a TOUGH year. I would love to hear your stories from inside the classroom.

Thank you

Comments are now closed for this post.


Recent Comments

  • TinaJ: I started a blog talking about my first year in read more
  • Al Sunskis: Hi, All first year teachers need help, not just from read more
  • Sara Gerlach: My name is Sara Gerlach and I am in my read more
  • MTTOP, Inc.: If you are a new teacher, you have already noticed read more
  • Christina: Thank you for this Jessica. I really have been feeling read more




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