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‘Here’s a Room. Here’s a Book. Good luck’: Veteran Teachers Reflect on How Their Careers Began

New teachers often feel unprepared for the intensity of their new careers. They face a multitude of challenges almost immediately upon joining, from managing student behavior to lesson planning, and don’t always get much support from their schools in navigating them.

“Crying every night” is a common refrain.

“I cried, cried cried. My mental health went straight to hell. And my physical health followed. I finally got the courage to quit and I’m finally healthy again and focused on my own kids”

—Lacy K

“I’m year two and feel unsupported. They’d rather write you up than give constructive feedback and give you no opportunity to correct things. I feel so defeated.”

—Kah E

The entry into teaching is rough, and it hasn’t changed drastically from when Elizabeth Brown started teaching, almost two decades ago. Brown is now the principal of Ocali Charter High School in Ocala, Fla., and hired the entire faculty for her school, which opened two years ago.

Brown thinks, for one thing, that there’s way too much paperwork for new teachers, even in programs that are supposed to help them.

“My own new teacher program was task heavy. That’s where we lost many [aspiring] teachers. Everything had to be recorded. Over the last 15 years, whenever I’ve seen teachers leave, 10 percent are moving to another job. Ninety percent can’t get through all the new teacher stuff,” said Brown.

Districts can cut down on the paperwork for new teachers, which may leave them more time to learn their craft.

“Everything doesn’t have to be a five-paragraph reflective journal entry. Sometimes a ten-minute conversation will do,” said Brown.

One of the biggest potential sources of formal mentoring: veteran teachers, many of whom say they never got the kind of support they’re often expected to provide.

Difficult starts

In response to a social media post about supporting new teachers, a theme in Education Week’s new The State of Teaching Project, several veteran educators, who’ve taught for over two decades, indicated that their first teaching assignments were full of challenges. A little support in the initial stages, they said, went a long way to cushion a difficult start.

“25-year veteran teacher and really nothing has changed. I had no ‘mentor’ teacher or any real ‘onboarding.’ Pretty much ‘Here’s a room, here’s the book, good luck!’ I cried every day on the way to work and quit after a year. Came back to it after having kids and managed to survive another 24 years. Getting pretty good at it by now, but no, virtually no help or support.”

—Carol G

“During my first years of teaching, I had wonderful mentors and colleagues. I had the opportunity to try things out during lessons and projects and got constructive feedback. It helped me to grow and made me confident that I was a good teacher. Then, sometime during the mid 2000s, the culture towards teachers started to change. Administrators became more critical and prone to micromanaging everyone, from teachers to support staff. The autonomy teachers once had slipped away slowly, year after year. All that matters now is time to test, prepare for tests, and blame teachers when scores are deemed ‘not high enough.’ Teachers have been under attack for some time now and it doesn’t appear to be changing any time soon. I resigned in December of 2022 and have never regretted it.”

—Sue L

“I had a lot of support that first year, thankfully. I see the difference when you don’t. I think I only cried once but it was still HARD. Now in year 11 it’s a different kind of hard, and I’ve accepted and let go of a lot of things. I think 1st years need some kind of building-level ‘how to do regular everyday stuff’ class once a month, but it’s on stuff they pick.”

—Ariel R

“One job I was hired to do: I was told the handbook was online; I was led to the intermediate classroom; & 12 hours later (with no books, no workbooks, no instruction material at all), my classes poured in at 48-minute intervals.”

—Christine W

“I moved mid-year to a very ‘good’ district, but there was no onboarding at all! Luckily my partner/mentor and instructional coach are working overtime to help me navigate a new district, grade, curriculums.”

—Tamara P

New teachers are in a unique position, said educators, because they’re expected to perform at the same level as a veteran teacher, without having the experience or tools to do so.

“Teaching is probably one of the few jobs (and maybe the only job) in which the employee is 100% alone on the first day—no assistance or supervision. They are expected to fly solo.”

—Scott T

“It’s one of the only professions where the pay does not match the expectation. A beginning teacher gets significantly less than an experienced teacher but their job is identical from day one. In other professions, you start out at the bottom, get taught on the job, your work is reviewed, feedback is given, and your pay is commensurate to your responsibilities. If anything, it’s more work the first year because you’re developing all of your lesson plans, rubrics, systems for the first time. I’m not surprised there’s a high attrition rate for new teachers.”

—Monika G

“Even during preservice. The expectation of my co-op was ridiculous. Like I was going to know everything there was to know prior to coming into the classroom for the first time.”

—Diane T

Breaking the cycle of apathy

Despite the challenges of a new job with little orientation, teachers at the beginning of their career have a higher morale than those who’ve crossed the three-year mark, according to EdWeek’s newly unveiled Teacher Morale Index]. The low morale, though, hasn’t deterred older teachers from guiding newer ones and offering suggestions for new avenues for support.

“Things immediately that I think would help:

— smaller class sizes and/or a para/assistant in every class no matter what grade.

— 4-day work week (or one day a week teachers-only for PDs/meetings/planning/etc., and then 4 days with students).”

—Allison W

“If you want new teachers to feel supported, allow them to teach. Do not burden them with required reflections and data collection. Simply support them and provide whatever resources they need as they implement their curriculum and learn how to manage a classroom. Provide help in managing the recordkeeping and required procedures, but do not take someone who is already overwhelmed and give them even more stuff to do on top of actually teaching their class.”

—Doug H

“I’m a retired teacher and last year I mentored a new teacher two days/week, earning sub pay. I did sub for this teacher when she was out, which was beneficial to the students. It was such a rewarding experience for both of us and a great learning experience for her. Bring back retired teachers as mentors, pay them for their experience. That will help keep new teachers in the profession.”

—Lynne L

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