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April 19, 2021

So You Wish It Had Been Different: Three First-Year Struggles

Every fear hides a wish. 

~ David Mamet

My first year of teaching was equal parts fear and wishing. In fact, they each pulled me from opposite directions, sometimes so tautly, everything seemed to bounce right off me, into the distance, uncatchable. That was my first year of teaching: lots of wishing for magical teaching moments and lots of hiding from my fears. I wished the kids would like me, but my fear meant I had some classroom management issues early on. I wished my colleagues would think I was doing a good job, but my fear meant I wouldn’t reach out to them with my own insecurities. I wished my lessons would all be inspired, but my fear meant that too often I would think about a “cool lesson” instead of a scope of learning.

My first year taught me that the rest of my years would be about shrinking the fictions of wishing and fear in order to opt for the beautiful and real mess of a teaching life. In case you’re finding yourself, at the end of this first year, needing a little less fiction and a little more beautiful mess, here are some common end-of-first-year struggles and how to use them to launch yourself into an even stronger year two.

If YOU WISH YOUR CLASS HADN’T BEEN UNRULY and you’re afraid you’ll walk into the same habits next year…

Let me assure you, first and foremost: you’re not the only first-year teacher to have had management struggles. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find any educator who doesn’t have a closet full of stories about the classes we lost control of, either temporarily or for longer periods of time. Behavior issues are tricky because we actually have to discover what’s going on underneath the surface of those poor choices.

Sarah Brown Wessling in the classroom

Sometimes we find that our young people are struggling through complexities that warrant the insight and guidance of counselors and mental health professionals. Other times it’s just bad classroom chemistry with all the combustibles in the same room at the same time. Yet, most of the time we can trace unruly classrooms back to some facets we have more control of. If you want to investigate this last year’s unruly class, here are some questions you might pose to yourself.

  • Did I meet them where they’re at? It’s a tough barometer, especially as an emerging professional who is still learning how to make challenge and skill intersect. It’s the question I often ask when thinking about differentiation. Rather than framing it as “high ability” and “low ability” learners (because any one of us can be either on any given day), I like to ask if I’m matching skill level with challenge. If there’s too much challenge for the skill level, a student may shut down out of anxiety. If the skill level outweighs the challenge, boredom sets in and so can behavior problems.
  • Did I create and abide by boundaries? I’ve always been pretty decent at creating boundaries. Abiding by them — that takes work. It can be especially difficult as a new teacher who desperately wants to do a good job and be liked by students; it can feel like you’re choosing between being a disciplinarian and building relationships. Yet, one of the most genuine ways to build relationships is by establishing the boundaries of behavior and when they’re crossed, it’s OK to say so. You don’t have to do it in a way that creates shame or embarrassment, but in a way that corrects the behavior and helps students understand the implications of their choices.

When I sense a student is about to “cross a line,” I often opt for giving them two choices, either of which I could live with. Do you want to work on this alone or with the whole class? Do you want to work with a new group of students or should we resolve this tension? The two choices approach allows students to exercise some control (which is usually what they feel like they’ve lost) and choose a positive alternative.

  • Did I pay attention to the undercurrents of the classroom? My own children have painfully taught me this lesson. I almost always catch the person doing the reacting before discovering the actual antagonist. Try to inquire before you react. Try to read the landscape: Who is hurting? Who is recoiling? Who is externalizing it all? Read the layers of the classroom, looking for triggers and levers, thinking of release valves and vents.
  • Did I manage routines, time, and the work of the class? Sometimes an unruly class is more about classroom organization. Is there enough predictability in the daily schedule? If there’s chaos in the classroom, is it because of energized learning or frantic scrambling? Please know that even seasoned teachers have mismanaged days and lessons that are confusing or don’t go as planned. The goal is to have more days where an organized classroom makes the students and their learning the focus, rather than detracts from it.

If YOU WISH YOU WEREN’T SO ISOLATED FROM YOUR COLLEAGUES and you’re afraid you won’t know how to create better relationships next year…

teachers having a conversation

Teaching is already complex and challenging work, but add in isolation and it can feel downright lonely. If you’re thinking about your first year and wishing you’d forged better relationships with colleagues, or even find yourself confused about why they didn’t develop as you’d hoped, here are some questions that may help draw out a stronger second year.

  • Have you been available? It’s the first premise of any relationship: are you open to it? Others will sense that you’re open to some professional camaraderie when you make time for them, when you get genuinely curious about what’s going on in their classrooms, when you stop to listen. Bringing in a new teacher to a grade level, department, or school is cause for excitement, but it can also unnerve some experienced teachers. Honestly, you both probably share the need to be acknowledged for doing good work, for having worthwhile ideas, for being a valued member of the teaching team. Therefore, being available not only means being physically present, but being available to witness the strengths in others.
  • Did you look in unlikely places for colleagues? You may be one of many teachers who finds themselves isolated for other reasons. Perhaps you’re the only third grade teacher in your building or your schedule keeps you away from collaborating with others. Sometimes this means looking in unlikely places. Just because you’re an English teacher doesn’t mean the industrial tech teacher can’t be a brilliant mentor.

If you’re feeling stuck or isolated, consider joining a professional organization, looking in different hallways, or taking to social media. Know this: no one does this work alone. No one. It’s a matter of finding the people you trust and being vulnerable enough that you’re able to grow. So go looking for colleagues in all kinds of places and don’t punish yourself if it takes awhile to find the ones that share your passion, drive, and exuberant energy that only first-year teachers have.

  • Have you put in the time? I know it seems like an obvious question, but one that’s easily overlooked. Building relationships takes time. If you’ve felt overwhelmed (like most first-year teachers do) you may not have been as available as you thought. Making time to eat lunch with colleagues, or initiate conversations over the photocopy machine can be the small steps you need to build a bridge from you to them.

If YOU WISH YOU WEREN’T SO EXHAUSTED and you’re afraid this is what the rest of your career is going to feel like…

I know. You’re tired. Tired to your bones. It’s quite possible you’ll spend the first two weeks of your summer just sleeping and napping and trying to let your body catch up from a year’s worth of intensity (this part might go on for many years). If you’re already wondering about burnout, then it’s time to slow down before you get so far gone you wonder why you ever thought teaching was a good idea. If you’re afraid the rest of your career looks like this right now, here are some questions to launch you out of the funk.

  • Have you thought about output and input? I know, unequivocally, you’ve given so much this year. But if you want to find ways to keep giving, then you must also be just as conscientious about restoring yourself. Feed yourself well this summer. Not just with schoolwork, either. Feed yourself with family and friends. Put it all away for awhile and you’ll be surprised how much more clearly you return to it. Don’t feel guilty about it, either. Some like to chide that teachers get their summers off, but we know you really work an entire year in nine months, so this is much-earned time to get yourself ready for new students, new challenges, a new year.
Sarah Brown Wessling on hike
  • Have you tried to be perfect? Here’s the thing. This job is big and there isn’t perfection waiting on the other side of sleep deprivation. If you’re looking over your shoulder at some other teachers who have generated more materials, tried more strategies, had more experiences, please remember they’ve also had more time. They didn’t start with all of this, they accumulated it.
  • Did you focus on the real priorities? The fastest way to burnout is to focus on all the reasons you didn’t become a teacher. All the things that create noise and distraction. Remember why you clamored for a classroom, how you pictured yourself working with students. Did you learn your students? Could you tell a learning story about each one of them? Spend your time here, on the people, and you’ll find your energy again and again. I know you will.
Sarah Brown Wessling Signature

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