5 Lessons for Parents and Teachers From Terrible First Year of Teaching

My first year of teaching was not a smashing success.

first year of teaching

A huge turning point in my life was when I realized that I was a terrible teacher.

I had started off with promise.  Out of college, teaching had not been my first career choice — I had decided to take a “break” from a doctoral program that I had entered right out of undergWhat You Can Learn From My Beginning Years of Terrible Teachingrad because I wanted to move back to New England and because I was wracking up student loan debt despite my fellowship.

Somehow my internship year at Boston Latin School, a prestigious exam school from which past presidents and many of Boston’s most prominent citizens had attended, had convinced me that maybe I was born to be a teacher.

Boston Latin School
Boston Latin School (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had 7th and 11th grade classes at Boston Latin, and they were all just a delight.  Every student was active and engaged, and they responded to my assignments with hard work and enthusiasm.  They even complained if I gave TOO LITTLE homework!  They hung on my every word and asked to hang out with me after class.

The next year I got a job at a suburban public middle school, and I taught seventh grade English and history.

And it was the biggest disaster of my life.  Turns out that ordinary seventh graders are nothing like the ones who apply and are accepted to Boston Latin.  They were rude, loud, didn’t care at all about colonial history, and — most disturbingly of all — seemed to dislike me intensely.

All they seemingly cared about was gossiping, talking about school dances, passing notes with their friends, and picking on other kids.  I cried in my classroom nearly every day after the students left.

This was the first time in my life that I tried to do something that I cared about, and — no matter how hard I worked, no matter how hard I tried — I was a failure.

Then I took two classes over the summer, one on children’s literature and another about how to teach writing workshop.

Over that summer, I had a million huge moments of realization.  What I brought back into the classroom changed my teaching and changed my view of adolescence and kids’ learning.

Most of all, I realized that all the trials and tribulations of being a seventh grader — the daily crisis of confidence, the overwhelming confusion over your role as a friend, the beginnings of sexual attraction and hormonal flux — were not things to fight against or to ignore.  Embrace them, in your teaching or your parenting, and use them as points of connection.

Connection is the key to good teaching.

Here’s what I realized from my semi-disastrous first year of teaching:

1.  Listen

The first rule of teaching is not to be the best instructor of content matter, but to be the best listener.  Children will tell you what they need to learn — maybe not in words — if you are open to hearing them.

2.  Model

Model your own thinking and your own writing in the classroom.  Show them how you write and what you write about.  Show them that you are a real person who uses writing to think deeply.  Show your rough drafts, show your brainstorming, show your tossed out scribblings.

3.  Choice

Allow choice in your assignments and projects.  During my first year of teaching, I chose all the novels based on the history curriculum (colonial America).  Big mistake.  We read Johnny Tremain and other classics of the American Revolution.  Great books, but mostly disconnected from the lives of ordinary adolescents.  Now I allowed kids to choose the books that they wrote about, and for class discussions, I chose books that touched on themes that were more relevant to their daily lives.

4. Empathy

Adolescents are not selfish or self-involved.  Or, well, maybe they are some of the time, but there are legitimate neurological reasons for this.

Our pre-frontal cortex — the part of the brain that controls reasoning, impulse control, and self-reflection— goes through some profound shifts.  It’s literally adding the parts that allow us to develop our own self-identity and to be good at self-regulation.  Brain chemicals, such as dopamine, are surging during the teenage years, causing every experience to feel more intense, more life and death.

The continuous drama of adolescence may literally be programmed into our brains.  Just realizing this caused me to be more patient and empathetic with kids.

5. Relationship-building

Before any learning can take place, you have to develop a sense of trust and caring.  And this relationship-building takes time and must be prioritized just as much (or more) as tests and essays.

Nevertheless, I did not become a great teacher overnight.  But reading about kids’ lives through children’s literature and giving kids a voice in their own learning ultimately made me the kind of teacher that I wanted to become.

I don’t have adolescent children of my own yet.  But I think that these suggestions could help parents as well. Yesterday, I wrote about how much I learned about adolescence and how much empathy I developed for their everyday concerns from reading novels with teenage narrators.

  • Don’t stop reading children’s literature once your kids are no longer in elementary school.  It will help you to understand their lives.
  • Prioritize developing a sense of community in your household.  Do projects together, and make time for family conversations about family goals and priorities.
  • Model your own thinking about how you make decisions and how you puzzle over and solve the issues in your life.  My teaching really changed once I started to share my decision-making processes — about writing but also the struggles that I had faced in the past and even in the present.

What are the qualities of a great teacher, in your view?

29 thoughts on “5 Lessons for Parents and Teachers From Terrible First Year of Teaching”

  1. If only all teachers were as enlightened as you are…
    It is great that you cared enough to change your ways instead of trying to blame the students. Middle schoolers are tough because like you said they are going through an awkward time of change; they need support and a lot of it. When I was doing my MA in counseling I always said I either wanted to work with really little kids or almost grown-up kids (college students) not the in-betweeners. For me, I know it wouldn’t be a good fit.

    1. I know! It is such an instinctive response to blame the kids… And they are so tough at that age. But I believe strongly that all kids want to learn. You just have to know how to reach them and what parts of yourself will allow you to do that.

  2. I remember feeling so similar in my very first year of teaching and I hated that feeling of failure when I usually could do just about anything and could succeed, but this daunted me and made me feel so inferior. You are right though that it took opening up my thinking processes to see things from my students’ point of view to change things for me. Thank you for sharing Jessica and think you must have been a wonderful teacher. I also think your child is so very lucky to have you as a mother, too!! Thank you for linking up with us this week and do very much hope you have a great weekend!

  3. Soap box: 100% of my teaching experiences were with high-risk students in areas that were being devoured by poverty. I’ve always thought that working with unwilling students created better teachers and taught teachers what their worth really was. Also, I didn’t feel like a good reading teacher until I went back and got my master’s in reading- just like those courses helped you. I wish and hope that teacher prep programs put more reading into the coursework because it just doesn’t feel like we (or any of the student teachers I hosted) came out knowing enough about teaching reading.

    1. It is so much harder to teach in a school with at risk kids (or even average) ones. The fact that I taught at this working/middle class school at the beginning of my career helped me so much to develop teaching skills. Later, I taught at an elite prep school. The challenges were so different, but I felt like I had already worked on my classroom management skills and already understood my identity as a teacher. That allowed me to focus on things like parent-teacher communication and curriculum development.

  4. Oh those first years of teaching are so tough! You’ve given great suggestions about becoming a better teacher. I teach high school, mostly sophomores, and learning about how their brains work has definitely helped my teaching! {And this reminded me of when I was in labor with my first child, after about 8 hours of intense labor w/o medication, I distinctly remember turning to my husband and saying, “It’s not as bad as my first year of teaching!” LOL.} We learn so much in those first few years, and it all helps us become better teachers!

    1. I know! Isn’t it amazing that so many teachers leave just when they’re starting to get good at it? It takes a lot of work and mentorship of a new teacher for them to become the kind of teacher that they’re capable of being.

  5. Yes, this: “The first rule of teaching is not to be the best instructor of content matter, but to be the best listener.” And ditto in parenting, right? Before you do/act: listen. Really listen–before they can talk (and after) observe. A lesson to put into practice today for me..

  6. Hee, I realized I would make a really bad teach early enough to not become one, but late enough to have already invested a lot of time and money into that degree! Thanks for linking up with #FTSF this week, hope to see you next week!

  7. I remember having teachers that only worried about getting as much info into our heads as possible. At times, some of my classmates would complain and my teacher would bark back at them. You are right, the most important thing for teachers to do is be intent listeners. Teachers are there not only to teach a subject, but to also see children grow. Looks like you are doing a pretty good job at that!

  8. I love that you said to share you struggles, past and present. As a teacher, I was amazed at how much better my classroom was when my students knew I was human.

    Nice/permissive doesn’t work (they will walk all over you! Ha!) but, warm/firm does. Help them to see you care about them (like you said, connect, listen, and share about yourself) but always remain in charge. Show them what functional leadership looks like! (as you said, model!)

    Ah, your post made me miss teaching! Well, it makes me miss the time when I finally felt decently confident…not the hellish times. And, that Latin School sounds like heaven! Haha…yeah, I taught art at a rural public school, it was a challenge to get these farming, hunting kids to care about art and art history! It was fun though to figure out how to connect the content to them, even though there were times when my efforts just plain failed…Ha.

    Thanks for the post, Jessica!

    1. Thanks, Amy. I like what you said about firmness. I was definitely strict as a teacher. Kids also respond so well to having clear boundaries and understanding rules and routines. I imagine that was especially important when kids are doing art!

  9. What a fascinating post! You seem to have an incredible handle on adolescents and how to work with them. I had to laugh when I got to your life about “-most disturbingly, they seemed to dislike me intensely!” The fact that you were motivated to understand them better and turn things around proves what an excellent teacher you in fact are.

    1. For a long time I made it about me: why didn’t the student LIKE me? But I realized that I was spending so much time alternating between being too mean and strict and then trying to bend over backwards to be “nice” that the kids could literally smell the inauthenticity on my skin!

  10. I remember when I started teaching in North Carolina. I was at a school that was considered “low performing”. When I went for the interview, the principal said, “Now, we have a State Assistance Team. I want to be up front with you about that. There will be people in and out of your room whenever they want.” I was so dumb! I said, “Oh, you mean more help? That’s GREAT!” It was a tough place to start out, and like you, I was quickly humbled…I wasn’t nearly as great as I thought I was. I was terrible.

    The advice you’ve given here is great advice. I believe coursework paired with real, live experience is the best way to train a teacher, and I always hear, time and time again, people who felt they learned on the job. I wish there was a way to provide opportunities for reflection while teachers do something akin a doctoral residency in the medical field before they get thrown to the wolves…I believe that’s why teachers quit–they go into teaching without being fully prepared to experience success.

    I liked your post! 🙂

    1. It’s so true! For many masters programs in education, the coursework is so disconnected from how to train real teachers. I definitely agree that it should be more like a residency. There are so many innovative programs to mentor and support new teachers during the first years. These should be required in every school, not just ones in which the administration has figured out that it makes sense.

  11. My first years of teaching were at a Catholic school part time. The first year was horrible. The second year gave me enough confidence to continue on. The third year I went from a tiny Catholic elementary school to two schools with a total of 600 students (music teacher here) and did me in. This was not by choice-I started with one principal and changed principals mid-year. The second one never gave me a chance.

    Was it a learning experience? Absolutely? Can I teach anyone else anything from it. If I had been allowed to continue, perhaps.

    I spent a great deal of time trying to get to know some of my more troubled students. The ones that acted up I tried to get more involved in something that would keep them occupied. Some of them that were barely interested in music went on to be actively involved in music the rest of their school career. I’m sorry I didn’t get more opportunities to teach…

    This was really good, thank you for sharing!

    1. A supportive principal and administration can make all the difference. During those first couple bad years of teaching, my principal was useless; he had no idea how to mentor new teachers. Later I had administrators who were supportive and really seemed to understand how to develop and support successful educators.

  12. These are amazing! I love the ways you found to connect with the children you were teaching. Sounds like those courses you took were just the right thing at just the right time. Thanks for sharing your strategies.

  13. I have to pin this because I will need to refer back to it when my kids hit adolescence, if I haven’t already memorized it by then! Great post! So helpful! Thank you!

  14. I love reading your posts, they are always so enlightening and as I’ve said before they are that without being preachy, instead I always feel supported reading them. I’ve bookmarked it as I do so many of your articles. Great job, Jessica!

  15. I have no idea how you all do it.
    I thought about being a teacher and decided that I liked blood and guts better and became a nurse.
    With my son in his first year of school, I’ve realized how hard it is to be a teacher and how rewarding it is…I hope so.
    So I’d like to extend my appreciation to you. You work hard to help shape my kid’s noggin.

  16. My sister went from being a research scientist to being a middle school teacher. However for some reason she really remembered how hard her own middle school years were and was able to use that. I think being a middle school teacher is the hardest kind of teacher you can be. It’s a gift some teacher’s have. It’s great that you found what you needed to be able to reach them. As my sister always says they’re still at an age where they’re afraid of you, so if you have their respect they will listen to you.
    AND did you ever read The Notorious Benedect Arnold? One of the BEST books I ever read. It’s for middle school readers, but I never learned so much and enjoyed it before!

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  19. I read your post and the responses as well. I taught for a year as a leave replacement for Spanish. Trial by fire, to me, doesn’t even begin to describe it. I have such a difficult time that in January I mentally checked out and after June (and driving to work every morning hoping to be hit by an 18-wheeler) I stopped speaking Spanish for six months, avoided people who spoke other languages besides English and stayed away for two years. I had decided that after the two year mark (physical reactions etc) I would close that chapter in my life. Something made me send out a few resumes. Only one responded. I went on the interview and got the job AND position for department coordinator. From the day I got the job I regretted it and even considered rescinding my acceptance. After asking friends’ advice (the majority of whom are teachers) I stuck with it. I’ve been miserable ever since. I feel lost, unable to teach, I feel I have no direction and feel that I have taken on too much for a new teacher -being teacher and coordinator. My best friend, a teacher of 16 years has offered to help me but I am so stressed it stresses him out and it makes things worse as I know have NO HELP. I came from an alternate route program in NJ, something I recommend to no one. Alternate route does not give a chance for student teaching or other things a traditional route requires– it is a sink or swim situation. I don’t know what to do- this is the second week of class (the first week of full periods) and I am completely at my wits end. I’ve already started putting out feelers for a new job (non-teaching) and am considering going back to my old job (with an $18,000 pay cut) just to relax. Oh, I can’t sleep past 3:30am no matter what. I applaud you guys for sticking with this career path. It takes a certain type of person to be able to teach. I just don’t think I have it. thoughts?

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