I started crying just after the waitress dropped off the pancakes.
It was October of my first year of teaching, and my mom had come to visit. We decided to meet for an early-morning breakfast at IHOP before the school day started.
A few minutes after sitting down, Mom asked, “So, how are things going, Ty?”
My eyes welled up with tears. And as a tear rolled down my cheek and onto my pancake, I said, “It’s just really hard, Mom.”
I was miserable. I couldn’t keep up with my classroom responsibilities, so I was losing sleep. My exercise routine was out the window, and I was eating terribly. Whenever I wasn’t planning lessons or grading papers, I was consumed with guilt. And, oh yeah, I wasn’t a good teacher. So there I was: crying into pancakes at IHOP. Miserable.
Welcome to October of my first year of teaching.
I know I’m not the only person to experience this. Mountains of research attest to the challenges of the first years of teaching. So does Google: Just look at what comes up when you search for “phases of a first year teacher.”
But here’s a question we don’t ask often enough: What causes people to become miserable?
We tell teachers their first year of teaching will be hard, but we don’t tell them how it will be hard. Sure, we might give them a heads up about some of the professional challenges they’ll face: toiling for hours on lesson plans or struggling with classroom management. But, in my experience, we fail to give new teachers a heads up about the personal challenges they’re almost certain to encounter.
That’s a problem. By hiding the ball from new teachers, we become complicit in their descent into disillusionment and despair.
I’m committed to changing that reality. I’ve focused my doctoral studies on understanding the personal factors that lead new teachers to become miserable in October. I’ve immersed myself in the research literature and interviewed dozens of new teachers across the country. Out of all that, five pitfalls have emerged.
Pitfall 1: Overwhelm
New teachers find themselves with more work than they can possibly do: creating great lesson plans, building relationships with parents, grading mountains of student work, complying with school and district responsibilities, etc. The list is endless. So, almost inevitably, new teachers become overwhelmed.
Pitfall 2: Personal Neglect
As a result of being overwhelmed, many new teachers begin neglecting their basic human needs. They lose sleep, stop exercising, and eat poorly. This snowballs into new teachers feeling worse and worse as time goes by.
Pitfall 3: Unexpected Challenges
Most new teachers expect some challenges. For instance, they might expect that classroom management will be tricky. Or that they’ll struggle with lesson planning. But almost inevitably, unexpected challenges arise: The copy machine never works. Their principal turns out to be unsupportive. Parents yell at them. Because these challenges are unexpected, they can have a disproportionately damaging impact on a new teacher's well-being.
Pitfall 4: Fixed Mindset
Having succumbed to the pitfalls outlined above, new teachers often conclude that they’re just not cut out for this work. “I don’t have what it takes,” they think. They compare themselves with other teachers who seem to be “naturals,” and they judge themselves fundamentally incapable. Before long, they’ve concluded they’re not cut out for this whole teaching thing after all. A boring desk job starts looking more and more appealing.
Pitfall 5: Isolation
Finally, many new teachers suffer in silence. They attempt to protect themselves from the challenges they’re experiencing by figuratively (and sometimes literally) curling up and cutting themselves off from others. Rather than seeking out people who could support them, they wall themselves off. This only ensures that their problems will fester, getting worse and worse with each passing day.
I hope new teachers reading this will realize that they’re not alone. I hope they know that they’re not crazy for experiencing these pitfalls. I hope they come to see that their experience is, in fact, perfectly normal.
In the coming weeks, I’ll share additional posts that offer suggestions for how teachers can deal with each of these five pitfalls.
In closing, however, there are two ways I could use your support:
1. What have I missed? Have you experienced personal challenges that aren’t called out in this post? Let me know what you think in the comments below.
2. Do you know a teacher who would benefit from reading this? Do they need to know that they’re not the only person struggling with these challenges? If so, please share this post!