Updated: Aug 26, 2020
During my first months as a teacher, I regularly felt miserable, overwhelmed, and full of self-doubt. When I woke up in the morning, I often felt a sense of dread. Would I be handle the challenges that the day would bring? Driving to school, I listened to talk radio rather than music. The reason: music would have provoked emotions. And I couldn’t risk bringing up emotions.
At lunch in the staff lounge, my colleagues would chitchat cheerfully with one another. Meanwhile, I would be sinking deeper into despair. How was I going to be able to handle my classes after lunch? My morning classes weren’t at all easy, but my classes after lunch were regularly my hardest of the day, and things seemed to only be getting worse.
After school, I ate my feelings, scarfing down burgers and fries from the greasy burger joint near school. With a distended stomach and my mind in a grease-induced fog, I spent hours cleaning up my classroom and trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to lesson plan for the next day.
With each passing day, I tried to put on a happy face for my students and colleagues. But, generally speaking, I was miserable. And after years of working alongside early-career teachers, I know that I’m not alone.
It’s why we consistently see alarming reports about the mental well-being and retention rates for teachers. It’s also why a quick Google search for “Phases of a first year teacher” yields dozens of images that look like the one below. In fact, I have yet to meet an educator who doesn’t resonate with this image in some form or fashion:
That ticks me off. Specifically, there are two problems that I have with all this.
First, why do we let things get so bad? Over and over again, I’ve heard people who train early-career educators tell me that they regularly use some version of this image to help their teachers realize that they’re not alone. The teacher-trainers show the image above to their fledgling educators to help them understand that their negative experiences are, in a sense, normal. This may be comforting -- it’s helpful for struggling novice educators to understand that they’re not crazy -- but couldn’t we do better? Couldn’t we provide supports for teachers that actually prevent things from getting so bad?
It’s crazy to me that we accept teacher misery and burnout as inevitable. By providing teachers with meager amounts of professional development and a complete absence of personal development, we seem to be resigning ourselves to the most negative aspects of the image above as an inevitability. It’s as if we view the first years of teaching as a kind of hazing ritual, a treacherous rite of passage that everyone must move through. But hazing isn’t okay. So why are we allowing ourselves to engage in a subtle form of hazing with early-career educators? We must do better.
Second, things are often worse than this picture lets on. Sure, that graphic is representative of the journey of many educators, but for too many, the rise back to anticipation never happens. The uptick in their emotions never actually occurs. Instead, a depiction of their first year journey looks more like this:
Or even this:
I saw an article last year that I can’t get out of my head. It said that, by the end of the first month of the school year, 526 teachers in Arizona had already quit their jobs. One month into the school year, the state was short over 1,300 teachers.
Things are similarly bad in other parts of the country as well. Of course, there are many reasons for this: insufficient funding, inadequate professional preparation, weak school administration, etc. But I reject the idea that things need to be this bad. We can do better. And we need to do better.
And while there are many causes to this mess, one that I am passionate about addressing is the often nonexistent support that we provide teachers for tackling the personal challenges that we know they’re likely to face: overwhelm, personal neglect, self-doubt about their teaching abilities, isolation, and more. If we can anticipate that early-career educators will face these challenges, then we should be doing something to help them know these challenges are coming and conquer them when they arise.
After all, if teachers are feeling personally miserable, how can we expect them to do great work with their students? In short, we can’t. As a country, we need to be doing so much more to support educators -- particularly early-career educators -- to thrive as professionals, yes, but also as people.
That’s the purpose of the Educators Thriving blog: to share solutions that teachers and school leaders can use to help early-career teachers thrive.