Challenges of a First-Year Teacher

Khristina Russell
Khristina Russell
High school instructional coach; Ed.S. in Teacher Leadership from Thomas University, GA
A young teacher stands at the front of class while students raise their hands.

Typical Challenges of a First-Year Teacher

It’s the first day of school, filled with anticipation, hope, and even a touch of anxiety. After spending years studying content, hours in observation, and considerable time crafting a resume to find a job, it is time. You are officially a teacher. But wait, is that student over there asleep already? What was it you were going to say? What’s your name? Can you even remember what to do next?

Pre-Planning

There cannot be any job in the world that yields equal rewards and frustrations as the first year of teaching. There’s data management, parent communication, standardized testing, and funding concerns. All novice teachers travel through pre-planning a little overwhelmed but anxious to share all the knowledge gained through undergraduate. They are determined to change the world, one period, one student, one day at a time.

Time Management and Routines

It takes considerable time to define and refine priorities: tasks that can be completed quickly, those that can be delayed a bit, and things that shouldn’t rent space in your mind. A teacher who can manage time well can generally comply with the basic expectations for day-to-day operations:

Unless working in an elementary school, elective, or some specialized course, teachers often don’t work with the same group of students all day for a year. In secondary schools, teachers commonly see students for a semester or for a year at a time. Still, either way, secondary teachers typically teach anywhere from three to six different sets of students every day. In both scenarios, establishing rituals and routines is paramount. Although not often viewed this way, rituals and routines help students see what is important to a teacher. It also keeps a new teacher from “sweating the small stuff.”

Engaging Students

After that is established, figuring out how to actively engage students for longer than 15 minutes becomes a new teachers’ life work:

  • Use a blend of technology, media, print, and live experiences
  • Project-based learning
  • Cross-curricular experiences
  • Collaborations with various stakeholders

What New Challenges did COVID Present for New Teachers?

For the remainder of our lives, time will always be considered as before COVID and now. In the current space, all educators are having a series of experiences for the first time.

Attendance

Students customarily can’t miss more than 10 days of school without dealing with some sanction or attendance contract. For the past couple of years, there has been no such expectation. After traveling through the woes of virtual learning, hybrid teaching, and anything in between, attendance hasn’t been tracked similarly; absences don’t immediately yield failure. However, for a new teacher, it is tricky to track and monitor learning for chronically absent students.

Parent Communication

Many parents have not ever spent as much time with their children as they have over the last couple of years. They view their students through a different lens and education as well. It is important that when responding to parents, new teachers should wait at least 12-24 hours unless the issue is extremely urgent.

Consulting with a colleague to determine what is and is not pressing can help; there is also a great benefit to having an administrator, mentor, or colleague look over the initial emails and correspondence a new teacher makes. New teachers need to build a rapport with their parents that displays their boundaries and preferences.

New Student Needs

Students now have a completely different set of needs:

  • Navigating the way the world feels after being isolated
  • Learning again along with absorbing information in-person
  • Adjusting to being around one another again

They have endured everything that adults have, some to an even greater extent. So many students returned to school angry and frustrated, seemingly combative. New teachers may struggle to recognize signs of distress in students.

Strategies to Overcome First-Year Teacher Challenges

New teachers can research first-year teacher essentials to try and make their first year more manageable. Here are the five recommendations that I have used as a mentor teacher to assist first-year teachers.

Ask for Help

Recently, there was a focused discussion centered around the lessons learned in a meeting for new teachers. One of the most commonly discussed lessons was the topic of asking for help.  If a first-year teacher is not provided a mentor, they must seek or request one. Having a confidant to ask all of the “silly” or uncomfortable questions is vital.

A new teacher must acknowledge that they do not know. Having a mentor or support person also provides a safe space to vent, be confused, and celebrate. Although the first year is filled with challenges, there will be triumphs too!

Plan and Schedule

New teachers who don’t plan are often overwhelmed. They won’t have effective classroom management because they have not managed their classroom time well. Further, new teachers often lack the skills to tie standards and ideas together without an intentional effort. Regardless of what a teacher went to school for, it is imperative that new teachers study their material, rehearse their lectures, and constantly make documented adjustments as necessary.

Scheduling time is a game-changer for a new teacher committed to this effort. For instance, scheduling time to grade papers, write lessons, research a new topic, or run copies can make a tremendous difference in the productivity of a new teacher. It may seem silly to plan for planning, but it’s amazing what won’t get done because it wasn’t scheduled.

Evaluate your Boundaries

  • Does it bother you if students get out of their seats without permission?
  • Is gum a distraction to you when having a conversation with a student?
  • Do you like to joke with students?
  • What happens when a student says “no” when provided with a request or directive?

In each classroom, students are faced with a different set of boundaries. New teachers need to be clear about what is and what is not important to them to avoid wasting classroom time managing inconsequential issues.

They also need to be clear about boundaries so that students know how to operate when in their presence. Some teachers hug their hug students while others keep them at arm’s length. Certain teachers don’t mind if students call them by their first names, while others would classify that as the ultimate disrespect. Being clear about these things allows new teachers to avoid confusing their students.

Apologizing

If a new teacher accidentally disrespects a student or colleague, forgets something in oversight, or does something that is wrong, apologizing can be necessary. This shows the students that their teacher is human and allows students the opportunity to be more comfortable with making mistakes.

Students are human beings. When the adults in their life acknowledge to them they committed an error and are working to fix it, that adult is creating a safe space for students to not be afraid to take academic risks. This shares the vulnerability that often keeps confusion hidden, and renders support.

Self-Care

  • Drink water
  • Exercise
  • Eat well
  • Take vitamins
  • Have healthy sleep hygiene
  • Monitor your physical health
  • Find a work-life balance

Further, every new teacher should consider seeking a therapist. Vicarious trauma is real, and coming out of the pandemic, if a new teacher isn’t careful they will be carrying the burdens of several students and colleagues on top of their own. Education is a practice that takes, but a teacher can’t give and fill another bucket if all they have is a glassful.

After the first year, a teacher should have plenty to reflect and grow on because it’s just that, the first year. Each year will get better and better as risks are taken, mistakes are made, and plans fail. New teachers need to know that we don’t learn from success, we learn from the things that don’t go as well as we hoped. That’s when we know what doesn’t work and can grow from there.

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