Sink or Swim?

I saw a quote today that said:  “Teaching is one of the few professions that eats its young.”

And as I think back to my first year, I’m remember being pretty lucky.  I was hired at .75 and taught Math and LA with a couple of odds and ends courses  that were fairly low prep (Health 8, Health 6, etc.)  I spent most of my first year learning how to swim in the deep end.

My school division:  Chinook’s Edge School Division #73 also has a phenomenal mentorship program.  I felt guided and supported.  But that doesn’t mean I felt at ease.  There was planning lessons, teacher evaluation, the looming threat of possibly having no job after June when my contract was up, dealing with being told by other teachers to keep my head down and not offer too many opinions in my first year.  “Wait until you have your continuous contract.  Then you can have an opinion about anything you want.”

In 2006, The Washington Post reported that nearly half of all first year teachers quit.

I wouldn’t be surprised if that number is higher now that it’s 5 years later.  And apparently the turn around rate for teachers in the first 5 years is also very high.  So it seems as though there is a “5 year itch” for those in the profession.

I myself have taught with teachers who fall into both categories now.  A first year teacher who quit in January, two friends who went on maternity leave and never came back to teaching, three friends who left after about three years to either go back to university or pursue other careers.

We need to invest in our new teachers if we want to see them grow and develop their full potential.  In a perfect world, this is what I believe a first year teacher would experience:

1.  A half time teaching load but at full time pay.

They need the prep time more than any other teacher on staff, but they also need the money.  Giving them the planning time to take care of lessons and classroom management would make things so much easier.

2.  Internal School Evaluations Only

It’s stressful enough being evaluated, but having a complete stranger come into your room twice a year who is going to write a “make-it-or-break-it” report that could affect your career is highly stressful.  Add to it that this person may or may not understand that you have 4 behaviour kids, 2 learning disabilities, 5 kids who don’t eat breakfast or lunch, and 2 kids you were simply glad made it to school that morning means they also won’t understand whether you are having a “good teaching day” or not.

There needs to be some evaluation obviously.  But let it come from other seasoned teachers on staff, the administration, the curriculum leader?  Or eliminate the “evaluation” feel of it and simply call it “coaching”.  Constructive feedback, opportunities to discuss growth, etc.

Bring in the district guy in Year 2 when you’ve at least learned how to swim and don’t feel quite like drowning.

3.  Restrict/Eliminate Extra Curricular Expectations

So often these days teachers are hired not based on the subjects they teach but rather what they are willing to spend time doing.  Coaching, lunch hour leadership programs, after school activities, and the list goes on…..  There is a huge pressure to prove your worth to the school by how many hours you are willing to give up beyond school hours in order to make the school “better”.

And if you have a new teacher who desperately wants to coach basketball….that’s great!  Let them but make sure someone coaches with them so they aren’t running hour long practices every day and giving up five weekends in a row for tournaments.

I’m not suggestions you should tell a first year teacher to ignore a passion if they have it, but I am suggesting that we limit the idea that unless they are willing to… coach three sports, start two after school clubs, give up every lunch hour for planning grad or run student council…they won’t get the job.

4.  Full Blown Mentorship Support

This got me through my first year.  In fact I enjoyed it so much I begged them to let me take part in the program during year 2.  Connection with a mentor who will tell you, it’s going to be ok, is huge.  The person that supports and guides you becomes an important piece of your day to day survival.  And that person needs to be easily accessible.

Teaching is one of the few professions that will eat it’s own young…through the expectations placed upon them.  More and more new teachers have families.  I’m grateful I only had a husband I never saw in my first year.  If we’d had children I don’t know if I would have made it.  And I was only teaching .75.  But I ran the school Peer Support team and I coached that year as well.  I felt like if I didn’t do these extra things I may not be hired back the following year.  I also gave up numerous “prep” or “non-teaching” periods to cover for other people’s classes when they couldn’t find a sub because after all….I wanted a job the following year!

Those who enter this profession because the holidays look great?  I fully expect them to be gone from the profession within 5 years.  Once you’ve gone past the education degree stage of your career and you are into a full time classroom you begin to understand why teachers get those two months off.  We need to recharge and de-stress.  Suddenly those two months off don’t look like such a good trade off for the amount of work and stress involved with the actual job itself.  Those of us who stay do it because we love it.  We love making a difference and accept the difficulties that will come with it.  We learn to survive and thrive in a profession that “eats its young.”

And for those of you new to the profession?  Either completing a first/second year or possibly looking to enter it for the first time?  It does get easier.  I promise.

Look to others for support, guidance, and help as often as you can.

You will make it.  You will survive.  And people like me will be cheering you on all along the way.

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About Cherra-Lynne Olthof

I've been a middle school teacher for my entire career (which began in 2001). Like my students, I too am a life long learner. My goals include helping my students to achieve their goals, support them in their learning, and to encourage them to think "beyond the grade".
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2 Responses to Sink or Swim?

  1. Allan Whitehead says:

    Interesting post Cheryl. I’m still trying to get through my first 5 years intact, and thankfully it seems to get better each year so far (I’m finishing year 3). I wonder how our profession compares to others. How many accountants, doctors, lawyers, etc. change careers in the first 5 years.

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