Thoughts on Being a Second-Year Teacher

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When you get into the world of teaching, everyone is always talking about the first year and what to expect–they tell you that it’s normal to put in 60-hour work weeks and that it’s normal to take things too personally and that it’s normal to feel like each day is a game of survival.

And then it seems like they all say, “But don’t worry—it gets better with time.”

“How much time?” I ask.

“Well, it will never really be ‘easy.’ But just give it time–you’ll see.”

And with that elusive answer, the conversation is closed, with the other teacher convinced that she’s told me everything I need to know about my educational career path.

Well, for anyone out there wondering how being a second-year teacher is different than being a first-year teacher, I’ll tell you.

First, the work load–

I was convinced that after my first year, most everything would be smooth sailing from there on out since I had already planned out a full year’s worth of lessons. Surely I wouldn’t still be working 60-hour work weeks in my second year, right?

Well, while I DO leave the school (on average) earlier than I did during my first year of teaching (5 PM most days instead of 6 or 7), I still am almost always the last teacher in the building. Here’s why–while I do have many lesson plans and materials that I made up last year at my fingerprints, I have discovered a funny thing about myself as a teacher:

I’m a bit of an overachiever.

Some teachers (although I honestly think the number isn’t as high as some people would believe) are content to make one year’s worth of lesson plans and then stick to basically the same routine for all of teaching eternity (or at least as long as they can get away with it).

I am not that kind of teacher.

You see, I have this idealist notion that if I just keep learning from what went wrong and making changes and trying out new strategies, I will be able to teach MORE kids MORE information MORE of the time. As far as theories go, it’s not a bad one, but it does mean that I spend a LOT of time creating brand-new lesson plans and units from scratch because the old ones just won’t satisfy me anymore.

Another reason why my work load is hardly smaller is because one part of teaching that many non-educators don’t realize is that some of your curriculum choices are out of your control—your elective (or main) courses get changed to something you’ve never taught before, the principal mandates that you all teach the same book during the upcoming year, the department head decides that all Language Arts teachers are going to do this particular unit…

This (second) year of teaching, I got slammed with all three, which necessitated the planning of brand-new units (and brand-new courses!) that I hadn’t even dreamed of teaching last year.

So, if you’re expecting to see a significantly lighter work load your second year–don’t get your hopes up too high.

Second issue: Asking for help. As a second-year teacher, you won’t need to ask for help as much, and when you do, you won’t be as timid about asking for it. Last year, much of my communication with the powers-that-be was through my mentor teacher or department head because I was scared that if I spoke my mind, I’d lose my job. Now if I have an issue, I go straight to the authority figure who is most likely to take care of the problem the fastest, whether it be the attendance specialist, the principal, or the school guidance counselor because I’m much more confident about my place in the school’s faculty.

Third is the question of the relationship to the students themselves—last year, try as I might, I tended to take a lot of things personally that the students said. If they said that they were bored, I took it personally. If they said they hated reading (or writing), I took it personally. If in a course evaluation, they suggested that I needed to include a lot more “fun activities” and “joke around more,” I took it VERY personally.

I’ve since toughened my skin a bit–last week, I asked a boy in my 6th hour why he wasn’t doing his work like he should be, and he positively exploded and said, “I HATE this! This is the STUPIDEST thing ever! I will NOT do this! I HATE IT I HATE IT I HATE IT!” (Think of the 13-year-old equivalent of a toddler tantrum, complete with backpack slamming, fists shaking, and tears shedding). I calmly told him that he was free to hate it as much as he wanted, but I was still going to make sure he did the assignment. The experience didn’t even phase me—in fact, I went home and laughed about it with my husband. So first-year teachers, take heart—you will certainly toughen up (and maybe too soon) when it comes to dealing with the students.

(Speaking of toughening up, I used to have the hardest time calling students out for misbehavior–especially in the halls or in the commons–during my first year. I always felt bad about doing it, and really weird about having the authority to just call someone out in public like that. Now I have no qualms—a student puts a toe across the line, and I’m right there to push him back over it again (figuratively, of course).)

Fourth, I feel like people take me a little more seriously now that I’m no longer a first-year teacher. Even though I’m just a year further into my career, I feel like there’s no longer that “first-year stigma” floating around my head. (Although in some ways, the first-year stigma was kind of nice—if I made a mistake, it was a lot easier to blame it on the fact that I just didn’t know any better. Now I can’t use that excuse anymore.) Now that I’ve survived a year (and almost two years now!) of trial-by-fire in the public education system, I’ve found that colleagues are much more likely to come to me asking for help, whether it be with a Spanish translation or wanting me to help with a writing assignment. As a second-year teacher, I’m still not in the school’s realm of leadership, but at least people know me enough to want to ask my opinion.

Lastly, there’s always that issue of feeling like I’m making a difference—even though I know for a fact that I’m a better teacher this year than I was last year (I can see it reflected in my students’ work), I feel like I’ve questioned now more than ever if I’m really making a difference. Maybe it’s because I’m not so overwhelmed all the time anymore and can pick up on more of what’s being said about me by my students or about what’s going on in their lives, but I feel like the more effective I get at teaching, the more I see the gap between the kids I am reaching and the kids I’d like to reach. It’s kind of like that saying—the more you know, the more you realize you don’t know? That kind of applies to teaching for me, too. I may know a lot more, but I realize now much more clearly than last year how much further I still have to go.

But one truth holds fast no matter which teaching year you’re in—

Effective teaching is still done one day, one lesson, and one student at a time. Some days are a whole lot better than others, but the aggregation of many such teaching moments put together is what make the difference, whether we are always able to see (or notice) it or not.

(Truth: I wrote this to put in my state-mandated teaching portfolio, which is the biggest thorn in your side when it comes to being a second-year teacher. So if you’re a Utah educator, be prepared for that joyful little hoop you have to jump through during your second year.)
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