Why Are the First Several Years of Teaching So Difficult? How Schools Can Stop Failing Novice Teachers

“Fraternity hazing” is how one article in the Atlantic characterized the experiences of first year teachers. The comparison conjures images of navigating degrading and dangerous rites of passage before being accepted for full membership into the group. Is it apt or is it hyperbolic?

This blog post was co-written by the wickedly smart and super-seasoned educator duo, Tracy Bauer and Jon Altbergs.

Consider that new teachers have to learn how to hold their bladders while simultaneously ignoring thirst and hunger to make it through four classes in a row, often while pushing a cart from classroom to classroom or racing students up and down stairs. They have to figure out how to interact with a diverse range of human beings, from the youngsters in their care to the adults in the building—most of whom hold power over them, from the secretary who holds the key to the supply closet, to the principal who has the authority to exercise the capital punishment of the workplace: non-renewal—to the parents and guardians who may see them as another kid, a potential ally, or an adversary. Tracy’s first year of teaching is still burned into her mind, with memories of driving home with first-year colleagues in which they would take turns crying. Jon became so disheartened by a system that seemed so oblivious to the needs of both students and adults, that he considered leaving the profession entirely. Is it no wonder that studies show that a significant portion of teachers leave the profession during their first five years? 

Why are the first several years of teaching so difficult for many educators? One important factor is that, unlike in other professions, job requirements are not differentiated for a novice teacher. New teachers are expected to perform the same duties as veteran teachers of twenty years. In other professions, there is a progression of job requirements that those new to the field grow into. For example, in public accounting, new professionals are often hired as staff auditors and work under a supervisor, who is in charge of the account. Their workload is usually made up of small audits rather than large clients. They may work as many hours as their more experienced colleagues, but they are not solely responsible for a client. As they demonstrate their competence in the profession, they are promoted, but their work is still managed by a senior accountant. This progression develops new employees and provides them with more responsibilities as they learn the job.

In the United States, schools rarely differentiate job responsibilities. The expectation is that new professionals should have the same skills and responsibilities as their veteran colleagues, and so schools too often do not support newer teachers. And, while the institutional model of “teacher training program directly to full-time teacher” does not help, there are ways individual schools can better support novice teachers in this flawed system rather than leaving them to drown in it. Here are some tips for how schools can create safe spaces that induct, rather than haze, their new teachers:

#1 Stop Assuming Novice Teachers Can Develop Curriculum

Schools need to provide first year teachers with curriculum. The expectation that novice teachers can manage all the tasks a teacher must manage daily: lesson planning, teaching, calling parents, taking attendance, teaching, meetings (Did we mention teaching?), and develop curriculum is way too much. Additionally, we cannot expect teachers to develop aligned lessons that scaffold towards a culminating assignment in a meaningful way from nothing. (Even veteran teachers are often not well-prepared or equipped to develop curriculum. The skills involved in curriculum development are vastly different than teaching and so to expect any teacher to be a curriculum developer, without proper training, feels like a stretch to us.) We unfairly disadvantage first year teachers when they have nothing to work from. It would be like giving an architect a job to build a house with no blueprint. Now, this is not to say that we must give teachers a script of every lesson but I think we must give them something. Teachers can take the curriculum and be creative in the lesson planning but we fail teachers when we provide them with no guidance about course expectations. We suggest that all teachers are provided at least a curriculum map that outlines the unit topics, end-of-unit assessments, targeted content and skills to be taught, and time frame for each unit.   

#2 Build In Consistent, Cohesive, and Effective Mentoring Support

New teachers need support and lots of it. Think of how much a newborn baby needs to be held; we need to do the same for novice teachers. Instructional leaders can create many layers of organized support for novice teachers including mentorship or coaching programs.  

  • Select mentor teachers or coaches wisely. Mentor teachers who coach rookie teachers need to be willing and able to do this kind of work. Instructional leaders should not solicit volunteers; they should instead actively seek out and invite skilled teachers—irrespective of their years of service—to be mentors. Mentoring or coaching is a skill (like curriculum development) that not all experienced teachers have.  
  • Establish weekly mentoring or coaching in the school schedule. These weekly mentorships or coaching sessions need to be built into the schedule so that the mentor teacher or coach is visiting the novice teacher’s class at least once a week, including a feedback session after the class visit (so two class periods total). And, then another class visit wherein the novice teacher visits the mentor teacher’s class and debriefs with the mentor teacher about best practices observed. These two-way class visits will support the new teacher by allowing them to see an effective classroom model while also receiving feedback within the reality of their own classroom. Plus, the mentor teacher can then model targeted practices that the new teacher is currently working on during these appointed class visits.   
  • Look for outside coaches who can support your novice teachers if you do not have the skilled staff currently working at your own school to undertake mentorship or coaching roles.

#3 Instructional Leaders: Seeing Yourselves as Coaches Rather Than Supervisors

We know that learning how to teach is often in a classroom as opposed to the coursework before you are hired. Learning how to teach is on-the-ground training so instructional leaders need to be coaches instead of supervisors in this respect. New teachers need coaching on how to manage their class, how to plan lessons effectively, and how to pace time during lesson implementation, among other elements of effective practice. These important aspects of pedagogy can be coached through various practices including modeling, co-teaching, instructional planning and class visits with debrief sessions. Below are more detailed explanations of the various coaching practices you and your mentor teachers or coaches (see above) can use to support new teachers’ blossoming instructional practices.

  • Set specific goals based on initial class visits. (These goals should also align to the overarching school goals for improving instructional practice.) Setting specific goals with new teachers will help eliminate feeling overwhelmed by all the areas in which improvement might be needed. More often than not, novice teachers feels as if they are drowning in planning, implementation, logistics, and the social-emotional arena. By setting specific goals, mentor teachers and instructional leaders can alleviate those feelings by focusing the teacher on 1-2 specific areas in which they can build a foundation for their practice. And, then, once the teacher has started to master those areas, they can work on other parts of the teaching puzzle.  
  • Meet the teachers where they are and use scaffolding when necessary. Novice teachers are not in the same place instructionally as veteran teachers and, thus, may need more formative steps or scaffolding to begin working on school-wide goals. For example, a novice teacher may not be able to work on the school-wide goal of implementing more student-to-student interaction in their lessons because they are still learning how to pace their lessons effectively. You can differentiate for a novice teacher and craft goals that will give them foundational steps so as to begin striving towards the school-wide goals.  
  • Show them how it is done! Do not be afraid to get into a classroom to model or co-teach a strategy, practice, skill that you want the novice teacher to learn. They need to see how teaching is executed. Often instructional leaders and mentor teachers use their worry about usurping the authority of the novice teacher to justify a hands-off approach. However, true authority in the classroom does not come from being seen as infallible; it comes by developing effective classroom practice.
  • Lesson plan with the new teacher so they know how to do it effectively, then, visit their class to give them feedback on the implementation of the co-planned lesson. Intentionality and purposeful lesson planning takes experience, so why let new teachers flounder in this area? Co-planning with a new teacher can be powerful because you can show them the process of backwards planning from a lesson assessment, you can add to their toolkit of strategies, and you can help them think through transitions and pacing. Planning is the foundation of successful teaching so why not give them the swing that allows them to knock the ball out of the park?  
  • Bring the new teacher in during the summer prior to the school year. Curriculum plan, role play lessons and classroom management scenarios, develop lesson plans, and talk through routines and structures. Invest in the new teachers even before the beginning of the school year so they can be ahead instead of always running behind.  

#4 Stop Creating School Structures and Practices that Really Do Haze Novice Teachers

It is time we call out all the structures and practices that really do haze novice teachers. In secondary schools, rookies are often assigned the toughest schedules (you, know, teaching four different classes, so four different lesson plans), traveling to four different classrooms throughout the day, no technology available, or being assigned the classes with the most students. New teachers in K-8, too, face a slew of challenges their more veteran colleagues do not. If instructional leaders want to establish equity among staff and truly aid novice teachers’ development, they will stop making the veteran teachers lives easier at the expense of novice teachers. If we continue to haze novice teachers in a way that curtails their development and makes them want to quit teaching after 3-5 years, then shame on us.  

First and foremost, scheduling and space are key when it comes to supporting novice teachers. Beyond scheduling planning time for mentoring and coaching of a new teacher, it will also be wise to think about the new teacher’s schedule as a whole. Here are the big no no’s you will want to avoid when planning a novice teacher’s schedule:

  • If at all possible, avoid having a novice teacher instruct too many classes in a row. Although, this is unfair to any teacher, provide the newer teacher with more frequent breaks in between classes throughout the school day if possible.
  • (Secondary Only) Do not give the teacher too many different classes to teach; if anything, give the teacher one class to plan for and teach. We have seen schools give a novice teacher four different classes to teach. That means four different lesson plans, which is way too difficult for a first year teacher (Tracy knows one novice teacher who was assigned four different classes who then quit in March, leaving behind classes full of students who are now being taught by substitutes).
  • If possible, have the first year teacher co-teach with other skilled veteran teachers. If you can create a schedule where the new teacher is co-teaching then try and do so as the novice teacher can learn so much from working jointly with another skilled professional.    
  • Space is also an important consideration for new teachers. Jon spent his first year as a teacher eating lunch at 10:45 am, and spending the rest of the day—without a break—teaching four different classes in three different rooms on two different floors, as well as supervising a study hall of 50 freshmen in a windowless basement room. Recalling his own experience as a ‘homeless’ teacher, as an administrator he set up a schedule that shared two classrooms among three teachers. Veteran and novice alike traveled, but only across the hall or into the adjoining room, and no one had to spend the entire day in a windowless interior room.

#5 Empathy with Accountability is Key

Novice teachers need to know that everything will be alright after all. The journey of the first few years of teaching is similar to a roller coaster ride – you have terrific days and you have awful days. It is important to remind novice teachers that “this too shall pass” and they will continue to learn and improve their methods as they learn the art of teaching. The idea here is to create a space in which the school is empathetic to this roller coaster ride but does not sacrifice accountability to the students and their learning.   

  • Support thoughtful risk-taking coupled with reflective practice. Allow new teachers to have a creative space in which they can experiment but make sure they are constantly reflecting on these “experiments” so they know what to add to their toolkit and what to tweak.
  • Do not abandon novice teachers by never visiting their class or never offering them support before and after school. Do not single out novice teachers only for classroom visits, either, which can intentionally send the wrong message about who needs (and gets) support. Effective instructional leaders walk through all classrooms regularly because the art of teaching can be improved upon throughout a teacher’s years. And, all students are impacted by a teacher’s effectiveness no matter the class or years of teaching experience their teacher possesses.  
  • Provide positive feedback and set new goals or next steps. In conjunction with the goal setting above, it will be important to provide positive feedback to feed the new teacher’s growth while also giving them next steps. Novice teachers will need to know the areas in which they are improving so they can build on those areas to proceed to their next steps.  
  • Remember that novice teachers are on a roller coaster when it comes to this work, so be prepared to counsel, mentor, and guide novice teachers as they learn how to become effective pedagogues in this demanding profession.

Ultimately, if novice teachers are not supported effectively, it is our students who lose. The vicious cycle of novice teachers leaving the profession after the first few years only serves to bring in more novice teachers, who, in turn, might leave, and the cycle goes on. We know that student learning is impacted by the teachers in the classroom and so we need to grow and develop our pedagogues so that the children have positive experiences and are also able to grow and develop successfully. Although, these suggestions can be thought of as band-aids for the root causes of an unsupported profession as is, we can always iterate and improve the schools we are in, even if the system is broken.  



Tracy Bauer has worked in education for over thirteen years. Currently, she is an instructional coach with reDesign, working in high-needs schools across the city. She has taught English, drama, and reading and is raising two lovely children of her own. She frequents many bookstores in NYC, including her favorite, The Strand, and she loves chatting with her local librarians in Brooklyn.

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