Surviving & Thriving the First Five Years

As teachers we are inundated with statistics. One such statistic that I remember hearing over and over while going through my degree program was that 40-50 percent of teachers leave the profession within the first five years. This statistic is scary, troubling, and just plain sad. This school year I began my sixth year teaching elementary school in Kingsport, TN. The calling of a teacher is challenging, but one I can’t imagine leaving. I hope to encourage other new teachers to remember their love of teaching through the midst of the stresses of the profession. Here are a few tips for surviving and thriving during the first five years:

Focus on the students
No matter what is going on around you, it really is all about the students. If you find yourself focusing too much on the numbers (test scores, RTI data, attendance, etc…) take a look at the children in your classroom. Invest in getting to know their stories. They make it all worth it!

Find a mentor… or two…or three!
Most new teachers are assigned a mentor. If you have a good working relationship with your mentor, great! If you don’t, work on that relationship. If you need to, find your own mentor, someone you can connect with and trust. As a new teacher, I found many mentors. Those I connected with most were my principal, guidance counselor, special education teacher, and teaching partner. Each provided support in different ways, but all had a hand in helping me become successful.

Allow yourself to make mistakes
Keep a learner’s mindset; always turn a mistake into a learning opportunity. Mistakes will be made and that’s ok. I tell my students that I make mistakes just like they do. The key is to model how to handle making a mistake. One such mistake I remember making was during my second year teaching. My third graders were discovering the commutative property of addition. I referred to the property as the “communative” property and even recorded it that way on the board. My math coach, who just happened to be observing my lesson, quickly corrected me. It became a teachable moment and an opportunity to strengthen my content knowledge in math.

Take it one step at a time
You will be overwhelmed in your first few years; it’s normal. Choose one area of your practice to focus on for improvement and accept areas in which you can grow. My first two years teaching I tried to improve my practice in every area. At the end of my second year I decided to focus on one content area to strengthen at a time. Because I enjoyed teaching math, I decided to focus on that content area by attending summer trainings and additional professional development provided by my district. I have since become a math teacher leader for my district.

Attend professional development with an open mind
A wonderful mentor once told me to look for at least one take-away from each professional development in which I attend. There will be some professional activities that you find more useful than others. By keeping an open mind, you might discover something unexpected. Also, seek out your own professional learning through professional readings, council membership, and conferences.

Collaborate, collaborate, collaborate!
I cannot stress this enough! You will learn so much from your colleagues, and they will learn so much from you! We benefit from collaborating by increasing our content knowledge and by improving teaching practices. Also, our students benefit when we identify essential understandings and set common goals. I am currently a third grade math teacher. I collaborate with my third grade team weekly in order to deliver a balanced curriculum to our students. In addition, I also collaborate with other third grade teachers in my district at monthly unit studies. These unit studies provide time for us to review and discuss standards as well as plan for instruction. I also collaborate with fourth and second grade teachers in my own school in order to best serve students at each grade level. We discuss the areas of reinforcement and refinement at each grade level. It is important to have a clear understanding of your grade level expectations as well as expectations below and above your grade level.

Trust yourself
You are an amazing teacher! Have confidence in your strengths. Don’t forget to be your unique self. I always joke that I am the least creative elementary teacher there is because I’m not very savvy with arts and crafts. I spent my first few years trying to make myself become more artistic, but I failed miserably. What I learned is there are others in my building with this strength. My strengths are in other areas. When I need to do a crafty project, I ask for their help. My strengths are in creating a positive classroom environment, caring for my students, and teaching math. What are your strengths?

We want to hear from you. What tips do you have to share with Tennessee teachers? Submit your ideas, tips, and resources.