Sink or Swim – The First Years of Teaching

It’s not a secret, we need teachers in Arizona. There are thousands of positions that are either unfilled or filled with someone who hasn’t completed any formal teacher training. We need new teachers to continue to join this profession and to STAY in this profession.

Even after completing a teacher preparation program, the first few years of teaching can often feel like you are sinking or swimming. It’s a lot to learn how to run a classroom, learn which strategies are the most effective for the age group and curriculum you’re teaching, how to deal with the politics at your school, managing behavior, and more. The sinking feeling can be so overwhelming and discouraging, and with no sign of swimming to the surface, many new teachers often leave the profession in the first five years of teaching.

So, how can we get new teachers to rise to the surface and swim?

Last year I had the pleasure of mentoring two student teachers, both of whom are teaching at my school this year. I asked them what has been helpful in helping them swim, as well as what has caused them to sink.

Do – Give them time.
New teachers need time. Time to look through the curriculum for each subject so they can figure out what in the world they’re supposed to teach their class. Time to plan lessons that will meet the needs of their students. Time to collaborate with teammates or peers to share ideas, ask questions, and share successes or failures. While these are things that would benefit all teachers, they’re especially critical for new teachers to have this time to develop their teaching craft.

Don’t – Waste their time with meetings, upon meetings, and more meetings.
New teachers need every single second they can get, so if there absolutely needs to be a meeting make sure it is organized and utilizes time effectively. New teachers are trying to use their time to plan lessons, keep up with grading, communicate with parents and stay on top of all of the things that come with running your own classroom. One of my student teachers was telling me that she had a meeting four out of five days after school one week, and was feeling extremely overwhelmed since the meetings were taking place when she would reflect on the day, catch up on things that need to be done around the room, and revise any lessons she had planned for the following day. Even as an experienced teacher, this would be extremely overwhelming! On the note of meetings…

Do – Differentiate meetings to meet the needs of the staff.
New teachers need different things than experienced teachers. Experienced teachers may not need to sit through a meeting on the importance of classroom management and procedures, but a first-year teacher would greatly benefit from these ideas! Staff surveys would be a great way for teachers to reflect on things they do well, as well as things they can improve on, and could provide administrators valuable input on the types of professional development the teachers at their site would benefit from. This may create opportunities for experienced teachers to share their knowledge and strengths with new teachers during professional development meetings. Maybe a new teacher could share their strength with an experienced colleague, too!

Don’t – Expect everything to be perfect all the time.
New teachers will make plenty of mistakes their first year, and they need our understanding. They will miss a deadline, forget to turn things in, complete a task incorrectly because this is completely new territory. New teachers need our understanding when mistakes happen so they can grow and move on. We were all new once, too!

Do – Put them in a position where they can be successful.
New teachers have a steep learning curve their first year, and will benefit from anything that can make the first year easier. Whether that’s keeping students with behavior concerns to a minimum, or putting the most demanding parent with another teacher, or even something as simple as putting a new teacher on a team that likes to help and shares resources – a new teacher would greatly benefit from this! One of my student teachers has said that the thing that has been the most helpful this year is having different colleagues to bounce ideas off of. It’s helped her frame her interactions with students and parents for more favorable outcomes, to different lesson ideas, and approach classroom challenges from different perspectives.

With countless teaching vacancies, it’s clear that we are still in a crisis of recruiting and keeping quality teachers. We need our new teachers to find success so they can swim on their own so they do not become another statistic of a new teacher who was too overwhelmed and could not stop sinking.


Caitlin Gawlowski

I was born to be a teacher, although I did not realize that teaching was my calling until I began college. I have always loved to write and began college with the mindset of becoming a journalist. Before I began my freshman year of college, I changed my major to Elementary Education on a whim and have never looked back. I graduated Summa Cum Laude with a Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education from Arizona State University and won the Outstanding Student Teacher Award during my student teaching experience in the Cave Creek Unified School District.
I spent 7 years in the Washington Elementary School District teaching 2nd and 3rd grade. I became a National Board Certified Teacher in 2018, and I hold a certificate in Early and Middle Childhood Literacy: Reading/Language Arts. The 2019-2020 school year marks the beginning of my 8th year teaching, where I will be teaching 3rd grade English Language Learners, and supporting other National Board candidates on their journey toward National Board certification.
If I am lucky enough to have free time, you can find me planning my wedding, spending time with my infant son and fiancé, taking group fitness classes, or enjoying a good book.

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