Making progress as a new teacher can be difficult, but the transition is made easier when experienced colleagues lend a hand. Everything seemed daunting to me as a first-year teacher. How did you go about requesting equipment from the tech department? Where could I get a replacement copier toner? The fact that I had a floating position—I moved into a different classroom each period—made it even more difficult. In addition, I was tasked with teaching two subjects: math and English language arts. This is not an ideal first-year assignment, as most teachers would agree. However, I was able to finish the year thanks to the help and advice of my experienced colleagues.
The support and guidance I received were not of the type that is routinely implemented in districts or school-level structures around instruction and curriculum, which is essential and necessary. Instead, it was more practical and personal. Realistically, the advice assisted me in navigating the aspects of this education system that can make it difficult for new teachers to stay in the classroom.
1. CLARIFY THE COMPENSATION SCALE AND PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT
My coworkers explained the pay system and how to earn university or professional development credits to advance to the highest salary tier. Human resources mentioned it in orientation, but it was the repeated reminders from my colleagues that motivated me.
They discussed the classes they took, which ones they thought were worthwhile, and classes that were free or significantly less expensive than the average professional development class listed on the district’s website. (Because we have to pay for professional development classes in my district, there is a sweet spot in finding a course that is both meaningful to professional growth and affordable on a new teacher’s salary.)
When I expressed my displeasure at having to work on a learning portfolio on nights and weekends, a coworker asked, “Don’t you think you deserve to be paid the same as me for doing the same work?” That thought inspired me to complete the task as quickly as possible and move up the scale. I would still be in the first tier if my colleagues hadn’t pushed me to move up the salary schedule and explained how to fill out the paperwork.
2. BUILD LASTING FRIENDSHIPS
Many of my coworkers became work friends. We went out to dinner after work with a large group of more than ten teachers about twice a month. We’d mostly talk about work, but we’d also become friends. The classroom can feel isolating at times, but being around people who understand your problems can be extremely beneficial. When someone expressed frustration, the group would listen and, if asked, someone would offer a solution, but mostly we just listened. Many of my coworkers were nearly a decade my senior, and I appreciated how open they were too new friendships.
3. OFFER A LISTENING EAR AND ENCOURAGE REFLECTION
During my first few years, I would frequently share my worries and stresses with my coworkers, who had become my friends. They’d listen intently and never offer advice. They were usually aware that I just needed to vent. When I did seek advice, they would say things like, “It depends” or “Everyone is different.” In fact, they’d usually keep questioning me until I came to my own conclusion about how to solve my problem or reframe my thinking. In other words, they asked me to reflect on myself and determine what I could control and what I could change.
For example, if I was having a problem with a student, my colleagues would question me about what I knew about the student. I realized, after some thought, that I didn’t know much about the student. As a result, I worked on improving my relationship with and understanding of the student. When students’ behavior was influenced by external factors that I couldn’t change, my experienced colleagues asked me how I could set up procedures to create an environment that supported all students.
4. GIVE REMINDERS ABOUT RETIREMENT
A few colleagues were getting ready to retire and were eager to share what they had learned at retirement seminars. I had only recently started working, and retirement was not on my radar. “You should consider it,” they advised.
They then went on to explain the various types of retirement plans available, as well as ideas for investing any extra money I might have. “Don’t rely on Social Security or retirement,” they advised. “You must plan for your future.” They directed me to our union’s retirement website, which expanded my understanding of what to expect many years in the future.
5. FILTER THE MANDATES
When I was feeling overwhelmed by new training sessions and initiatives, I asked a colleague how he managed to stay so calm in those meetings. “I filter what’s important and what’s not important for my students,” he explained. He meant that he took the most important and relevant information for his students and then applied it to his class. He didn’t always do everything the school asked of him.
I struggled with this as someone who follows rules, but I realized that as leaders change and priorities shift, so do some initiatives. And, while well-intended, they aren’t always appropriate for today’s students. I learned to curate what I brought back to my students as well. My colleague taught me that it is part of a teacher’s job to take what is useful and discard the rest.
Being a new teacher presents numerous challenges, but one of the most rewarding aspects of this profession is the genuine friendships that form among coworkers.