Surviving the First 5 Years of Teaching

I have successfully completed my first five years as an English teacher.

As an English teacher, I believe in stories. Therefore, it was only right to reflect on my first five years of teaching through the many stories that shaped my experience.The first five is a time for celebration, as the odds against a teacher in the first five years are stacked against success.

The Atlantic published an article in 2013 entitled “Why Do Teachers Quit.” Amongst my teacher friends, it was the topic of discussion. The article revealed that:

  • 40-50% of teachers leave with in the first five years, according to a UPenn education professor who was a former teacher.
  • 9.5% leave before the end of their first year.

So the completion of my five years of teaching is truly a victory. This post is about how to survive the first five. I invite all of you to take a journey with me on what I learned during my five years.

  1. Advocate for yourself. Make kind and firm requests. Don’t be afraid to ask for support. Support may be finding a planning buddy, observing others, or being observed weekly. Don’t get hung up on looking weak; you learn by doing.

Year 1 

I stood in front of a classroom of 28 students and went over the course syllabus. Mid-sentence, a student raised his hand and shouted out, “I need to go to the bathroom.” I said, “Just one minute, I’m finishing up now.” The student stood up in class and said “Bitch, if you don’t let me use the bathroom, I will piss in your trash can.”As you can imagine, I stood there stunned. I went home that day and decided that I will not be defeated.  At the faculty meeting prior to school, I stood up to introduce myself, and when I told the staff that I would be teaching six standard level English courses I heard a snicker. I didn’t know that I had been stuck with the load that no one wanted. But I learned more about teaching that year and the power of low expectations and about the grace of having high ones.

  1. Get a life. Find a hobby that does not require you to think or talk about teaching. BURNOUT is real and if you don’t find a balance, you will crash eventually.

Year 2

This year, I began to teach a heavier load of English courses and was added as the Lead in the creative writing program at my school. I was on a team to write curriculum, and I was meeting with many important stakeholders. As a way to get “fit,” I started taking a Zumba class once a week that turned into an obsession. Soon, I was doing Zumba twice a week, attending Zumba-thons and bringing dance into my classroom. I once used dance as a brain break, and my students loved it. Those Zumba classes were my saving grace and allowed me to disengage from the grind of teaching.

  1. Beat the parents to the punch. Get in good with the parents by learning to empathize with them (even if you disagree). Send frequent communications regarding your class, invite parents to see student work, send positive notes once in a while, and document electronically!

Year 3

During back to school night, a parent looked at me and said, “You’re the teacher…You don’t look like you finished high school.” That was an instant blow to my ego, and sometimes parents can be more challenging than the students. But you must get parents on your side and do it quickly. Even if you’re not a parent yourself, try your best to see things from their perspective and anticipate any pitfalls.

  1. Personal relationships reign supreme. Put students first and find out their stories before you become obsessed with their learning style and scores on last year’s state test. Also, build those relationships with  everyone in your school. Be mindful that each person has something to give. 

Year 4

I got a note this year from a student that simply said, “Thank you for being nice to me.” This was a girl that felt out of place and it hung on her bitterly. The relationships I cultivated with my students was my primary focus and I knew that if I could connect with my students, I could help them flourish during the learning process. Per sonal relationships can be built by learning personal things that matter to people, remembering them, and constantly checking in. Personal relationships are not limited to students. Don’t forget your co-workers (custodial staff, other teachers, and yes, admin!)

  1. Never stop being a student. This lesson is two-fold. Be sure to add to your professional toolkit. But MOST IMPORTANTLY, get into the mind of your students. Don’t be afraid to ask students what makes them tick and you won’t be too boring.

Year 5

I ended this year with a play performance of “Romeo and Juliet.” For over a month, my sixth graders studied a middle school adaptation and rehearsed an interpretation of the play. As we studied, I remembered how much I loved this play myself and how the students lit up from doing a project. The key is not to be boring. Kids these days hate sitting and getting. My students loved the activity and were required to memorize lines and design costumes/props. It’s one that I won’t ever forget.


In conclusion, being a teacher means to give myself away. My heart, my emotions, my passion is tied into being the guide for others. When I stand in front of a classroom, my dreams and hopes are put there, and the fear of choking is always at my elbow. But it’s when I teach that my story is quietly revealed.

My take-away: Don’t be boring. Be cutting-edge. Forgive yourself. Form relationships. Have fun.


This is a repost from LeSean’s blog My take-away’s

Guest Author

LeSean Carey

LeSean Carey

M.T. '10 English Ed

Injury Pain and Posttraumatic Stress in Children

Although both pain and posttraumatic stress symptoms (PTSS) are common after pediatric injury, their interactions are not well understood. In a recent paper published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, Aimee Hildenbrand, MS, and colleagues examined the relationship between acute pain and PTSS following injury in children ages 8 to 17 years. Pain as assessed by the Color Analogue Pain Scale (CAS) predicted PTSS six months after injury, even when controlling for demographic and other empirically based risk factors.

How might pain and PTSS be related? Acute pain is caused by an injury to the body. It warns of potential damage that requires action by the brain, and it can develop slowly or quickly. It can last for a few minutes or for many months. A physical trauma, such as an injury, also creates a reaction in the body related to the “fight or flight response” that prepares us to respond to threat. Part of this reaction can be a state of hyper-vigilance or hyper-arousal that is part of the pathway to developing ongoing PTSS.

Although we do not yet fully understand the links between pain and PTSS, here’s what we do know:

  • Acute pain and PTSS do have some shared biological pathways.
  • Acute pain may increase the risk for the development of PTSS by stimulating the release of hormones that promote “fear conditioning,” i.e., a process in which fearful thoughts and trauma memories are powerfully reinforced and become harder to “unlearn.”
  • Alternatively, PTSS may influence pain over time via heightened attention to pain symptoms or a greater tendency to interpret pain symptoms as threatening or catastrophic.
  • Research suggests that the pain-PTSD connection runs in both directions. In other words, pain and PTSD may exacerbate and perpetuate one another.

For most injured children, PTSS improve with time and the support of family and friends. Unfortunately, a significant sub-group (about 1 in 6 injured children) has more severe and persistent PTSS lasting more than a month and getting in the way of returning to normal functioning. This new research is important because it suggests that pain assessment, even during acute injury care, might play a role in screening for risk of ongoing PTSS. Since pain is regularly assessed by the health care team at various points during medical care for pediatric injury, the CAS and similar measures may represent a welcome addition to the growing group of evidence-based PTSS screening tools. More research, however, is needed to better understand the underlying mechanisms linking acute pain after injury and PTSS in children.

This is a repost of an April 14, 2015, entry on The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Center for Injury Research and Prevention “Research in Action” blog.

Guest Author

Nancy Kassam-Adams

Nancy Kassam-Adams

M.Ed. ’92, Ph.D. ’95 Clin & School Psych

Questioning the Evidence

Imagine reading about a new half-hour writing activity that can boost your students’ motivation and course performance. How great would that be?

Jeff Kosovich
Jeff Kosovich

In fact, a variety of social-psychological interventions have been found to provide these kinds of benefits to students. The first reaction by many educators may be to adopt these interventions immediately for all of their students. However, these interventions are not magic, as noted in a paper by Yeager and Walton back in 2011.

It’s best to ask a few questions before implementing the latest new idea in your classrooms—even when its effectiveness is backed by evidence.

  • How strong is the evidence that an intervention works at all?
  • What is the evidence that an intervention that was effective in one classroom will work elsewhere?

Answering these questions requires researchers and practitioners to work together.

Chris Hulleman
Chris Hulleman

Recently, we began a partnership with a public college through the Carnegie Alpha Lab Research Network in an effort to help struggling students in developmental (remedial) math courses. Our aim was to use a social psychological intervention focused on beliefs about math’s relevance and usefulness to boost student success.

Although there are numerous ways to determine if a particular intervention or program is effective, the simplest uses randomized experiments. Randomizing individuals (e.g., by pulling numbers out of a hat) into an intervention or comparison group lets us assume that both groups will have similar academic performance over time, all else being equal. The benefit to this random assignment is that we can give the intervention to one group—the Treatment Group—and compare them to the other group—the Control Group—and be confident that the difference in academic success is caused by the intervention. This is because the only differences between the two groups are random chance and the intervention activity.

Normally, when students are put in a Control, they complete an activity that is similar to the Treatment without the beneficial content. In our research for example, Treatment students wrote about the usefulness and relevance of their course material, whereas Control students summarized course material.

In past research that Chris has been involved in, this relevance activity has improved high school science students’ and college psychology students’ perceived value of the course, grades and interest compared to the summary activity. We did the same thing in a recent pilot study in an effort to help students see value in their coursework. We thought we’d see similar results to what was found in other classrooms.

You can imagine our surprise when the difference in pass rates between our Treatment and Control group was 8% higher for the Control group! Did we actually harm students? Our initial surprise turned to curiosity. Maybe there was more to the Control activity than we thought? After all, summarizing material is a common learning activity in the typical science or psychology classroom. Because summarization activities are less common in a typical math class, we may have inadvertently tested two interventions rather than just one.

With this in mind, we compared the Treatment and Control students to the pass rate of students who didn’t participate at all. Using this as our comparison group, the Treatment activity increased pass rates by 4%, and the Control activity increased pass rates by 13%. We also looked at traditional pass rates in the course.

As it turns out, the average pass rate the prior spring and from similar classes over the past 10 years led us to a similar conclusion: the relevance activity helped a little, but the summary activity helped a lot.

The results of our pilot study demonstrates two important points. First, comparison groups matter. An activity that is relatively innocuous for one group may be helpful (or even harmful) for another.

Second, we can’t just assume an intervention works everywhere without testing. The relevance intervention showed great effectiveness for high school science and college psychology, but developmental math classes (and their students) are very different.

As psychological interventions quickly spread quickly throughout education, it’s important to consider the implications of adopting them without careful scrutiny.

Before adopting a new intervention into your school or classroom at a large scale, ask yourself:

  • “Are the students who have previously been aided by this intervention similar to my students?”
  • “Are the academic subjects where this intervention has been used before taught in the same way as my subject?”

If the answer to both questions is yes, you’re ready to try some small-scale pilot testing to ensure that your students will also benefit.

Guest Author

Jeff Kosovich and Chris Hulleman

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy

A Perspective from an Educator and Mom

I began thinking about the question, “What is education?” in a different light when I recently became a mother.  Although my little girl is only 6 weeks old, I was already thinking about what this means for her and for me as a parent who is also an educator.  Was it still relevant in education that she was a girl?  Were there specific needs, opportunities and strategies that should be addressed because she is an African American girl?

– As a researcher,
– Culturally responsive educator and educational consultant,
– Former special education teacher and professor,
– Author of articles, a book on women doctoral students of color and blogs on the needs of diverse learners,
I knew the answer was a resounding yes!

However, as I ponder this topic now it is not from as much of a statistical point of view or abstract concept but from what in a practical and very personal perspective I want and see for my own child (like most parents and many teachers).

As culturally responsive teachers, we are called upon to see other people’s children as our own—to establish a relationship in which we are truly invested in the outcome of our students’ lives as we would be and are for our own children.  This is the hope I hold for my daughter and standard I hold for her future teachers. I expect that when my daughter attends her first formal school her teachers will automatically understand this and act accordingly.  But what if it is not automatic?

How will this impact her education?

Which brings me back to, what is education?

In order to be effective in the classroom, education requires inclusion at every level (from kindergarten to doctoral programs). Creating a welcoming climate, being sure every child’s voice is heard and honored, is non-negotiable.  Students need to have positive images of themselves as well as others who may not look like them.  They need to be encouraged to fulfill their dreams and provided with the means and tools of accomplishing them.

Effective education requires holding high expectations for all students and recognizing their intellect, talent and skills (this should be a given, but rather the classroom and educational system still perpetuates the deficit model and stereotypes and limits students of color).  High expectations lead to empowerment and visibility and inspires creativity and imagination. How many examples do we need of what the latter does to children (and adults)?

When I was a graduate student, there was no discussion of Waking Up White, which is the Curry Common Read selection for the upcoming year, or the unpacking of racism and racial inequities in society or even the classroom. My experiences of being one of the only African American graduate students in my special education program at U.Va. helped to solidify my sense of responsibility and purpose in creating awareness and making these discussions mandatory for my undergraduate and graduate students in teacher training.  As a result, I have always included these lessons in my own classroom (formal classroom and informal global world).

I have learned the critical importance of being visible for students of color as well as students from the dominant culture. It’s hard work, but getting out of one’s comfort zone (as students and teachers) is a necessity.  Many of my college students from the dominant culture who often will work in schools (but have not lived in neighborhoods) with children of color came to understand their white privilege and lived experiences not through theory and research but by walking in the shoes of others.

My student were obligated to get out of their comfort zones and become situated in an activity or event in which they were required to be a racial, ethnic, religious, language, and/or ability “minority.” My students were required to have the experience of being the only one or the “other.”  Previous to these activities, the majority of my students from the dominant culture had not been in situations where they were the minority—except when doing charity work or a supervisory position.

For example, my college students in my Introduction to Special Education class would take on this assignment as “ability minorities,” yet they almost always would try to approach the experience as the teacher, the authority, the “knower.” Rarely did they consider being the peer, let alone the learner (without my prompting or mandating).  Requiring them to further address race and linguistics to unpack disparity and inequality in education, over-representation in special education and the needs of English language learners required much more prompting, discussions and lived experiences.

Maybe there is a need for us as humans to stay with what is familiar. Maybe there is a need for us to play it safe.  But life requires so much more than that. How could we not require that of our students and ourselves?

So what is education?  And what does it mean in our own lives?  Asking ourselves what we would want for our own children (or sisters, brothers, nieces, etc.) is a good place to start the educational journey and from there, leading with knowledge, courage and heart.

Guest Author

Jennifer Bacon and daughter

Jennifer N. Bacon, Ph.D

M.Ed. ’04 Spec Ed

Exploring Career Options with YSI Majors

“It was so amazing to meet people in the field that I want to work in. It helped me envision my career path and establish contacts to help me get there.”

This was the enthusiastic response of Mary Hemenway, a Third Year student in Curry’s new Youth and Social Innovation (YSI) major. Because this undergraduate major is brand new, we day tripped to Washington, DC, to give our students a chance to meet people in the kinds of jobs YSI is preparing them to do. The YSI major integrates theory and research on youth development, programming, and policy with hands-on application working with youth in the Charlottesville community. Students learn how to evaluate social innovations for youth and collaborate to design new ones.

First Stop: Bellwether Education Partners

At 10:30 a.m., Professor Winx Lawrence, Mary, Alysse Dowdy (Third Year), Jack Baker (Fourth Year) and I pulled up to our first destination. Located in DC’s Shaw neighborhood, Bellwether Education Partners supports the education sector through strategic advising, research, policy analysis, educational idea generation, and talent identification. Andy Rotherham, co-founder and partner, told the students about his journey to founding Bellwether, fueled by his drive to ensure educational opportunity for all students. (Andy is also a Curry alum—M.Ed. ’00 Soc Fdns!)

Second Stop: Dance Place

Across town in the Brookland neighborhood of DC, Deborah Riley and Richard Pilkinton shared how the Dance Place serves as both a major player in the dance performance world and a second place to call home for local youth. The story of Dance Place illustrates how a commitment to community integration can yield beautiful art, meaningful relationships, and enriched lives for youth and their families.

Third Stop: The Forum for Youth Investment

Cady-Lee signThe historic Cady-Lee House in the Takoma neighborhood is home to the Forum for Youth Investment. Several Forum staff members (gathered by Ian Faigley, External Affairs Senior Manager) talked about their work on Capitol Hill, consulting with state legislatures, creating and providing Ready by 21 trainings and tools, and designing and maintaining online resources for youth, all with the aim of leveraging leadership (local, state, national) to make sure youth are prepared for successful adulthood.

Fourth Stop: Administration for Children and Families

Belongings scanned and photo IDs examined, we followed Colleen Rathgeb, policy and planning director at the Office of Head Start, down the hallway and up the elevator to an imposing conference room with a city view. We were greeted by eight representatives of different Administration for Children and Families (ACF) offices. A division of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ACF focuses on the wellbeing of children as well as their families and communities.

“It felt practically like an honor to have all those people come in to our meeting just to see and talk to us. I also appreciated getting a chance to see government in action, which these days might seem like an oxymoron to some,” said Jack.

Energized from the interactions of the day, the students expressed wonder and gratitude that all of these people had taken the time to meet them and share a bit about their work and passions. Alysse summed up our visit, “Each organization we visited was different, and that was especially beneficial in trying to pinpoint exactly where I want to take my degree after graduation.”

We look forward to future field trips and collaborations (like summer internships) with these new YSI partners in DC!

Interested in YSI? Learn more about YSI courses and the YSI major

Guest Author

Melissa Levy

Melissa Levy

Assistant Professor