When I first started teaching, it was very taboo to talk about any struggles, anxieties, or perceived shortcomings. So much so that when a fellow new teacher, Jordan, and I finally admitted to each other during lunch that we felt like we had no idea what we were doing, we laughed so hard we cried. There weren’t other teachers on social media talking about where they missed the mark or how hard teaching was. We assumed it was just us!
Luckily, teacher culture has come a long way in vulnerability since I started. Even so, new teacher fears can feel overwhelmed, especially with how much teaching has changed in the last few years. We asked our teacher audience to tell us their biggest fears from their first year of teaching.
“The anxiety of parents about their children’s achievement.”
“Parents! I cried pretty much all afternoon before my first parent-teacher conference.”
“Parents! Particularly parents who were also teachers. I felt like an imposter and that they knew I didn’t know what I was doing!”
“One particular parent. Today it would be classified as bullying, but in those days it was quite acceptable to intimidate, publicly criticize (via signed letters as well as verbally), harass, stalk me after school hours (to make sure I was the ‘right’ sort of young woman to teach her daughter), and to DEMAND to watch me in the classroom as I teach.”
“Teaching the children of a dozen people I attended middle school and graduated high school with.”
“A parent yelled at me over the phone because her kid hadn’t had make-up tests for all the absences he accrued. I cried! Almost 25 years later and it wasn’t the last parent who yelled at me—I just figured out how to avoid it, and when I couldn’t, roll with it better.”
“Talking to parents! Kids are easy.”
Coworkers and Administrators
“The principal who called me into his office to defend myself against gossip he supposedly heard about me (and wouldn’t reveal the source).”
“The exact same thing that frightened me before I retired: meeting the expectations of all of the specialists and administrators telling me to give them data regarding their demands for what THEY wanted me to do, while knowing in my heart doing so actually took away from the time I had to meet the needs of my students. I retired at the end of July so this question finally answered itself. Whew …”
“The veteran teachers. They all were at 25+ years.”
“The AP always coming in my worst science class and never coming to observe my PE classes. Kids didn’t care if she was there and or maybe acted up because she was there. She told me to wear a skirt over my shorts. I had two 9th grade science classes in the afternoon with no time to change clothes. Most of the time I brought pants to wear over my shorts.”
“That the kids would realize I can’t force them to listen to me.”
“I taught high school and there were kids a couple of years younger than me. It was intimidating at first.”
“One child in my class. Almost left teaching because of them.”
“I would say being able to manage my sixth graders. My first class was a very large group with five boys who were getting psychotherapy. Not a good group to begin on, but I managed to grow to love them anyway. I still have a card they gave me when I got married in the middle of the year. They all signed it, it’s a homemade card.”
“Being the same size as my high school students and commanding a room. I literally had dialogues with myself about kids not standing or being quiet during the pledge and how I would address it. This was before I actually started teaching though. Once the year began, I had a looooot of real things to stress over.”
The whole, uh, teaching part?
“Not having the support I really did need. All I was told was how poorly I was doing, that nothing I was doing was right. It was torture, and I’d never wish that on anyone.”
“The task! I taught five out of six classes, all with 36 to 39 students that were below and far below grade level. Just figuring out how to teach 7th and 8th graders who read on a 2nd-to-4th-grade level to read was overwhelming. This was east Austin in 1967.”
“Not being able to teach the way I wanted to teach. Really didn’t like feeling pressured to go against my instincts.”
“To fall into the trap of teaching in the same way I was taught.”
“That I had no teaching materials provided by the school. I was told to use dictionaries.”
Random (and Valid!) Fears
“Learning 125 names!”
“How to fill in gaps of extra time. That, and class parties.”
“That over a third of my 9th graders were convinced that mermaids are real. It also gave me a great sense of purpose as a social studies teacher who gets to teach them to evaluate argument and evidence.”
“I taught PE—lots of kiddos. My classroom was an asphalt court without a complete fence. I was always worried about neighborhood dogs, wandering people, and what to I do if a child runs away into the neighborhood. (All three happened. I learned what to do.)”
“Germs. I learned to fear germs.”
“My potty mouth. In the first month, nine times. Fifth graders laughed and said, ‘It’s OK; we’ve got your back.’ I love my job 24 years later.”
“Not having anything to compare it to. Not knowing what was normal and what was due to my inexperience.”
The Weight of Responsibility
“That none of my 4th graders could read. It ended up being a fantastic experience. Mrs. Garcia told me I could do whatever I wanted as long as I got those kids to read. They couldn’t even read simple books. At the end of the year my lowest was on a 3rd grade reading level and my highest was on 6th! We had so much fun! Oh to be allowed to do what I know works.”
“Shutting the door that first day and realizing, ‘Oh, crap. It’s just me and these kids and I am the one responsible for allllll of you.'”
“Being worried I’d break them or irreparably harm them because of some mistake I made. I teach high school.”
“Not being confident in my abilities or skills.”
“The feeling of being in charge of and responsible for all of these young minds.”
“Messing up in general. My first two weeks, I had a mom on a phone call about her son’s behavior in music class, sobbing as she asked me, a 22 year-old girl fresh out of college, why her 14-year-old son was misbehaving and what she was doing wrong. I almost quit right there, I felt so out of my league.”
Lunch with Jordan that day helped me turn a corner my first year. While it changed absolutely nothing about my teaching, my students, or my circumstances, it did show me I wasn’t alone with the scary thoughts in my head. There’s comfort in discovering pain is shared. Other people have been here. Other people have made it through.
I hope these teachers’ comments can be that for you.
What was your biggest fear your first year? Let us know in the comments.
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