Why Your First Year Of Teaching Should Be Difficult Part 2

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In our last discussion, we established that not only should the first year of teaching be difficult, but that the difficulty associated with the first year is crucial for learning.  We understand that mistakes foster creative solutions, failure is a productive process, and self esteem can be managed by rethinking our goals.

In this discussion, we'll consider three important psychological perspectives to help you power through your first year in the classroom.

This article will discuss Carol Dweck's popular concept of the growth mindset, Angela Duckwork's work on grit and persistence, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi's idea of optimal performance and flow.

Why The First Year Of Teaching Should Be Difficult Part 1

It is time we apply our pedagogy to ourselves.  Again I start with a brief conversation between myself and a first year educator:

Ms. Sims: "The seniors are tough, it's like they look right over me!  I don't know how to handle them, I feel like they'll yell back at me if I raise my voice.  This is hard.  Really, really, really, hard.  And hurtful, I want to be a good teacher and I'm hurt that I'm not.  Its just so hard.  It's like I'm not smart enough to do this."

We were only about three weeks into the school year and it seemed like she had already had her fill.

"But you work hard, keep your chin up and grind out the rest of this week."  I replied.

There it is, the "I'm not smart enough line" we constantly get from our students.

Ms. Sims had been successful her entire life; supportive family, no issue getting into college or graduate school, and was lucky enough to begin searching for an employment at a fairly opportune time.

This was her first "real" obstacle.    Her response isn't uncommon and almost expected.  Like a lot of our students, she fell back on familiar ground and perceived her intelligence as fixed.  She's struggling now and therefore she'll always struggle because she isn't smart enough.

The first year is difficult for many reasons.  The most important, however, is obvious: you are learning how to teach for the first time.  It is not difficult because first year teachers are not smart enough.

Meaningful learning is full of mistakes.

Meaningful learning is full of failure.

Meaningful learning is riffled with self doubt.

Meaningful learning is difficult.

And this is the way it should be.  

For help internalizing the struggle of first year teaching, I'd like to enlist the perspective of three VERY successful individuals: philosopher/psychologist William James, innovator/inventor Thomas Edison, and businessman/founder of Bridgewater Associates Ray Dalio.

Hook, Line, And Sinker...5 Easy Ways To Hook Your Students

"I heard you give homework on the first day of school, I think that is a stupid idea..."  the little tank of a person standing before me blurted out.
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"I want you to know that I'm not going to do it, or any of the homework you assign, I think that it is all stupid."

"We'll discuss work outside of class momentarily, for now, please find your seat."  I tried to calmly respond.  It was the first day of school, and I had not yet even learned the student's name.

"OK, I just wanted to give you a heads-up."  He quickly quipped back.

"What is your name?"

"Travis, and school isn't my thing, and I already don't like you because you're a teacher."

"Well Travis, challenge accepted, now head to your seat buddy."

Frequent readers have come to realize that I place a lot of value in the words  of wisdom coming from mentors.  Again, I believe that mentorship is an underrated component to success.

A mentor once told me that education is simple: get the kids to like you and they'll do work for you.

Wow, get the kids to like you.  But there is a fine line in getting the students to like you, and being "that guy" who tries to hard and pushes the students away.

This article is about how I get my students to like me, without being "that guy."  This article is not meant to be a pat on the back or a three page look at me ramble.  This article is meant to give you a couple ideas to hook your students.

Hook them once and you'll catch them for the year.

Over Empathetic Teacher Syndrome Explained

“ I felt like an emotional dumpster, and I felt helpless because no one was coming to clean out my trash…”  Clara barely mumbled, her voice nothing more than a squeak above a whisper.

“Everything the kids were going through, I adopted as my own problem.  Every pain, hardship, and crappy moment of their lives I took on as my own issue- involuntarily.  I burned out...  I burned out not from the work, stress, or all of that, but because after a while I was unable to distinguish the feelings of my students from my own feelings.  It was terrible.”

A lot of teachers leave teaching.  Leaders and administrators are struggling and scrambling to find out why young exceptional teachers walk away. 

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be an answer.  Poor pay?  Crappy conditions?  Aggressive parents?  Everything seems to add up and a new teacher is often burning the candle from both ends with a butane torch.

But Clara had a different story.  She is exceptionally smart an unbearably motivated.  She gets teaching.  However she decided not to return to her third year in the classroom.  As a young educator looking to answer the teacher attrition issue, I asked her a painful question that lead to the above response.

“Did you give up?”

The Power Of Associative Learning

whack whack whack whack whack whack whack…”

“My gosh that wookpecker sounds like someone is hitting a tree with a baseball bat!” my wife exclaimed, “I wonder how they do that…any idea Mr. Biology teacher?”

I…I don’t know…” I stammered as I furrowed my brow.

I looked abstractly off to the side as my deep in thought wheels began to spin.

Whatcha thinkin?” my wife innocently said after what, in retrospect, seemed like an eternity.

“I’m thinking… about World War I… actually…”

“World War I?  What happened to the woodpecker?  I’ll tell you what, sometimes I don’t know where you come from” she said with a loving smile.

"Well..." I began explaining “I began thinking about the woodpecker, and that hitting its head repeatedly must hurt.  But then again it wouldn’t peck at wood if it was harmful, so they must have a mechanism to avoid brain injury, like concussion prevention.  Then I thought about my wreslters and how they deal with head injuries-concussions, that my first step is to visit our athletic trainer.   I also go to the trainer when they get a busted nose that I can’t stop from bleeding, and that she uses this tube of gel that helps the blood clot.  Which made me think of hemophilia, and Prince Alexi Romanov from Russia, and how Rasputin was involved in helping the boy, but gave bad advice to his father about running the army which is thought to have contributed to the revolution in Russia during World War I.  See, it’s not that strange of a thought process” I said as I smiled back.

“Yes Chris, it is.  To associate a woodpecker and WWI is a strange association…”

I have to agree, but also state that the mind is an incredible thing.

Call it educational serendipity, but that night I picked up Talks to Teachers on Psychology And to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals by William James and flipped to a section called “The Association of Ideas.”

Who better to help us understand the flow of thought than William James.  His insight has helped us to deal with difficult students and how to keep a positive habit.  This article is about his classic theory on the association of ideas and its implications on learning.

The Velcro Theory of Memory

1941 was a special year for electrical engineer George de Mestral.  On a walk through the Swiss Alps, his K9 companion causally brushed against a plant that would change the world of adhesion forever: a Burdock.

Upon returning home he spent considerable time removing the unwelcome hitchhikers from not only his dog, but also himself.  Becoming “bioinspired” and realizing the potential for the Burdock seed to function as a model for reusable adhesion, Mestral observed his new collection under a microscope.
The key, he quickly understood, to the Burdock’s sticky effectiveness were tiny crochet needles extending from the seed that become entwined with anything unlucky to brush against it.  Burdock seeds are infamous because they stick to everything using ingenious harpoon like extensions that violently grab a hold of anything furry or fabric.

The insight didn’t take long, but getting a patent did (he finally received it in 1955).  Mestral is credited for inventing Velcro, the ubiquitous household item that is used in virtually all capacities of life; from heart surgery to fashion.

Always in search of useful and meaningful analogies to describe the brain, psychologists use Velcro to describe the acquisition of knowledge and the Velcro Theory of Memory has gained recognition after the Heath brothers briefly discuss it in the their recent best seller Made To Stick.

As educators, we can appreciate a helpful analogy.  This article will discuss the transformation of

Memory is the transformation of external stimuli to neuronal impulses that result in altered synaptic connections to store sensation; the more elaborately an experience is encoded, the deeper it is learned.”


“Memory is like Velcro.  The more hooks an experience has, the better it is remembered.”