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The Life Of A First-Year Teacher, In Six Emotional Stages

Florangela Davila
New teacher Erika McKamey (left) seeks counsel and advice from her teacher mentor Lynn Lofstrom. At this time of year, McKamey is in the "disillusionment" stage and is especially stressed out. But she's not ready to quit the profession.

It isn't easy being a teacher, especially a new one.

"The reality of the complexity of the job comes flying at you on Day One, when everything you learned in school needs to be in acted in reality, and you realize this is a really complicated job," said Jeanne Harmon, who directs support programs for new teachers at the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.

The state of Washington loses about 25 percent of its teachers within the first five years. But most challenging is the first year, which involves six different emotional phases, according to the New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz, Calif.

Credit Ellen Moir, New Teacher Center

First coined in 1990, the stages helps boost teachers' confidence, assuring them that they're not alone in feeling overwhelmed by the realities of teaching, and that there's a light at the end of the tunnel.

"Principals have this tool at their hand so if teachers walk in and is in tears, they might be able to pull it out and say, 'Look, here's how it works. It's normal. It's all going to be OK, '" Harmon said. 

Erika McKamey, who teaches first grade at Kent's Millenium Elementary School, says she's already gone through several ups and downs in her first three months on the job. 


At first, said McKamey, she couldn't wait to start. 

"You're really excited. You're setting up your room. You're ready for the kids to come. You're really anxious, and you're running on adrenaline," she said. 


Then sometime in September, the demands of the job take over and things become tougher. 

"You're just trying to get through the day and the week, and literally survive," said McKamey. "You're at the point where all the anticipation has run out, and you are just wiped. I had to be on my toes a lot."


Come November, one starts to lose steam.

"You're just like, 'Eh, it'll happen, it'll not; I don't know,' said McKamey. "I do go home earlier and I'm like, 'Oh, well. I have a stack of papers to grade. I'll do that next week.'"


But then comes the lifesaver: winter break, which signals a whole different—and much happier— set of emotions, says Kent teacher mentor Lynn Lofstrom.

"It's winter break and you get a break. You get to regroup," Lofstrom said. "Then after break, teachers come back rested. The kids come back, sometimes a little more mature. They want to please you like crazy and they're working harder. And that fuels teachers, too."  


By spring, teachers start reflecting on lessons learned and how they can improve things.

"Teachers start to think about, 'Ok, next year when I do this,' or, 'I'm going to think about how I'm going to reach these students next time,'" said Lofstrom. 


Come June, it's "just like the beginning" again," says Lofstrom. 

"They're anticipating the next year already. They know, 'I get to start again. I get to try again.' And they know next year will be so much easier, because I've been through it," she said.

Lofstrom, who worked for years as a teacher before becoming one of Kent's teacher mentors, says it's important for district to allow new teachers to stay in their same grade level for multiple years because it lets teachers practice that grade "before asking them to move to something else." Moving to a different grade or even a different school can trigger the emotional stages all over again.  

There are about 1,630 people in their first year of teaching in Washington state, according to the Washington Education Association.