Survival Mode

Phases of first-year teachers' attitudes towards teaching

“They” say that the first year of teaching is all about survival. It is about making it through the day, the class, the hour without pulling your hair out, yelling, crying, or locking yourself in the bathroom. Many “theorists” call it “survival mode.”

It is a mode that we are supposed to avoid with preparation and planning, but hardly any of us do. Survival mode is a way of working that almost every first year teacher goes through, but it is only temporary. My hair actually started falling out my first year teaching. Full-blown alopecia, which I’d never experienced before in my life. You are not alone.

So you’ve been teaching for two months now. You lost your voice in week one. It came back in week two. Your spouse is getting frustrated because you never want to talk about your day. They don’t understand that you talk all day and can’t bear to open your mouth again, not to mention that it now hurts to talk.

You got a cold in week three and the flu in week six. The weekend after your first full week of teaching, you felt like you were in a drug-induced fog. You wanted to sleep until noon, but there were too many things to do! You had to take advantage of all the planning time. You’re trying to get creative with your lessons, incorporate music, really make the content significant to the students’ lives, but you’re dying.

You’ve either gained or lost five pounds in the past two weeks. Tomorrow is Monday. You only have lessons prepared through tomorrow. Can you possibly make it through another week?

Yes, you can! 

Don't give up

You will, and it will get easier. Each day gets a little easier and each year gets a little better, but it never, ever gets effortless. If it starts to feel easy, you probably aren’t doing a good job anymore.

You might think you’re crazy for spending five hours on a Sunday lesson planning. You’re not. That’s par for the course for the first year of teaching. You might think you’re weak because you came home either crying or throwing things three times this week. You’re not. You’re a real teacher now.

Student refusing to do work.

One of the most difficult parts of teaching (and an aspect likely to put a new teacher over the edge) is dealing with those kids who carry a perpetual chip on their shoulders. A conversation might go something like this (based on a true story):

Students are working on essays. Jenny (let’s call her) is refusing to work on the assignment.

“Jenny, do you need any help?” you ask.

She rolls her eyes. You position yourself so you can see her paper and speak with her, making it clear you’re not going away and that you want to help.

“Let’s look at this together.”

“I ain’t doin it.”

“What don’t you understand? Can you tell me what a thesis statement is?”


“Remember it’s the main….”

“I ain’t doin it. You want me to fail. I hate you.”

She pushes her paper at you and looks at you like a pit bull eyeing a tabby cat. You pick her paper up off the floor and place it back in front of her.

“Come on Jenny, let’s look at this together.”

“F-you. You’re the worst teacher I’ve ever had.”

Sound familiar? If it doesn’t, it will.

You are not a horrible teacher. You’re a good teacher because you’re not letting her sit there and do nothing, but that pisses her off. In all likelihood, something happened before class, which had nothing to do with you, that set her off and she took it out on you because you were there and the bomb was already ticking.

We, the teachers, react to these situations in a number of ways.

We may realize that it is not about us and move on with our teaching. Or the “you’re the worst teacher I’ve ever had” comment resonates in our skulls. Some teachers cry, some yell back, but the key is they let it get to them.

Don’t ever let a student make you feel like you’re not good enough.

You’re doing the best damn job you know how. Although I know some disagree with me, I believe you should avoid crying in front of your students (unless you’re reading Where the Red Fern Grows or Of Mice and Men) and don’t lose your cool. If you lose your cool and yell back then you’ve given the student exactly what they want.

They’re mad and they want to make you mad. Don’t let them.

Survival mode exists even though no one ever taught you about it in graduate school, and in all likelihood, you’re going to hit that mode at some point. So what do you do? The most important thing is to realize that it will pass. There may be numerous times you hit survival mode in your career for various reasons, but there will also be times when you feel like you have teaching under control.

When you feel you’re hitting a wall or stuck in survival mode please don’t run to a fast food joint and scarf french fries to ease your pain. That will only make it worse. On the contrary, try getting some extra exercise after school. You’re already exhausted, yes, but take some time for yourself. Perhaps some yoga or meditation. Take a self-defense class or karate. At least you’ll feel more prepared to defend yourself if you have to stand between two 12th grade baseball players about to fight (been there).

Try to set specific times aside for planning. You’re going to plan from seven until nine at night each night, but from the time you get home until seven is time for you to spend in any way that makes you happy whether that be with your own children, your spouse, friends, or quiet time by yourself. Try taking one whole day off on the weekend. Allow yourself to not think about school during that time and focus on being in the moment doing whatever it is that you’re doing.

The more years you get under your belt, the less work you’ll need to do at home because you’ll have plans to work from and you’ll have streamlined your work process at school. I hardly ever take work home with me now. I have a toddler, a five-year-old, and a husband who need me to be present for them when I am home and I owe that to them just the same as I owe my students to be present and innovative in the classroom.

Wearing many hats is difficult, but the more years of teaching you get under your belt the easier it will be.

I recommend that you commiserate with other new teachers. It helps to know you’re not alone. Talking over a beer at a local bar after school occasionally doesn’t hurt either. Don’t be afraid to share your failures as well as your successes with your peers. They might be able to help, or at least make you feel better with an even worse tale of a lesson gone wrong.

Most importantly, realize that you are not perfect and your lessons won’t be either.

You can’t be the most creative teacher of the year every day. Some days when you’re in survival mode you’re going to have to give your classes a worksheet. There will be a day that you will have to show a movie that only sort-of relates to what you’re covering. It is okay. Just don’t make it a habit.

Please, please ask for help.

Your colleagues will respect you for realizing you can’t do it all on your own and you’re not going to be hard headed and try. Ask your department head to come in to observe your discipline strategies and give you feedback. Exchange units with other new teachers.

Remember all those people you met in graduate school? They’re new teachers now too. They may not even be in the same state, but if they’re teaching, they have an email address. Find out if any of them are teaching the same content as you. Swap lessons and ideas. Save yourself some stress.

Do your best by utilizing all the resources available to you.

And remember, it’s ok to be in survival mode once in a while, especially during your first year of teaching, but the smiles on the kid’s faces and the knowledge that you are improving their current and future lives will make it all worth it!

Here are some more posts that you might find helpful if you are concerned about starting your first year teaching:

A script for how to call a parent

Handling “helicopter” and “snowplow” parents

To do list for the summer before your first year teaching

Last minute activities to fill those awkward moments

Snacking like a teacher

7 Morning routine MUSTS for new teachers

If you found this helpful, make sure to pin, post, and tweet to share it with other new teachers who might also benefit from it!

And don’t forget to subscribe to get more great stuff like this.

A Teacher's Guide

I am a National Board Certified educator currently teaching in Virginia. I have taught the following: English 9, 10, 11, and 12 (on academic, collaborative, and honors levels); Dual Enrollment English; Mass Communications, Yearbook, Newspaper, and Communications Technology. I have experience in five different school systems, four in Virginia and one in Maryland. I served as my school’s 2019 Teacher of the Year and was a top five finalist for the Teacher of the Year for Virginia Beach City Public Schools. I am passionate about recruiting and retaining quality educators in our public schools. Let me help you find your path to changing lives through teaching!

You may also like...

Leave a Reply