The Ebb and Flow of the First-Year of Teaching

I was sitting in my office, and I received an email from Ethan Wagner that was not only an incredible story of resilience but was something I wanted to share with all of my “Because of a Teacher” co-authors and you. The first year of teaching is extremely complicated, and as you grow in the profession, I am not sure if it gets easier or you just get better at dealing with the “hard.” 

When I received this email from Ethan, it made me feel extremely validated that the book was not only about the sharing of stories of teaching from the authors but would inspire others who read it to share their stories as well.

After receiving Ethan’s email sharing the impact “Because of a Teacher” had on him,  I asked if he would consider writing a blog post to share with everyone who reads this blog. What he doesn’t share in the post that he shared with me in an email was that he went from struggling to get a job in his first year to being recognized by the Pennsylvania Association for Middle-Level Education (PAMLE) as one of the recipients of their Promising Practitioners new teacher award! Although I didn’t know him before receiving the email, I felt extremely proud. We need to celebrate each other in education which is why I asked him to write this post.

His honesty about the ups and downs of teaching is compelling, and I know many of you reading this post will relate. As I read what he had shared, I thought of this quote from Stephanie Rothstein, shared in the book: 



Please enjoy Ethan’s post below, and feel free to reach out to him on Twitter to cheer him on into the upcoming school year!


Reflections on Year #1 ~ Ethan J. Wagner


How We Got Here

While not necessarily unique, my professional life over the past year has coincidentally led me to this opportunity to offer a reflection on my experiences as a first-year educator. My name is Ethan Wagner, and I am a social studies teacher in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I first went through the job application process in spring/summer 2022. Having completed interviews at several schools, I had zeroed in on one specific position which I wanted more than anything. My disappointment was real when I received the “We have selected another candidate” email. However, if not for this moment, I may not have come across Because of a Teacher, and I certainly would not have ended up having as successful a year as I did.

I decided to reach out to those with whom I had interviewed to ask for feedback. I was surprised to receive a phone call from the assistant principal several weeks later. We ended up talking extensively about what I could do to further hone my skills as an educator. As part of this discussion, he also suggested that I read BOAT. Fast forward two months, and I had read the book by the time I ended up accepting a position at a local private school. There is something about hearing perspectives from actual people who have “been there, done that” that you simply cannot get out of any college education course or content-knowledge exam. I truly did enter the school year enthusiastic and ready to implement many of the ideas I had read about.


Finding Balance in the Ups & Downs

Several of the contributors in BOAT recall feeling overwhelmed at the thought of being in complete control of a classroom when the bell rang on that first period of their career. I remembered reading about this “now what” feeling, but I absolutely downplayed its legitimacy. While adrenaline got me started, that seemed to wear off rather quickly when I was left with this same sense of “Wait, they let me be in charge?!” In those moments, I found reassurance in realizing that many of the highly decorated educators in BOAT felt similar in their first days. Their words of wisdom related to having confidence, taking everything one step at a time, and showing students that you care above all else eventually made everything much easier.

Keeping a room engaged while providing differentiation, watching the clock, and anticipating misunderstandings can feel like mental gymnastics. Year one felt at times like a constant struggle of trying to stay prepared even just one day ahead of the previous day’s lesson. This feeling would be draining without knowing that others have gone through the same thing. I cannot help but wonder if the national attrition rate for educators in their first few years of teaching might decrease if they had all been exposed to the book “Because of a Teacher.” 

The number of contributors to the book who describe moments of feeling as though they had devoted countless hours to lesson planning, only to find that their efforts may not always work in practice, makes the tough days feel much less discouraging.

BOAT discusses how embracing the “this is why we do it” moments can make all the difference when it comes to avoiding discouragement and helping to push through the tough days. When teaching one of my favorite lessons on the symbolism found in Paul Revere’s famous Boston Massacre engraving, I will never forget one student’s exact reaction of “Wait, I actually love social studies!” For any teacher who has experienced something similar, there is no greater feeling. BOAT’s contributors remind us of the necessity to hold onto these moments and not allow adversity to overshadow the personal sense of accomplishment associated with helping a student realize a newfound passion for learning.

One of the many positive practices I took from student teaching was the value of giving students opportunities to provide feedback. While at times potentially tough to hear, the insight gained from that one student who may otherwise never speak up to relay a misunderstanding is foundational in the effort to meet each student’s needs. I gave periodic surveys, but the best outcomes from these came when I began to consider the message in BOAT about having an open dialogue with students and giving them a voice in the classroom. I consistently heard that students felt I could explain multiple-choice quiz answers more thoroughly. I made this adjustment, but I also made a point of explaining that the change came because of their feedback. This showed students that I not only valued their opinions but was also willing to back up my promise to listen. Rather than silencing students, BOAT encourages us to empower them to speak up, which fosters greater participation and self-advocacy, thereby making the educational experience far more fruitful for everyone.


Advice? (Food for Thought)


I am by no means necessarily qualified to give “advice” to educators beginning their careers, so I am instead going to call this section more “food for thought.” The basis for many of these ideas was offered to me by great educators and mentors with whom I have worked, but the following proved invaluable in year one:

1) Set realistic expectations.

You are not going to be the master teacher you want to be in the first quarter of your career. If that were the case, this profession would severely lack opportunities for personal growth and therefore be incredibly disappointing. Rather, focus on always teaching and planning through the lens of what is best for kids and everything else truly will fall into place. I found that once I was able to work through the feeling of needing to be perfect, my best ideas came much more naturally.


2) Do the “extras.”

Establishing relationships must be a priority. Whether the “extras” mean agreeing to host the school pep rally, participating in the “soak your teacher” event, or getting far too competitive in the students versus faculty volleyball game, taking part in these activities speaks volumes about your willingness to go above and beyond. Moreover, attending school sporting events is an invaluable way to build rapport with students while showing that you care about them as real people with real interests outside the classroom rather than just as faces that fill seats each day.


3) Be your genuine self.

Developing my own teaching style and personality was something that I found much easier said than done. At first, I believed that the key to being a great teacher was to closely imitate those I observed or had as a student. While this is a nice thought, I quickly discovered that trying to act like someone else in your classroom does more harm than good. I was fortunate to have been placed with an extraordinary co-op during student teaching, and I will never forget his early advice that I “need to be Ethan.” I found that when I stopped trying to be someone I was not, the quality of my lessons improved dramatically.


4) Build the “trust bridge” early and reinforce it often.

As far as I can tell, most students will give you at least as much effort and concern as you give them. This begins with building community from the moment you first interact with students (and families) on the opening days of school. Even a task as simple as immediately learning student names and something that interests them made all the difference in creating a culture of mutual respect. I also found that involving parent(s)/guardian(s) early and often helped establish much-needed trust and support. Whether an email sharing the news of a strong quiz performance, or a phone call discussing how to best offer additional support, those who care for students outside of school always seemed appreciative of the open and consistent communication.


Looking Ahead

I am certain that my experiences over the past year have set a course for a rewarding career in education. I have recently accepted a new position at one of the top school districts in the region and could not be more excited to continue impacting lives and learning each day alongside my students. To any new teacher who may be reading and pondering if this profession is worth it, I am only one year in and can confidently say that there is tremendous fulfillment to be found. No matter who you are, why you went into education, what school you teach at, or your subject and grade level, you can make a difference for someone whose entire life may be positively altered by your presence. Can there be any greater joy than that? As I transition to year #2, I am motivated by the hope that I may one day be that person to whom even a single student refers when they explain how their success was all “Because of a Teacher.


Connect with Ethan here on Twitter!

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