How I survived my first 5 years of teaching

My current classroom.

You can listen to the podcast version of this post here.

Throughout studying in my teaching credential program 7 years ago and just teaching for the past 5 years, it is common knowledge that as new teachers, if we make it pass the first 5 years of teaching, we will survive and continue in this profession. I’ve been told this in article readings from my teaching credential program and by other teachers.

According to Edsource, this statistic actually stemmed from a 2003 study by Richard Ingersoll, “a sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, who concluded that between 40 and 50 percent of teachers didn’t return for a sixth year of teaching.”

Now, a 2015 study from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Educational Statistics reports that only 17% new teachers leave within the first 5 years. However, this is a nationwide statistic on limited sample size of teachers and does not apply to every single district and school in the United States.

Nevertheless, the problem of retaining and staffing schools fully, at least in my district, remains. Perhaps, I should pat myself on the back for surviving my first five years? I work in an incredibly tough district, and on top of that, a middle school. Upon reflection, I narrowed down 6 factors that helped me stay grounded and survive these five years as a newbie teacher.

My Personality Type & Upbringing

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My personality type as an ISFJ in the Myers–Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) works as a double edged sword for me in the realm of education. Being a teacher forces me to be more extroverted, so it drains more of my energy than it would for a naturally extroverted teacher. Yes, I know there are limits to the accuracy of personality tests in fully capturing your full self, but there is a decent amount of truth in the MBTI sprinkled in for me personally. On the surface, I don’t think anyone would really take me for an ISFJ, but once you get to know me more deeply, it would become more clear.

As an ISFJ, I am highly critical of myself, easily swayed by how others view me. I care a lot about how others think of me. Leaving the teaching profession just after one year, half way into the year, or maybe just one or two weeks would cause me to feel that others would look down on me. I fear people would think of me as weak. Shame would fill me because I would feel like a failure. No matter how much stress I faced in teaching, being unemployed or just being a substitute teacher felt worse. Drowning in stagnancy and feeling aimless were mindsets that I did not want to feel again.

Growing up, my mom was always very strict. It was almost like growing up in a bootcamp. Hanging out with friends were deemed a waste of time. From kindergarten to 8th grade, I attended an after-school program from 3pm to 6pm right after regular school hours, where I did my homework and took other enrichment classes. School and academics were the main priority. Many first generation Asian Americans can identify with this. However, I made the most of my time in school and the after-school program and became very self-disciplined. I learned not to give up easily and continued to work hard despite what other people may be doing around me.

My Faith and Pre-teaching Experiences

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Aside from school and academics, my faith played a big part in my life. It was through my church that I was first exposed to teaching. It was the summer of 2007 when my church began its first mission trip to China. Six months prior to the trip, my mom kept encouraging me to sign up for the mission trip. I was very introverted and did not like talking to strangers at all, but my mom convinced me to sign up and attend weekly trainings to prepare for the trip. One of the biggest tasks to prepare for the trip was planning a 3 day English lesson plan to teach to children at 3 different orphanages.

I was paired up with another church member much older than me, and we were in charge of 3rd to 4th graders. I was more or less of a teacher’s assistant at that time, but anxiety filled me. I was just a mere teenager who graduated from 8th grade, preparing to become a high school freshman. Despite my crippling anxiety, my teaching partner carried us through, and I slowly opened up to the children when we played Connect 4 or jump rope together.

I came back to America a changed person from this first trip. I didn’t think I could do it, to travel with unfamiliar church brothers and sisters without my parents to teach children that I have never met before. At the end of the trip, I deepened my relationship with God, grew close with the mission team, connected with a handful of children from China, and took another step out of my introverted comfort zone. The pastor started offering me to teach Sunday School to 3rd and 4th graders two times a month post mission trip. And for the next 13 years, I kept signing up for these mission trips to China to build upon these relationships. I still remember during my job interview for the current school I work at, that the principal kept asking me follow up questions about my mission trips and how I built up my teaching skills and connections to students. I strongly believe that I was hired because of my mission trip teaching experiences.

After I graduated from high school, I was offered to also teach a small writing class at my church. My first year of students were calm and well behaved, but my second year of students were a group of middle school boys who were all friends together and liked to distract each other and challenge me. I taught this same group of boys for 3 to 4 years, each year building on my English teaching skills, classroom management, and engagement strategies. In addition to this writing class, my aunt asked me to tutor my cousin who just came from China, which led to future opportunities to tutor other students through word of mouth. This was all happening during my undergraduate years of being an English and Chinese major. I never asked to be a teacher or a tutor. I was called. To this day, I am certain that God called me to be a teacher by dropping all these teaching experiences onto my lap.

Family Support

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Without my mom, none of this would have been possible. My mom triggered the start of my teaching journey by strongly encouraging me to attend China mission trips. My mom was there for me each time I came home crying every day during my first semester of teaching at my current school. She held me, prayed with me, and grounded me. I still remember how I called her during one of my conference periods that first year because I was full of dread and anxiety. Right after we prayed together on the phone, the office called me to substitute for another class. Instantly, I was distracted and forgot about my depressing thoughts and anxiety about my students and walked briskly to another classroom to sub. I will also never forget and am forever thankful to my mom for replacing my coffee with calming ginseng tea the following morning I took a day off after my first two weeks of teaching. I drank this tea almost every day in my first semester of teaching after ditching coffee. To this day, I still do not take a sip of coffee.

Colleague & Peer Mentor Support

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Another big game changer for me that first year was a teacher’s invitation to eat lunch together. You may or may not have heard of the negativity that colors the environment and conversations of a teacher’s lounge. It is very easy for teachers to come together to just complain all day about students, and I have been told to stay away from the lounge. On my first day, I was given a casual invitation to eat at another’s teacher’s classroom with a small group of other teachers. On my way of trying to find that classroom, I bumped into another teacher that warned me to stay away from that classroom because that teacher group causes “political drama” in the school. Feeling wary, I turned around and waltzed straight back into my own classroom, unsure of what to make of the warning. So, I ended up eating alone for a good couple of weeks while drowning in sorrow.

But one day, I bumped into another first year teacher who invited me to have lunch together. I instantly lit up and was so happy to eat and chat with another adult human being during lunch time. A day later, she invited me to go eat in that same teacher group that was mentioned earlier. So, I joined her and met some more teachers. There were two veteran teachers and another first year teacher there also, and we all hit it off. I was shy and did not say much, but I enjoyed the warm and positive environment away from my own dark and dreary classroom (figuratively speaking). There was no “political drama.” And from that moment on, I continued to eat there every day, sharing stories of our students and insights to classroom management and life in general.

During my second year of teaching, I was moved next door to this classroom. Whenever students gave me an extra hard time, the teacher next door became a sort of mentor support for me. More importantly, I would be able to send a misbehaving student or two over to her class. One time, I completely broke down in my class, crying from the stress and student behavior chaos, and this neighbor teacher helped me call for admin and stayed with me.

Even though two of the teachers in this lunch group have left, I still eat lunch together with one of the teachers in the same group and have invited other teachers to eat with me in my classroom now. Lunch time with my peers is a beautiful time of rest I treasure from the bottom of my heart because it has carried me through many tough days.

In addition to lunch time joys, I owe my survival to 6 other mentors that supported me as a new teacher. Two of the mentors were “mandatory mentors” I needed to meet weekly with for a total of two years to clear my credential. However, the other 4, I personally initiated contact with them to meet regularly for extra support as a first year, second year, and third year teacher. I tried out their suggestions and ideas to help me improve my classroom management skills and to create a better learning environment for my students, from the way I walked and talked to how I arranged my classroom layout. I believe I was meeting with 3 mentors on a weekly basis during my second year. I was desperate to be a better teacher and not succumb to constant negativity. I wanted to survive. I needed to survive. And these mentors gave me the support I needed.

Admin Support

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There are plenty of horror stories out there about school administrators and how unsupportive they can be. Fortunately, I have a very supportive principal and 3 other assistant principals at my school for the past 5 years. They are all very different people and have different leadership styles, but I can connect with all of them. When I broke down three times during my first two years of teaching, the administration allowed me to leave my classroom to take a mental health break for a period and subbed in place for me. Furthermore, they talked with me one on and one to understand how I felt and asked I can be better supported. Now, they are not perfect, but I still feel very supported by them at my school.

COVID-19

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I may be the only teacher who will say that COVID-19 ironically helped me survived my first five years of teaching. Two teachers at my school that I personally know have left after the 2019-2020 school year finished off. According to a 2022 survey from the National Education Association, “More than half (55%) of members plan to leave education sooner than planned because of the pandemic, a significant increase from 37% in August.” And in Arizona, according to EducationWeek, “About 43 percent of the teachers who left in 2020 cited COVID-19 as their primary reason.”

These statistics are quite scary, and the future of education in the United States does not look good. However, I am not part of this statistic. During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, teaching online helped me rediscover my joy of teaching. I was on the verge of burnout during my third year of teaching before the pandemic hit (episode 10). Teaching from home helped me heal and gave me rest from traumatic classroom management stress. Lastly, teaching remotely ignited my passion for using education technology to enhance learning for all of my students.

So, after returning to full person teaching on my fifth year, I emerge as a stronger teacher than ever before. I can proudly say, I survived my first five years of teaching.

Now, will I make it another five?

Till then.


Thank you for stopping by Haunting Comforts, where I share teaching, faith, and life through stories, reflections, and analyses. Subscribe & follow me on Instagram for more updates!

3 thoughts on “How I survived my first 5 years of teaching

Add yours

  1. It’s so great that your faith, family and colleagues all have supported your teaching! It’s a hard job and I’m glad you get that support, yaal are amazing 😆

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