After The 'What Have I Done' Moment, Most Young Teachers Persevere

Aug 24, 2015

Teachers at the Kauffman School are, on average, some of the youngest in Kansas City.
Credit Kyle Palmer / KCUR

Many veteran teachers speak of a time earlier in their careers when they doubted their choice to teach. 

"It was actually one of my first days teaching kindergarten," says Julie Wilson, who now directs the state-run teaching jobs board kansasteachingjobs.com

"I had to get them lined up for a fire drill, and it was such a mess that by the time I got them out to the playground I was in tears. And I was like, 'What have I done? How am I ever going to teach them if I can't get them to line up?'" 

That sentiment (the "what have I done?" moment) has been a recurring theme in many interviews KCUR conducted this summer with educators of all ages and backgrounds. It seems it is common for young teachers to experience doubt, anxiety, and frustration in their first years — to the point where they think about quitting.

"I had this really rowdy class one year," recalls Destiny Flournoy, an instructional coach in Kansas City, Kansas, who taught for seven years before transitioning into her new role. "And I thought to myself, 'I'm done. This is going to be the end of me.'" 

In her third year teaching, Flournoy says her school experimented with segregating classes by gender. Flournoy got a class of all boys. 

"More than 20 boys," she says, laughing now. "They were wild. And I felt totally at a loss." 

Sometimes, there is real emotional pain behind a teacher's early experiences. 

"It was the first time in my life where I had really felt like I was hitting rock bottom," says Maple Kirby, who is now entering her third year teaching. She currently teaches at the Kauffman School, a charter school in Kansas City. "It was a real struggle to find joy in my job that first year."

Kirby says in her first two years she would get up before dawn to go to school, teach all day, and return home at night. She admits she was not prepared for some of the learning needs of her students. 

"You spend every day in this state of high, high intensity and you are really driven by a mission but you also feel like you're not effective," she says. 

Kirby wants to make clear that she is in a better mental place now. Which points to another theme that emerged when talking to these teachers: perseverance. 

In fact, data suggests teacher burnout is not as common as once thought. Federal data released earlier this year shows that 83 percent of teachers who began teaching in 2008 were still teaching five years later. That contradicts an oft-cited figure that argues 40-50 percent of young teachers quit before their fifth year. (The author of the study that produced the higher figure has admitted the methodology of his study led to inflated data.) 

Still, this is not to say teaching is not hard. 

"A lot of people enter teaching thinking it's going to be easy," says Dr. Sherry Goodvin, director of the Kansas Mentor and Induction Center at Wichita State. "But there are so many balls you have to juggle, from teaching your content, to classroom management, to dealing with parents."

This points to the importance of rigorous preparation and strong mentorship. 

"I would have flopped in my first year if I had not had a really, really good mentor," says Lisa Foster, who is in her 35th year teaching. She's now at Lee A. Tolbert Community Academy in Kansas City, Missouri. 

Surveys of those who have left teaching show that this type of on-the-job learning can be hard on young teachers, especially if they do not have a quality mentor. Not having proper guidance can lead to the types of overwhelming situations Maple Kirby found herself in two years ago.

"I was so wrapped up in my job that I felt I did not have an identity outside of teaching," she says.

The thing former teachers most frequently say is "better" in their new career is "work-life balance."

"You have to find other things to do," says 21-year veteran teacher Rebeka McIntosh, who teaches at Grandview's alternative school. 

For her part, McIntosh plays in a local ukulele group and also clogs (a type of folk dancing) on weekends. 

There's probably a joke there about not quitting your day job. But it appears as if teachers, by and large, already don't do that. 

The struggle is real — but only up to a point. 

This story is part of KCUR's 'Teaching It Forward' project, which looks deeply at the changing nature of the teaching profession in the Kansas City metro.