In the first year that I mentored an NQT I occasionally reassured her with lines like: “Don’t worry, next year it will get easier.” She made it through that year, and the next, and at the staff meal on the last day of term she politely accused me of lying. She still found teaching to be a bloody hard job – and this was coming from her, one of the most efficient and effective teachers I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. It has become a little joke of ours: at the end of every year I promise her, “No, it’s next year when it gets easier.” So what’s the truth of it? Does teaching get easier with time, or is this just a little white lie we tell to PGCEs, NQTs, and to ourselves, to get us through the bad times?
Almost all teachers will remember that in their first months as teachers their focus was simple: survival. I can vividly remember my PGCE mentor sitting me down when I felt like I wasn’t coping with the workload or the behaviour of students. He calmly said: “When you are tired, sleep. When you are hungry, eat. Everything to do with teaching comes after.” What he meant was that I shouldn’t lose perspective, and that basic needs were still the priority. Lilian Katz (1977) called this the teacher’s ‘survival phase’ and it has received some research, which has contributed to the development of things like PGCE and NQT programmes. For example, Catherine Lang (2000) reports on a close case study of 7 new teachers in New Zealand, where they found that 6 of the 7 found teaching got easier in the second half of the first school year.
So for most new teachers, the survival phase does eventually come to an end. We get to a point where we are not drowning in work, even though we feel we are only treading water. Then we start to get into the habit of teaching and we glimpse how we can save huge amounts of time. We can reuse those lesson plans! We don’t have to learn that new material because (theoretically) we know it already! I remember the awe I felt when my former head of department proudly revealed to me a long shelf full of lesson plan folders in his room. He told me, “That’s my planning done for the whole of next year.”
As the years stack up
Over time we start to feel more confident with our subject, our colleagues, and – probably most importantly – our students. We get to a point where we benefit from advantages that we, annoyingly, cannot confer on others. Most of these have to do with becoming an established and trusted teacher at the school. A teacher of 16 years, Gavin, puts it like this: “The best way to control behaviour is to have worked at a school for 5 years.” Not a very useful tip for a struggling NQT, but we know exactly what he means. We also learn to cope with day-to-day stresses. As a teacher of 4 years puts it, “Frankly you just care less about getting things wrong as the time goes on, so you stress less and put less pressure on yourself.”
But as we gain in some ways, we lose in others. We start to lose some of the advantages of the ‘survival phase’ and those ‘first ever’ classes – the excitement, the discovery, and the sheer fear-induced adrenaline. In my first years of teaching I felt like I was committing myself to a sort of life-consuming adventure, and I can’t really say this is how I feel now. We grow more resentful over the years at spending evenings and weekends working. What at first perhaps we saw as part of the adventure has become an irritation getting in the way of other aspects of our lives.
The balancing act of a teacher in maturity
So after a few solid years in teaching most of us come to realise that we are performing a sort of balancing act. Too much novelty and creativity? This leads to too much work in the evenings. But too much reusing of lesson plans and revisiting of topics? This leads to a loss of excitement and fulfilment. We get stuck in a rut. Often as we find things getting easier, we take on new responsibilities. The head of department I mentioned above chose to take on a new challenge by moving to a very different school, and now finds that those lesson plans – perfectly sculpted for his old school – are of practically no use. He says this is the hardest year of his 15-year teaching career.
Even if we aim for as much stability as possible, in this climate a lot of change is forced on us by curriculum reform, new technologies, and budget constraints. We also often feel weightier burdens of expectation on us as the years stack up. In some schools teachers feel real pressure to justify their higher salaries. As one teacher of 9 years puts it, fairly bleakly, “Teaching gets easier until you get to the top of the pay spine and don’t want to be a leader, then they try and sack you for being too expensive.” It’s a topic for a different post, but I think as a profession we need to do more to challenge schools that make experienced teachers feel like this.
Stick at it and get happy?
Some significant research has gone into what happens to teacher satisfaction as years of experience increase. A Canadian study of 2000 teachers (Xin Ma & Robert B. MacMillan, 1999), and an American study of 10, 000 teachers (Dianne L. Taylor & Abbas Tashakkori , 1995), both found a very small negative correlation here. To quote the Canadian study, “Teachers who stayed in the profession longer were less satisfied with their professional role.” But to repeat, this correlation was very small, and the American study suggests there are other factors that are much more important than years of experience, such as the leadership in your school, communication in your department, and your freedom to teach without obstacles. Neither study found any easy solutions to the question of how to stay in teaching and stay happy.
So in some concrete ways teaching does get easier, but overall things do not automatically get better. If you wanted a job that gradually tapered down to a walk in the park, you have chosen the wrong profession. However, I’ve taught alongside a lot of people who have had jobs that were easier, which they’ve willingly traded in for teaching. As one teacher of 6 years put it, “I have traded in boredom in exchange for stress. And I’m glad I did.”
A piece of advice I try to give any new teachers is: see out the whole cycle. Endure the hard, dark days of the autumn term, get to the bright, “Wait, I can leave at 3:30?” days of the summer, see the students’ results and shake their hands, and see what you’ve been a part of. But once you are past the survival phase, teaching does not simply get easier, or more satisfying, by itself. You will need to make careful choices to help bring this about. We also need to help each other by sharing information about what schools are like – if you haven’t written a review here on Happy Teacher, it only takes five minutes.
Lilian Katz (1977). Talks with teachers: Reflections on early childhood education. Washington DC: National Association for the Education of Young Children.
Catherine Lang (2001). When does it get any easier? Beginning teachers’ experiences during their first year of teaching, Waikato Jouranl of Education, Vol. 7, pp. 85-97.
Xin Ma & Robert B. MacMillan (1999) Influences of Workplace Conditions
on Teachers’ Job Satisfaction, The Journal of Educational Research, 93:1, 39-47, DOI:
Dianne L. Taylor & Abbas Tashakkori (1995) Decision Participation and School Climate as Predictors of Job Satisfaction and Teachers’ Sense of Efficacy, The Journal of Experimental Education, Vol. 63, No. 3, pp. 217-230.