Impressions of a First Year Teacher

Culture Shock, Adjustment and Acceptance at a New School


Before enrolling in UVEI’s Teacher Intern Program, Eric Braun was a higher education administrator and instructor. During his 30-year career, Eric helped hundreds of students earn their college degrees. At age 50, he enrolled in UVEI and completed the requirements for certification in elementary education in June 2016. Eric recently finished his first year of teaching at Bethel Elementary School (Vermont). Below, Eric describes the stages of first year teacher culture shock he experienced and suggests strategies to support educators during their first year of teaching.    

You may be familiar with the term “culture shock.” Most commonly, it is a phenomenon that affects people who travel to, live in or work in environments that are different from what they are accustomed to.1  When you attempt to speak a different language, explore exotic locations, and engage in unfamiliar social situations, you feel culture shock, and it can be an experience for first year teachers, as well. They may commute long distances, or even relocate, to teach in schools far from their homes.  At the very least, every school is it own unique culture, with long-standing administrative, instructional and student subcultures. While these novel situations can be initially enjoyable, they can also create anxiety, frustration and stress, which can be compounded if there is little or no support at home or in the workplace. Forty to fifty percent of new teachers, therefore, run the risk of dropping out of the profession by the end of their first five years.2

Social scientists inform us that culture shock is experienced in a sequence of four phases: honeymoon, frustration, adjustment and acceptance.3  While this model of cultural adjustment provides a useful framework to help adapt to a new culture, it is also very useful in analyzing my own adaption to a new school environment:

The Honeymoon Stage:  My honeymoon started before the school year began. I set up my classroom, attended inservice training workshops, and met the school administrators and teaching staff. I created lesson plans for the first few month of school. By the time the school year started, I told myself that “I am not going to have any problems adjusting to this place!” As the novelty wore off, so did the euphoric feelings of my honeymoon stage. By the end of September, many little anxieties started creeping in.

The Frustration Stage:  Frustration started to sink in after six weeks of teaching. During this stage, I started asking questions, comparing my UVEI internships with my current position. Why do teachers in the same grade level use differing curricula?  How do I combine administrative performance expectations with my own personal goals for success? Why do staff members hold different behavioral standards for the same group of students? Which school culture better fits my own philosophy of education? Was this the right school culture for me?

The Adjustment Stage:  By early, March I began to feel more at home. I was participating on two committees. I was depending less upon my mentor for big picture understanding and the nuts-and-bolts of everyday instruction. I felt at home in my own classroom. I started having more in-depth conversations with those who provided student support services. I started to think to myself, “I have a future here!”

The Acceptance Stage:  It was during the last few weeks of the year that everything seemed to gel.  I had confidence in my planning, instruction and assessment skills. I understood the unwritten rules and unspoken expectations of the place. While there were no easy answers to the questions, I was no longer frustrated, I came to understand that there were significant cultural differences within and between school districts. My earlier burdens were somehow lifted, and I was free to work toward my full potential now.

While I successfully completed my first cycle of culture shock, adjustment and acceptance at my new school, I acknowledge that an effective educator must continuously face challenges, confront biases and develop professionally. Soon, my school district will consolidate with others in its region. School leaders will create new policies and practices to adjust to our changing times. As soon I become familiar with our new curricula, they will fall out of favor for new educational practices and standards. I am likely to go through the same four-stage process again.

Now that I have completed my first year, here are some strategies I can offer for your first year of teaching:

  • Seek systems of support from administrators, teaching colleagues and family members. These support systems should be physical, personal and social in nature.  

  • Develop a physical support system through a combination of healthy behaviors. Eat a balanced diet, get a good night’s sleep, exercise regularly and strive to reduce life’s little stressors.

  • Create a personal support system that allows you flexible, tolerate ambiguity and expect constant change. Identify people who have positive perspectives. Seek out cohorts that share common interests and reinforce values that you associate with outstanding teaching.

  • Create social support systems at home and at your new school. Find mentors. Rekindle friendships. Engage in professional development opportunities. Don’t isolate yourself.  

Citations

  1. https://medium.com/global-perspectives/the-4-stages-of-culture-shock-a79957726164

  2. https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2013/10/why-do-teachers-quit/280699/

  3. https://www.princeton.edu/oip/practical-matters/Cultural-Adjustment.pdf

Commentary by Eric Braun

The photo of Eric and his students was taken last year at Sculpturefest in Woodstock, VT