As a new elementary teacher, I believed I would really know what I was doing after 5 years of practice. After 5 years in my previous careers, I could handle just about anything. I had 8 years experience as a student in elementary school. And, yes, I had watched my elementary teachers teach. I thought, “How hard can it be?” I figured after 5 years of teaching, working long hours after and on weekends, I’d be able to relax a bit.
But back then, I was very naive.
There was a lot about teaching I did not know or even consider. I did not count on having to switch grade levels every year for the first 5 years of my practice. I thought I’d have readily available teacher resources. I did not know that teachers spent a great deal of their own money to stock their classrooms with supplies and books. Nor did I realize I would be expected to implement waves of educational initiatives within a year of introduction. Further, I had not considered having students functioning at grade levels below the grade I was teaching or dealing with special education needs with little or no support. In addition, I did not know how to deal with students who had behaviour issues – in my first week of teaching grade 8, a student threw a chair at me. I also was hoping to get support and mentorship from my teacher colleagues, which at the time was not always forthcoming. My teacher education had not prepared me for all of this.
So I pushed forward by working hard and doing the best for my students. I took courses that I thought would fill in some gaps, which helped a bit. I solicited curriculum support from my colleagues and spent a great deal of time talking to my peers about my classroom challenges. My colleagues were very helpful and I absorbed as much wisdom as I could from my tenured peers.
Then it happened. I hit “The 5 Year Wall”. After 5 years of teaching, I thought I’d know more and feel more effective in my practice. I thought my lesson plans should be going the way I planned them. I thought that my classroom management would be awesome by this time. Instead, I was left with feelings of frustration and dissatisfaction in myself as a teacher. I thought, maybe if I worked harder, I would feel more effective; I was so disappointed in myself.
But because I was very committed and dedicated to becoming a great teacher, I moved forward facing many challenges. I continued to seek support and mentorship from my colleagues. My collaborative collegial support proved to have the biggest impact on my practice. My colleagues saved me from my professional dissolution.
Then something else happened. Around my 7th and 8th year of teaching, I started to feel my levels of self-efficacy and self-confidence rising. I started to finally feel like I knew what I was doing … most of the time. At 7+ years of teaching, I still faced challenges with switching grades. I realized that educational initiatives did not always stick. Lack of continued resource support or the introduction of a “new” initiative, often meant the end to last year’s latest innovation. Having students with multiple functioning levels and needs was a classroom norm. My teacher skin grew thicker when dealing with student and parent issues. I realized that lesson plans were made to be adapted to address the students’ needs, not the teachers. After 8 years of practice, I really started to enjoy teaching.
While researching, I discovered that my experience of building professional confidence and self-efficacy was supported in the literature. In the British VITAE study of 300 teachers in 100 schools, authors Day, Sammons, Stobart, Kingston, and Gu (2007) showed that teachers’ levels of confidence and self-efficacy continue to grow until around the 7 year mark. After 8 years, teachers reached a significant turning point in their professional development (Day et al., 2007).
I thought about what made this 7 year mark so significant. Then a friend mentioned that in the book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell stated that in order to master any skill it takes “to a large extent, a matter of practicing … for a total of around 10,000 hours” (Gladwell, 2008). I did the calculations and the 7 year mark correlated with about 10,000 hours of teaching practice. This made sense because teaching is a complex and challenging profession and as a result it takes over 7 years to develop high levels of professional efficacy. Further to this, as teachers’ professional knowledge grows, so does their professional judgement.
Well into my 8th year of teaching I noticed several new teachers experiencing high levels of professional frustration. Some of these teachers were so distressed they regretted becoming teachers. Some were thinking of leaving the profession. Remembering my own frustration, I reached out to my novice colleagues. I told them about The 5 Year Wall. In my following years of teaching, I have talked many novice teachers off the ledge of The 5 Year Wall. Sometimes there were tears. Sometimes there were daily pep talks. Sometimes there were weekly meetings at a well known coffee shop. After my years of collegial mentorship and support, my colleagues have become excellent teachers.
So if a new teacher talks to you about their professional frustration, tell them about The 5 Year Wall. Tell them to hang in for the next few years so they can reach their professional turning point in year 8. Support them with your mentorship and listen to their concerns. Because in isolation, there are no colleagues to inspire novice teachers with ideas or to suggest resources/strategies or to support them when it’s really needed. And even as an 18 year plus teacher, I thank my colleagues for all the mentorship, collaboration, and support they continue to give me, every day.
I believe that when working collaboratively, teachers are better together.
Day, C., Sammons, P., Stobart, G., Kingston, A., & Gu, Q. (2007). Teachers matter: Connecting lives, work and effectiveness. Maidenhead, UK: Open University
Gladwell, M. (2008). Outliers: The story of success. Hachette UK.