6 Avoidable Mistakes That Can Kill A New Teacher’s Career

By | First Published: | Last Updated: 16 September, 2020

So you’ve graduated and landed a job – congratulations! You have made the first step in what can be one of the most rewarding professions around. The alarming news is that not all new teachers make it.

In fact, research((Ewing, R., & Manuel, J. (2005). Retaining Early Career Teachers In The Profession: New Teacher Narratives. Change: Transformations In Education, 8(1), 1-16.)) shows that about 30% of new teachers don’t make it past their first five years in the profession. It’s unnerving. Do you want to be part of this 30 percent?

It’s time to take charge of your own destiny and keep your career on track. How? By being aware of these 6 common mistakes that new teachers make and then avoiding them.


Mistake #1 – Thinking That Teaching Is Easy

Most new teachers enter their roles as passionate people wanting to help their students flourish. This is a good thing as John Hattie((Hattie, J. A. C., & Clinton, J. (2008). Identifying Accomplished Teachers: A Validation Study. In L. Ingvarson & J. A. C. Hattie (Eds.), Assessing Teachers For Professional Certification: The First Decade Of The National Board For Professional Teaching Standards (pp. 313–344). Oxford, UK: Elsevier; Smith, T. W., Baker, W. K., Hattie, J. A. C., & Bond, L. (2008). A Validity Study Of The Certification System Of The National Board For Professional Teaching Standards. In L. Ingvarson & J. A. C. Hattie (Eds.), Assessing Teachers For Professional Certification: The First Decade Of The National Board For Professional Teaching Standards (pp. 345–378). Oxford, UK: Elsevier.)) found that all other things being equal – passionate teachers have far more impact on their students.

Yet there is a painful truth lurking behind Hattie’s finding. Research((Manuel, J. (2003). ‘Such Are The Ambitions Of Youth’: Exploring Issues Of Retention And Attrition Of Early Career Teachers In NSW. Asia-Pacific Journal Of Teacher Education, 31(2), 139-151; Schuck, S., Aubusson, P., Buchanan, J., & Russell, T. (2012). Becoming A Teacher: Stories From The Classroom. Dortrecht: Springer.)) also shows that most new teachers soon get the wind knocked out of them. They lose their passion amidst the sea of demands placed upon them and the lack of instant success.

The fact is that teaching is hard work. It involves long hours, a substantial emotional investment, ongoing disappointments and frequent frustrations.  However, even when you work hard and apply all of your skills, you are still going to have bad days – days where nothing seems to go right.

Worse, you will not always achieve the lofty ambitions you set for yourself and this can be disheartening.

When this harsh reality hits home, new teachers often react in one of two ways.

  1. Some simply quit. The attrition rate among novice teachers is ridiculously high.
  2. Others lay blame. They blame either themselves or the kids (home life, etc.).

However, neither of these reactions is helpful. If you understand that teaching is hard work and that helping kids succeed can be challenging, you are more likely to respond in a productive way. Specifically, you are more likely to take a problem-solving approach to the challenges you face, rather than blaming yourself, blaming others or just quitting.

There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard work, and learning from failure.

Colin Powell

You should be passionate, and you should be idealistic. But don’t think that success will come easily. You will not always have the impact on every child that you desire. However, every failure presents you with a new challenge to embrace as you seek more and more success.

You must mentally prepare yourself for the challenge ahead.


Mistake #2 – Believing You Know Everything

When I started teaching, I thought I knew everything. I soon learned otherwise.

Recently, I have been heartened to hear that I was not alone. Research((Schemppa, P., Tana, S., Manrossa, D., & Fincher, M. (1998). Differences in Novice and Competent Teachers’ Knowledge. Teachers and Teaching: Theory and Practice, 4(1), 9-20.)) shows that new teachers believe they know most, if not all, they need to know to teach well.

You do know a lot, but it is naïve to think you know it all. For example, you may be surprised to learn that:

  1. Much of what you learned at university was grounded in popular theory and your lecturers’ personal philosophies, rather than being based on hard evidence about what really works best.
  2. Students tend to achieve lower results when taught by a new teacher((Rivkin, S. G., Hanushek, E. A., & Kain, J. F. (2005). Teachers, Schools, and Academic Achievement. Econometrica, 73(2), 417–458.)).

By contrast, experienced teachers understand that (despite their initial training and experience) they still have a lot to learn. I have been teaching for nearly 30 years and I am still learning.

To survive and thrive in your first few years of teaching, you need to climb a very steep learning curve. Overconfidence can delay and derail this learning.

It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts

John Wooden

To help your students excel and keep your career on track, you must be willing to admit you don’t know everythingwilling to let go of some of your existing beliefs and willing to learn more effective ways of approaching your work.


Mistake #3 – Beginning Without the End In Mind

While research((Hattie, J. (2013). Visible Learning: A Synthesis of 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement. Routledge; Marzano, R. J. (1998). A Theory-Based Meta-Analysis of Research On Instruction.Aurora, Colorado: Mid-Continent Regional Education Lab.; Rosenshine, B. (2012). Principles of Instruction: Research-Based Strategies That All Teachers Should KnowAmerican Educator, Spring, 12-20.)) shows that some teaching strategies are more likely to work than others, the best way to judge the effectiveness of your current approaches is to measure the impact they are having on student results. Flowery words, vogue jargon and compliance-based planning mean little and can be a waste of valuable time. If you want to make a difference to your students, the only way to judge the effectiveness of your teaching is to measure the impact you have on them. You can access a free Excel tool to help you do this.

Know thy impact

John Hattie

Flowing from this is the importance of being clear about what you want your students to know and be able to do after you have taught them. This applies to individual lessons, to tasks that span several lessons, to units of work and to entire semesters.

For example, at the semester level, you need to be clear about what is needed to achieve an in English, and what evidence you need to have collected to make this decision. As a new teacher (or even as an experienced teacher at a new school), you need to:

  • Be aware of how your school’s report card is organised (headings, sub-headings, grades used)
  • Make decisions about what students need to know and be able to do to achieve different grades
  • Organise your mark book with the above two points in mind

This will make your reporting both easier and fairer.

At a task level, you need to be clear about what success entails (criteria) and graduated levels of achievement (rubrics).

Sounds easy, but most rubrics and criteria sheets are vague and meaningless. Take, for example, a Year 7, Science assessment task on mixtures.  Students were given an in-class task, where they had to write a text to teach other students about the science of mixtures.

A vague, but sadly commonly used criteria for the content of the task would be:

  1. Shows a limited understanding of the topic
  2. Shows a sound understanding of the topic
  3. Shows a good understanding of the topic
  4. Shows an excellent understanding of the topic

The following criteria do a much better job of clarifying what success entails:

  1. Does not correctly explain what a mixture is
  2. Explains what a mixture is but does not describe the four different types of mixtures
  3. Explains what a mixture is and describes the four different types of mixtures
  4. Explains what a mixture is, describes four different types of mixtures, and gives an example of each
  5. Explains what a mixture is, and compares and contrasts four different types of mixture, giving examples of each

Clear success criteria help you and your students to focus their efforts.

At a lesson level, it is better to have a clear goal for each lesson than it is to write down your activities. Goals focus your work, guard against ineffective activities and allow meaningful flexibility to occur. Here is a sample, goal-based weekly plan & day plan.


Mistake #4 – Trying To Be The Perfect Teacher

The desire to do well can be a wonderful thing. It motivates you to work hard. In turn, this can have a positive impact on your students’ results.

However, seeking perfection is like rain for farmers. It is a great help, but only to a point. Too much can be just as damaging as too little.

You Can’t Do Everything

If you are like most new teachers, you are equipped with grand theories, noble intentions and a sea of ideas. When you add in the additional expectations of your boss and your parents, it doesn’t take long to become overwhelming.

Here is a simple fact. You will not have the time or the energy to do everything you want to do in your lessons – even if you sacrifice your entire personal life. If you try, you will become exhausted, and you will become a less effective teacher.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t work hard. Of course, you should. Any form of genuine success takes hard work over a period of time. What it does mean is that you can’t do everything, so you must learn to prioritise what you do.
Sadly, when new teachers come to grips with this reality, they often prioritise the ‘fancy’ over the essential. You cannot always have great lessons, but if you focus on the basics, you can always have a good one. Of course, you can and should do more than these basic strategies – but when time is short, they are the ones you should never forego. See Plain Old Good Teaching.

You’re Going To Fail Sometimes

The other problem with thinking you must be perfect is that ignores the reality of failure while stopping you from responding to failure in a productive way.

Here is a simple fact – you are going to have bad days! Some of your lessons will flop. You will struggle to help some of your students succeed, and your students will sometimes let you down. This is normal, and it’s quite okay.

What isn’t okay is to use such bad days to:

  • Blame yourself, and start thinking that you are hopeless – or at the other extreme
  • Excuse yourself from learning from your experiences and to keep on trying

And why do we fall, Bruce? So we can learn to pick ourselves up.
Thomas Wayne from Batman Begins (2005)


Mistake #5 – Failing To Manage Student Behaviour

Research((Melnick, S., & Meister, D. (2008). A Comparison Of Beginning And Experienced Teachers’ Concerns. Educational Research Quarterly, 31(3), 39–56; Public Agenda. (2004). Teaching Interrupted: Do Discipline Policies In Today’s Public Schools Foster The Common Good? New York: Author; Hover, S. D., & Yeager, E. A. (2004). Challenges Facing Beginning History Teachers: An Exploratory Study. International Journal of Social Education, 19(1), 8–26. )) shows that many new teachers struggle to manage their students’ behaviour and good behaviour is critical to student learning. In fact, your classroom management techniques are more important than many other factors, including students’ diets, your principal’s leadership and class size.

This is not really a surprise as only 30% of university lecturers say that their teacher education programs place a lot of emphasis on showing prospective teachers how to handle a rowdy classroom((Evertson, C. M., & Weinstein, C. S. (Eds.). (2006). Handbook of Classroom Management: Research, Practice; Contemporary Issues. NJ: Erlbaum.)).

An inability to manage students’ behaviour is one of the most common reasons new teachers leave the profession((Evertson, C. M., & Weinstein, C. S. (Eds.). (2006). Handbook of Classroom Management: Research, Practice & Contemporary Issues. NJ: Erlbaum.)). If you want to help your students to do well at school, while maintaining some semblance of personal sanity, then you need to run a disciplined classroom.

Student misbehaviour is the major obstacle to your success and has the potential to destroy your career.
Carol Charles

The biggest mistake new teachers make is adopting the simplistic belief that students will behave well as long as you teach them in a motivating and engaging manner. Good teaching is essential, but it is not enough. You need to actively manage your students’ behaviour.

Here are some of the other common rookie mistakes:

  • Telling kids how you want them to act (e.g. rules & routines) without getting them to practice acting that way or giving them corrective feedback on their initial efforts. You can’t habitualize behaviour in a single lesson or day.
  • Not nipping small problems in the bud. It is easy for new teachers to get so involved in helping their kids that they fail to notice, let alone act on small problems. As a result, misbehaviour spirals and new teachers then find themselves giving out too many and/or unreasonable consequences.

If you want to survive and thrive in your new profession, you must be able to manage student behaviour.

For more information on behaviour management, check out our 10 Most Effective Behaviour Management Techniques ranked in order impact.


Mistake #6 – Forging The Wrong Type of Teacher-Student Relationships

Research((Cornelius-White, J. (2007). Learner-Centred Teacher-Student Relationships Are Effective: A Meta-Analysis. Review of Educational Research, 77(1), 113-143)) shows that teachers who have strong relationships with their students have more impact on their academic results and find it much easier to manage their students’ behaviour. Clearly, it is a good idea to forge strong relationships with your kids.

Strong relationships require you to be both:

  • Authoritative
  • Warm

Sadly, many new teachers are friendly without establishing their authority. It’s great to enjoy being with your students and to care for them as people. However, it is equally important to provide them with direction and structure, while taking the lead role in what goes on in your classroom.

Here some specific points that highlight this idea:

  • It’s not about getting your kids to like you; it’s about you making sure your kids know you like them.
  • Kid’s don’t want you to be permissive, they want you to be fair.
  • It’s not about control for the sake of control; it’s about ensuring that your classroom is somewhere that kids can learn, where they feel respected and where they feel safe.
  • Kids don’t want you to be mean, but they do want you to show tough love when needed.

To discover more, have a look at our article What Everyone Needs to Know About High-Performance, Teacher-Student Relationships.


More Tips for New Teachers

If you are a new teacher and want more advice check out 10 Things Every New Teacher Should Know Before Starting Day 1 in the Classroom.

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SHAUN KILLIAN
(MEd., MLead.)

Shaun Killian (me) is an experienced and passionate teacher, as well as a past school principal. After a heart transplant and having both my legs amputated, I am not yet capable of returning to work. Yet, my passion for helping students succeed has led me to use my time to research teaching and associated practices. I then share what I find in practical ways through this website. The greatest compliment I have ever received from a past student was I never left any student behind. That is mission of most teachers and I hope you find the information on this site useful.

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