The Mentor Teacher’s Guide to the Disillusionment Phase

Disillusionment Mentor's Guide

If you are an administrator or a mentor for new teachers, you already know what season it is: The New Teacher Center calls the weeks between mid-October and Thanksgiving break the Disillusionment Phase. This is the time when new teachers tend to hit their low points. The hours of lost sleep have added up. Rookies are feeling the bumps along the rough road of trial-and-error.

And then the kids get Halloween candy.

Rookies with good mentor teachers and supportive administrators are the lucky ones. Yet this season is no picnic for mentors, either.

In October and November, energy throughout a school is in short supply. It also doesn’t help that one symptom of disillusionment is defensiveness. Well-meaning guidance is sometimes rewarded with attitude, or a series of dejected uh-huh’s.

Here are a few tips to help guide your favorite first-year teachers make it through October and November

Reassure them (again) that being a great teacher takes time.

Today’s rookies are under tremendous pressure to not only become successful teachers, but to be successful from day one. New teachers spend lots of time comparing their unedited footage to other people’s highlight reels. And they’re inundated with messages that are meant to be inspiring but sometimes feel terrifying: The future is in your hands! This is the most important job in the world! The kids can’t afford for you to fail! By November, beginners often feel like they’ve spent the last few months failing at… the most important job in the world! Mentors are in a unique position to remind beginners that it takes time to become a great teacher. (Hey, it even takes time to be a good teacher.) Remind rookies: The great teachers of the future know they are not great yet.

Help them turn down their teaching treadmills.

At the beginning of the year, many rookies hit the ground running when they’d be better off walking at a brisk-yet-sustainable pace. What they can’t do today, they over-promise for tomorrow. They lock in unsustainable levels of parent contact or create behavior management plans that require hours of after-school paperwork. Oh, and they may also have said something about a pizza party? When the teaching treadmill has been turned up high for months, good intentions aren’t enough to keep up. Mentors can help rookies catch their breath by looking for ways to simplify classroom systems. A behavior system that involves putting checks on the board might be better than one that involves rearranging cards. Today’s quiz doesn’t have to be typed from scratch using the answers from yesterday’s homework. Student helpers can take over certain daily duties. By treating teacher time and energy as finite resources, mentors can help beginners use both more effectively.

Remind them that Thanksgiving is almost here.

For many beginners, Thanksgiving starts the slow climb up from the depths of the Disillusionment Phase. Once teachers make it to Thanksgiving, they can set their sights on using winter break to plan a classroom makeover. They’ll also get four full nights of sleep in a row—and sometimes, nothing is more inspiring than a full night of sleep.

Let them know they’re not alone.

Remind rookies that you’ve been there. Remind them that there are plenty of moments in teaching that make the hard days worth it. They won’t believe you, of course. That’s how the Disillusionment Phase works. There is a popular saying that the first year as a teacher “makes you or breaks you.” One of the hardest things about this time is rookies’ constant worry that they are being broken. You can help them by reframing this stage of their careers as a rite of passage that some of the teachers they most admire have also gone through at some point.

Point them toward the New Teacher Disillusionment Power Pack

It was this stretch of my own career—and the shame and secrecy that surrounded it—that eventually inspired me to create the New Teacher Disillusionment Phase Power Pack, a free, thirty-day series of emails meant to help new teachers through this part of the year. These emails are the notes I’d send back in time to first-year-teacher me. They include records of my absolute worst days as a new teacher, including pictures of actual journal pages I wrote at the time and the stories behind the stories I now tell in speeches and articles.

This series was featured in an NPR piece, tellingly entitled “Hey, New Teacher, it’s okay to Cry in your Car. The emails have now helped tens of thousands of new teachers through one of the most difficult stretches of their careers. Every October and November, a new wave of educators have signed up for the emails.

I’ve also heard from many coaches, mentors, and administrators over the years who have used the Power Pack to supplement their support of new teachers. If you’re working with new teachers this year, please consider forwarding them a link to the Disillusionment Power Pack. Even teachers who seem to be doing fine. Even teachers who seem to be doing great! (Please, tell them you think they’re doing great! And still forward them this email!) You can also sign up yourself using the form below or find a direct signup link here if you run into any technical difficulties.

Sign Up for the Disillusionment Power Pack

The Disillusionment Power Pack is a free one-month series of emails meant to help teachers through the hardest part of their first year.

It gets better. But until then, these emails should help.