By Stuart Singer, author of The Algebra Miracle
The contradictory nature of comments drew my attention.
“This is the perfect school – really. They do great things – very innovative, research-based practices. They support us a huge amount. Too much, really. Part of the problem is how much support I am given. I am constantly being observed and offered little suggestions. I have to sit down and take apart my thoughts of each class with my mentor, my department head, and fellow teachers. I don’t have the time for that. I just got assigned yet another mentor who wants me to start writing self-reflections. My reviews have been outstanding, but yet, as all new teachers (defined as under 3 years’ experience) have, I have many mentors and an abundance of help. It’s killing me.”
The speaker, a first-year social studies teacher, was reflecting on his first week of school.
Drowning in a sea of good intentions
There is little question that inexperienced teachers need as much support as possible. As stated in previous posts there are few professions that treat their newest practitioners in the same manner as education. No law firm, medical practice or public accountant would assign their least knowledgeable employees the same workload as the savviest. And yet on a regular basis first-year teachers are given the same number of sections, students and preparations as their veteran colleagues. Sadly, in many cases they are not given their own classroom, while being assigned some of the most challenging students and classes in the building.
But while solutions to these problems do exist—give these educators fewer classes and more time to observe and plan—the realities of fiscal restraints work against their implementation. Consequently, good schools like the one referenced above try to support their most vulnerable staff members by a variety of means.
Those good intentions, however, need to be carefully monitored.
Sorting through the assistance
It is a delicate balance. The most valuable currency for teachers is time. They need vast amounts of it to plan, grade, create materials and reflect. For the least experienced ones this commodity is even more critical. But the counsel of administrative staff and mentors is also an important component in teacher success. Based on forty years of classroom experience both as a teacher and an observer here are some suggestions for finding the proper balance.
Visit classrooms frequently. Classroom observations, especially those that are not prearranged, send the clear message that the administrative staff is concerned about what is occurring in their building. The more often these visitations occur, the less threatening they become. The vast majority of teachers respond positively to the presence of another adult critiquing their work. It is amazing what a second set of eyes can see during even the briefest of visits. The goal, however, is to create more effective teaching not more work. Avoid a paper trail from these drop-ins and mentor programs. It robs time from both teachers who must create written reactions and the observers or mentors who then are required to read and respond. Keep the objective of these kinds of assistance simple—smoothing rough edges—and the formal written assessments to a minimum.
Drowning teachers rarely seek help. For many individuals acknowledging to anyone that they are struggling either emotionally or physically with their workload is considered to be a sign of weakness. With that in mind, observers may find that questions asked in a non-threatening manner concerning a teacher’s self-appraisal can reveal issues before they escalate into major problems. The emphasis on interactions between teachers and administrators should be on the collaborative nature of their work not a delineation of who is in charge of whom.
Avoid using the word mandatory. Often the connotation of a “mandatory” meeting is far graver than the actual subject matter to be covered. More importantly, try to keep meetings to a minimum for new teachers. In my old district, employees in the first three years of service had required after school meetings in their school building, at the district level and during scheduled workdays. These gatherings were, of course, in addition to the responsibilities asked of all of the other staff members. Consequently, the people who could least afford reduced planning time were usually the ones faced with the most demands. Too many of these get-togethers were the result of a monthly, quarterly or semester requirement rather than being based on an actual need. The best rule to follow is that if a memo can accomplish the desired results, then put it on paper.
Not an isolated event
These concerns are not theoretical. In 2006, I hired a young man who I thought was going to be an outstanding educator. We shared a classroom and I was extremely impressed with his work effort, rapport with the students and his demeanor in and out of the classroom. Much to my surprise after three weeks he informed me that he was going to resign. “I just don’t think I am reaching these kids the way I want to,” he solemnly told me. Luckily, we were able to dissuade him of this belief and over the succeeding years he had a wonderful record of success. But his statement was neither an idle threat nor a plea for help. In his mind it was an honest appraisal. For me it was totally unexpected—I never realized until it was almost too late.
In the end the problem is both simple and complex. Outstanding educators are not born that way. Creating great teachers takes patience, insights and empathy. In the early years of a career the need for nurturing and understanding is at its highest. Every teacher, administrator and policy maker needs to understand and reinforce that process