Creating Conditions for Success for New Teachers

Dr. John Gratto, Assistant Professor

Virginia Tech

207 East Eggleston Hall

Blacksburg, VA 24061

540-759-0197540-759-0197540-759-0197 (cell)

540-231-7845 fax

John1112@vt.edu

 

Grato.jpgLast summer I went on a cross-country bicycle trip from Seattle to Washington, D.C.  Throughout the course of the 3300 mile trip, a fundraiser for the American Lung Association, I saw lots of beautiful scenery, pushed myself physically, and spent hours talking to my fellow riders.  One of the riders that I spent a lot of time talking with was a young man named “Luke”. Having recently graduated from a fine university, he was bright, articulate, thoughtful, and excited about starting his first job as a teacher when he returned from the trip. When he learned that I was a retired superintendent of schools and now a professor in an educational leadership program, he peppered me with questions about schools, students, and teaching. He had been selected from a large number of applicants, felt that his teacher-education program had prepared him well, saw teaching as a noble profession, genuinely wanted to make a difference in the lives of students, and had a sincere desire to become an excellent teacher.

When we returned to our ordinary lives three time zones apart, we never got the chance for sustained conversations again. But, several times during the course of the school year he called to share his enthusiasm for his new job, discuss concerns, and ask questions.  In May, I got a very disappointing phone call from him. Luke’s contract would not be extended for the next school year.  He had been let go.  The school did not want him to return. 

What happened? What caused the school administrators who had seen such potential in him to decide that they no longer wanted him to teach at their school? What could he have done differently to be successful? What conditions could the school administrators have put in place to make a rookie teacher like him successful?  What lessons could be learned by that school and others about helping new teachers thrive instead of just survive?

What follows are his perspectives and my advice, offered from a career that included five years as a K-12 principal and 23 years as a superintendent of schools in which I hired dozens of new teachers and worked to ensure their success. This article is designed to equip new (and perhaps veteran) teachers with strategies that can help them to be successful and to offer ideas to school administrators about conditions they could implement to help new teachers be successful.

Before I get into Luke’s specific perceptions and actions to take regarding them, I offer this underlying philosophical premise. Stephen Covey, in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, encouraged readers to begin with the end in mind and to be proactive. Those habits are instructive as they relate to teachers and the administrators who supervise them. Both must view the end goal as teachers being highly effective (so that students achieve as much as possible).  Administrators must be proactive about creating the appropriate conditions that help teachers to flourish. New teachers, likewise, must be proactive in improving their skills rather than acting as if they have no role in creating their own success.

This is what my friend, the first-year teacher, told me about his experiences:

1.                  “Asking for help is a sign of weakness:   I was specifically told by the supervisor of my department not to send unruly students to other teachers’ classrooms or the office because people would think that I wasn’t doing a good job and it would be a sign of weakness.  Asking for help with my lesson planning seemed like more of an inconvenience so it was best to not ask. I perceived that it was best to not ask so as to not seem incompetent. And, as my supervisor said, “You don’t want them (fellow teachers) to start talking about you.” 

Action steps for teachers: New teachers should realize that administrators want teachers to be successful because successful teachers lead to successful students. They realize that new teachers are still learning their craft.  Don’t believe your colleagues when they tell you not to share classroom management concerns with your supervisor.  Get classroom management strategies from your colleagues and your principal. Diligently try them. Sit in on the classes of veteran teachers with good classroom management skills.  If you are still not successful, repeat the process.

Your colleagues and your principal know that you are an inexperienced teacher.  Ask them if they would be willing to offer you advice about your lesson plans. Search for model lesson plans from your professional organizations.  Seek feedback from your mentor.

I have often talked with new teachers who are struggling who told me that their union officers told them to not rock the boat: “don’t say anything until you have tenure.” I told them that such advice is pure foolishness, that we hired them because they have the potential to be an excellent teacher not because they have the ability to keep quiet for three years.  Don’t fall farther into a hole—proactively speak up and share the challenges you are experiencing with a mentor or principal. 

Action steps for administrators: Ask yourself if you have created conditions that would make a new teacher successful. Here are some ways to do so.

·         Give the teacher a reasonable number of classes.  Luke told me that he had five preps and that he spent all of his evenings and weekends planning classes and grading papers. Planning well for that many classes would be a challenge for a veteran teacher. Two-three preps would enable a new teacher to devote more time to planning well and providing timely, meaningful feedback on students’ works.

·         Assign new teachers to effective mentors who will do everything possible to help them be successful--from planning lessons and managing student behavior to navigating the political waters. While many states require a mentor program in the teacher’s first year, I proposed a Mentor experience for teachers’ entire probationary period to the teachers’ union at my school, based upon the belief that the extended mentor experience would constitute a tangible investment of time and resources toward helping teachers and students to be successful.

·         Create a bank of successful, proven unit and lesson plans that new teachers may use.

·         Give teachers ready-access to professional development through a source such as the Association for Curriculum Development. (See Professional Development in Focus at http://www.ascd.org/professional-development/pd-in-focus.aspx that gives teachers an extensive library of videos demonstrating effective teaching practices).

·         Avoid asking new teachers to take on additional roles such as coaching or advising until they have proven that they can master their primary role of teaching.

·         Pay frequent visits to the classrooms of non-tenured teachers during instructional and non-instructional time.  Let them know that you care about their success and that you are there to support them.

·         Ensure that all teachers know that you are there to help them with particularly troublesome classroom management issues.  If teachers are having trouble with a certain class of students, administrators should make occasional visits to the room so that they will have a good grasp of the classroom dynamics and so that they will demonstrate their desire for classroom success to both students and teachers.

2.                  “There was such an environment of gossip and strong alliances between teachers that eventually I just felt the best course of action was to keep my head down and work, and not to speak to anyone. The major consequence was that I always felt like I was alone in the process of teaching and preparing: The political alliances at my school are too entrenched to be understood by a first year teacher, so I tried to not say anything to anyone so as to not give the impression that I was siding with anyone.” 

 

Action steps for teachers:   You are always wise not to say anything negative about anyone. It is also wise to befriend teachers and benefit from their experiences as well as to enjoy the camaraderie of a noble profession with them. If you are floundering with classroom management or lesson-planning issues, you will be more likely to solve these problems with the help of experienced teachers than by yourself. Seek the advice of your mentor and/or your department chair or a veteran friendly teacher.  If you don’t have a mentor, ask your Principal for one. Be proactive about your own success.

 

Double-check your perception and actions. It is certainly possible that because you viewed other teachers as unapproachable, you became less approachable.  There are lots of great teachers out there.  Find them and learn from them.  Avoid the negative teachers.

 

Action steps for administrators:

·         Proactively welcome new teachers.  Introduce them at faculty and department or grade-level meetings. Ask veteran, friendly teachers, to watch over them and help them.

·         Create opportunities for new teachers to interact with veteran teachers on a professional basis such as by being part of a professional learning community in which teaching strategies are collaboratively critiqued toward the goal of improving the skills of all teachers.  Sharing effective teaching strategies and holding weekly curriculum discussions with a subject or grade-level team can lead to more effective outcomes for students and a more supportive environment for teachers.  Everyone in the school is responsible for the success of students.

·         Require minutes of those meetings to both monitor progress and gauge the benefit to inexperienced teachers.

·         Create a schedule that permits common planning time for new teachers with veteran teachers.

·         If possible, create opportunities for new teachers to interact with veteran teachers on a social basis such as by organizing breakfasts, luncheons, staff volleyball games etc.

3.                  “It's not about how hard you work or even how well you do your job that matters but whether your immediate supervisor likes you.  The best way to stick with a job like this is to find someone in the old boys or girls network and try to get them to advocate for you in meetings you're not privy to. I definitely felt like I had to be a better politician than a teacher.”

Action steps for teachers:  First, it is important to be likeable.  No one wants to be around an unpleasant person.  So, start with yourself and assess your likeability.  What can you do to improve it?

Secondly, maybe you’re right. When my son was on basketball teams throughout middle school and high school I would advise him to “give the coach reasons to play you.” In a similar way, new teachers, barely known to their supervisors and colleagues, must give those people reasons to like and respect them. That doesn’t mean that you have to be disingenuous.  But it does mean that you have to be overtly friendly and cooperative.

What would cause a veteran teacher to advocate for you? Such a teacher would have to know you well personally and professionally to do so.  In addition to going to the classrooms of veteran teachers to observe their successful practices, invite them to observe your lessons to give you constructive feedback. As a newcomer, it would probably be uncomfortable to ask veteran teachers to observe your classes. But if you want to become a better teacher and develop relationships with teachers you will likely have to step out of your comfort zone and take action. Be proactive about your own success.

Third, results matter.  If your supervisor is going to recommend that your employment continue, it certainly helps if the supervisor likes you.  But solely being liked by the supervisor is not enough to have your contract renewed.  If your students attain excellent results on standardized tests or other important measurements, it is quite possible that your supervisor would set aside his or her less than positive feelings for you and continue your employment specifically because you produce excellent results. 

Action steps for administrators:

·         Require new teachers to observe the classes of successful teachers to learn classroom management, lesson-planning, and instructional strategies.

·         Ask veteran teachers to observe inexperienced teachers and provide them feedback.

·         Realize that new teachers may be reluctant to share their concerns with you.  Be proactive about reaching out to them.  Don’t assume that no news is good news with inexperienced teachers. Check in with new teachers every few weeks. Listen to concerns and coach for success.  

·         Realize also, that they may not know people and are probably reluctant to reach out to them. Introduce them to colleagues with similar interests.  Continually help them to acclimate to the school-family.

4.      “People can get threatened if you try to do something new.  There were so many people looking for power and influence. I think it was interpreted that I wasn’t falling in line with my supervisor’s agenda.” 

Action steps for teachers:  Be diplomatic. As a new teacher with fresh eyes looking upon the practices of the school, you may have ideas to improve it.  But, you must present those ideas in ways that honor the past while looking toward the future. So be very diplomatic because you may be sitting with teachers or a principal who devised the plan or process that you want to change. For example, instead of saying something as crass as “Who came up with this idea?” ask “I wonder if it would be more effective if we did it this way instead?” In my Principal Preparation classes, I advise prospective school administrators to “Disagree without being disagreeable.”

Another key point is: Never embarrass your supervisor.  A constructive idea presented diplomatically to your supervisor in a private conversation is likely to be seriously considered.  But, that same idea presented at a faculty meeting could cause embarrassment, defensiveness, or resentment.  Commend publically. Critique privately. 

Action steps for administrators:

·         Continually create an environment where conversations about practices, policies, and ideas are welcomed. 

·         In private meetings with teachers, perhaps after conducting classroom observations, ask new teachers how you can help them; ask if they have any concerns about students; and ask how they would change the operation of the school if they could. New teachers may have some insightful ideas that could improve your school. 

5.      “There was nothing communicated to me all.  I really don’t know why I was let go.”

Action steps for teachers: Ask your supervisor to give you frank, constructive feedback which will help you to be a more successful teacher and colleague.  Specifically ask for a review after the first 10 weeks and at mid-year.  Listen carefully.  Confirm your understanding by re-stating and summarizing the advice given to you. 

Action steps for administrators:

·         Only excellent teachers or those who demonstrate the potential to become excellent should receive tenure.  Giving tenure to a weak teacher is one of the worst things you can do to the students of your school and it is a mistake that will have negative consequences for a long time.

·         You have a responsibility to provide clear, constructive feedback and recommendations for improvement on a regular basis. If, despite such feedback, you make the decision to not renew a teacher, that decision should not surprise the teacher because  the teacher should understand that he or she fell short of clear expectations and standards. 

·         Recognize strengths as well as weaknesses but be straightforward and diplomatic while giving direct, helpful feedback to be a more successful teacher and colleague, much like a coach would give to improve a player’s skills.

It’s unfortunate for both the teacher and the school when a teacher is not renewed.  Administrators and teachers must begin with the end in mind—make all teachers successful.  They must also do all that they can to create conditions to help new teachers feel comfortable in seeking help to improve their teaching skills.  New teachers must reflect upon their successes and challenges and proactively seek help to hone their teaching and teamwork skills. If both parties do their part, then new teachers are likely to find success.  In late June, Luke informed me that he had found a new teaching position for next year.  I hope that he and his principal follow these ideas so that he, his students, and his school will be successful.