Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Helping the Newb

A critical element in the development of strong, young teachers is mentoring.

It's one of those areas in which we do not resemble other professions-- fledgling doctors and lawyers are mentored and prepared for the Big Show by other doctors and lawyers. But young teachers depend on the luck of the draw-- get a good co-op for student teaching and then hope that in your first job, you're taken under a reasonably wise wing. Too many young teachers have floundered early in their career simply because they didn't draw a lunch period with the right older professionals.

Some states (mine included) have a sort of mentoring program requirement on paper, but it's not much. In fact, it's kind of surprising how little real mentoring is formally in place, given that this is an area or agreement between the most raging reformsters and the most dedicated defenders of public education (let's ignore the reformsters who want a master teacher with two assistants to teach 150 students-- that's a horse of another hue).

The bad news is that little is being done to create programs that address the need.

The good news is that we don't have to wait.

The one thing we can do as teachers without waiting for anybody's support or permission (though those are certainly swell) is support, assist and aid our new colleagues. Here are some simple actions to take when helping new folks in your building grow and develop as educators.

Ancient Scrolls, Not Blank Slate

There are things that people in your building know just because they've been there for years. You will be amazed at how many you don't even think about. Share these with your new colleague. Distinguish between the unwritten rules (Don't ever park your car by the blue line) and the mores (If you ever call the secretary "hon," she will lose every requisition you ever file).

Questions, Not Answers

When you're starting out, it's not just that you aren't sure what to do-- it's that you don't know how to figure out what to do. The Teacher School solution to this is to make teachers-in-training write twenty-page lesson plans for fifteen minute lessons. This is an unsustainable solution. This is having someone do 100 actions in order to make sure they complete the two actions they need to do.

So help your new colleague figure out how to figure out.

That means asking questions rather than giving answers. If she asks, "What test should I give for this unit," you could hand her a test to run off. Or you could ask, "What do you want to know about what the students know? What did you want them to get out of this unit? What would be a good way to find out whether or not they learned those things?"

Their Voice, Not Yours

Like having a student teacher, only more so. Do not try to make your new colleague into a mini-you. Help her find her own voice. When she asks how you handle Lesson X, provide multiple options. "I do it like this, but Mrs. McSwaggalot does it this way, and I've read about a teacher who used this other technique. Did you have any ideas of your own? What do you think would fit you best?"

As I told a young, warm-hearted, chirpy, female student teacher years ago, "This approach works best for a middle-aged bearded man with a reputation for being grumpy and scary. It may not be a great fit for you. That's okay."

Mistakes, Not Safety

This is a careful balance. It's just passive-aggressive meanness to let your new colleague attempt a lesson that will explode in flames and shrapnel. But just because you didn't care for how something worked out for you when you tried it twenty years ago does not mean that it couldn't work for her this year.

Failure is not (necessarily) disaster. Mistakes in the classroom can be an extraordinarily useful source of learning, for students and teachers alike. Don't tell her not to try. Don't tell her to take the safe route every time. "Be brave and learn stuff" is a fine motto, but you have to accept the risks that come with it. And this is also an excellent time to remember that she is a full-grown certified professional, and ultimately it's her choice, not yours.

Space, Not Isolation

Give her space to do all of the above. But don't leave her hanging. If you know she was trying a risky lesson today, stop by and stick your head in. Either it went swell and she wants to brag to somebody who can appreciate it, or it didn't go well and she needs to hear that this does not mean that she is the worst teacher in the universe and her career is over. Having to wear a brave face until you get home to your empty apartment and sit and cry about the horrible day while trying to grade papers that you suspect you are unfit to score until you finally fall asleep to the sound of the cat lady downstairs hollering at her brood, only to awaken far too early the next morning and wonder if today will bring something equally horrific or if your best hope is that a tornado will sweep you off the Ohio coast deep into Lake Erie-- I'm just speaking generally, of course.

Anyway, boom or bust, she can use someone to help her process the events of the day, to figure out what she's been through that would make her a better teacher.

Yes, give her space. Remember that she's a grown-ass certified professional teacher person. She deserves the same respect you show the rest of your colleagues, but while you may not have actually seen Mr. Thibidibideaux in ten years, she is probably not ready to be left in the isolations bubble of her room.

Shut Up

Be mindful of your own desire for an audience. After decades of experience, you've got someone who hasn't already heard and yet can perhaps appreciate all your stories. Maybe you'd like to bitch and moan about the horror of it all-- well, shut up, because she's got enough to carry without lugging your sad baggage, too. Maybe you have so many Brilliant Ideas about how to teach that you've been dying to pass on-- well, shut up, because she's got plenty to think about and ideas of her own and a pressing need to find her own classroom voice.

Do open your library of resources. But just lend her a book-- don't insist on reading it to her and telling her what it all means.

Listen and Learn

The thing about mentoring, officially or unofficially, is that it is great for you. It forces to think about what you do and how you do it and why you do it, which forces mindfulness, and everything is better done mindfully. It let's you see other ways of approaching a classroom and exposes you to new ideas that you might not have encountered.

There's a lot of balancing to do. Some off this depends on what the two of you bring to the table (or the three or six or ten of you, if the mentoring is being handled by many people) just like any other relationship. Be sensitive to the other person in the relationship. Be alert to the areas in which your colleague is wiser than you (and if you can't imagine such a thing, go back to your room and leave her alone).

Finally, be aware that you may not be the right person for the job. In that case, back away gracefully and help recruit the right person for the job.

Your goal is to help develop a partnership, not induct a subordinate, to help someone grow into the shape that is naturally theirs, not the shape you've chosen for them. But it is also not your place to simply drop nuggets of wisdom then turn away and leave the recipient on her own while you retreat to your own cave. In fact, the whole business is an awful lot like teaching done well. Go figure.


  1. All of this is a good idea.

  2. Another interesting bit of news I just read: businesses are finally figuring out that rank-and-stack annual performance reviews are counterproductive. Microsoft, Adobe, Expedia, Medtronic, Gap, and Motorola have already stopped using them, and the latest company to abandon them in favor of a more "fluid" system of timely, ongoing feedback is Accenture. They've found that the performance reviews don't have a good cost/benefits ratio, and several psychology and neuroscience studies back up the fact that they aren't useful to improve performance. The studies say that the Bell Curve does not accurately reflect the way people perform. Negative evaluations cause a restriction in creativity, and often a self-fulfilling prophecy where even the best employees, who desire to learn and grow, do worse on the next evaluation and may ultimately leave the company. Especially where employee contributions are more qualitative and difficult to measure, rankings are unreliable and arbitrary and lead to destructive internal competition, making it difficult to build a culture of knowledge sharing. More useful to improve performance are collaboration, professional development, coaching, and empowerment.

  3. Except that, because of our VAM sauce evaluation system, I no longer want to help newbies because we all know that the ultimate goal of this new VAM sauce evaluations overhaul is to do an end run around tenure, and why would I train someone to be my younger, cheaper replacement without the job protections I need to be sure I keep my job.

    1. Perhaps you would want to train future teachers because you care about the students in your school.

    2. Perhaps, but putting food on my table trumps that concern. I can be of no use to my students if I am not there. Teaching is a calling, sure, but I am very tired of people expecting that because of that calling I should be willing to accept all the crap thrown at me. In the hierarchy of needs, I need to be safe and fed and comfortable enough to give my all to my students. Plus, I am not doing that new teacher any favors if I aid a system that is designed to pull him or her into the same system of insecurity and and high stakes testing. Cooperating with this system by bringing others in to it is assisting in the take down of public schooling. The sooner that reformers see it as an unsustainable model, the sooner we can all move on to something that actually helps children.

    3. I have found that the faculty in post secondary institutions still cooperate well with each other even though they might be in competition for limited resources. This cooperation extends to people like myself who are non-tenure track faculty.

  4. This is great. I had the best mentors.

    1. I did too, and if I believed that I was training my replacement for when I am ready to retire, I would happily work with new teachers. But when tenure is gone, and the new teacher is several thousand dollars cheaper than I am, and the mantra of this movement has become "cheaper is better", I cannot afford to coach new recruits.

  5. I just wanted to drop a line and say that I have appreciated this post. I don't know how many times I've reread it in the past month.

    Our high school has been hit hard by the retirement/leaving wave. This year 1/3 of our staff is new and less than 50% of the teachers have been there over 5 years. (I'm in my third year, and I'm department chair) Because we are a rural school in a time where teachers are hard to find, our hires are really green.

    Your article has been priceless in focusing my efforts to help the newbs.