Better New Teachers

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“He who can, does; he who cannot, teaches” (George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman).

Last time, we went over my aversion to this quote as unfair to teachers who don’t get enough credit for being required to be masters of their subject matter as well as teaching it to others.  The knock that only mediocrities go into teaching is both offensive and untrue, but pervasive. Since everybody sat through years of classes, that time spent as students leads many to believe they understand and can critique, advise, and fix the issues that exist in today’s public education world.

Yet, as we discussed when we analyzed that terrible quote, a first-year teacher is expected to show up and be amazing from day one, with little first-hand experience or guidance.  Student-teaching doesn’t begin to prepare our educators for the challenges of the classroom, and most institutes and teacher training are designed to enrich the “experts” who present rather than to help teachers improve.  Statistics on how many teachers drop out of education during their first five grueling years vary significantly from just under 20% to almost half, but there’s no question that we could do a better job of helping inexperienced teachers out as they learn their craft.

The key problem and caveat in all this—as evidenced by the title of this blog—is the uniqueness that is also inherent in a job that is based on interacting with young humans and requires all teachers to figure out how they fit into the school in which they find themselves.  There are the countless factors (immediate supervisors, school boards, facilities, parents, communities, and curricula, to name a few) that impact their working conditions and confound anyone trying to find a single methodology to use.  Just when they’ve got this year’s kids all figured out, teachers get a completely different set the next school year.  And you’d better not get teachers started on all the constantly changing mandates raining down on them from state and federal governments.  There’s no way to standardize either the training or the approaches that teachers need to take in order to be effective, despite what those ever-present experts keep preaching.  So, how do you train somebody to do a job that requires unique individuals to adapt their one-of-a-kind personalities to situations that are never replicated from class to class, much less year to year?

We can take our first lesson from those wonders of educational value—video games.  Wait a minute; before you go to another site, hang in there for at least another paragraph or two.  In many video games, especially those violent, first-person ones, you begin with very little in the way of material to help yourself.  In my favorite of yesteryear (and actually the only video game I ever played much), Doom, you’d have a rifle and a couple of shells as you began, which wouldn’t keep you alive for very long unless you found other weapons and more ammo in the maze you were running, trying to destroy the monsters before they got you.  As you progressed and became more experienced, you knew where to look for the stuff you would need to the point where you had multiple weapons, shields, and extra lives that would allow you to lay waste to anyone who got in your way.

Now, teachers don’t “lay waste” to anything (except ignorance and virtually any food—no matter how vile—that is put on department office tables during birthday treats day), but the rest of the analogy is apt.  You face your first class on your first day virtually defenseless; but if you somehow manage to survive, you start to accumulate stock piles of techniques that work for you and knowledge of where the dangers are that will derail your lesson plans.  Unfortunately, just like Doom, you have to “die” multiple times in order to get to the point where you have the skills and experience to surmount all the obstacles that lurk around the next period or hallway.  It’s no wonder that many potentially excellent teachers give up to find easier professions before they have garnered the tools they need in order to reach the point where they’re not exhausted, frustrated, and defeated at the end of each day.

But what if they had some help as they were starting out?  No, I’m not suggesting some cheat code like you could get for Doom that made you invulnerable.  Instead, what if we gave first-year teachers a slightly lighter load by assigning them one class to be “team” taught with an experienced teacher?  In most high schools in this area, teachers have five classes each day and two periods to plan, grade, and do all the other administrative tasks that need to get done.  For those new and second-year teachers, one of those five periods would be assigned to be, essentially, the deputy for another teacher who had been teaching and highly rated for X numbers of years (I’d say five at the minimum, with more than eight or ten being even better).  Essentially, where you had two teachers teaching ten different classes before, you’d have those same two teachers teaching nine classes—eight classes individually with a ninth where they taught the same group of students.

This could be miraculously beneficial for new teachers and really healthy for the experienced ones as well.  The plusses for new teachers are readily apparent—they’d see a pro in operation daily, often teaching exactly the same lessons the new teachers had taught by themselves in their other classes.  They’d understand just how their cooperating teacher (may as well steal a term from student teaching to keep things familiar) made plans, entered grades, handled discipline issues, contacted parents, and evaluated student work.  Instead of having outsiders (department chairs, principals, or curriculum specialists) sit in the back of their classrooms six times or so a year, scribbling notes in order to dispense advice later, often not even the same day; these teachers would be able to watch how somebody handled what they had tried to do, and depending on the scheduling, be able to compare it to a class they had already taught and then adapt their lessons based on how they had just seen it done before their next class.  And this would happen every single day.

They’d be able to ask questions and seek input from a peer, somebody who was doing the same things they were.  And since they’d share a common class, thus dividing the labor (eventually), questions wouldn’t seem awkward intrusions into another colleague’s time who had “better” things to do than to wet-nurse brand new teachers.  One reason new teachers often struggle so much is that they are hesitant to seek out advice when things don’t go well.  There’s the same pretense of expertise in department offices in schools as there is in any business office.  But in teaching, nobody’s competing for accounts or sales or promotions (at least not as much), so there is a willingness to help out from the vast majority of teachers I have known (I taught junior high and high school for thirty-three years).  It’s just that with new teachers feeling pressured in so many ways and with few job protections their first several years (they can be fired with no reason given for three years in Illinois), most fear that to appear uncertain or unskilled could cost them their position.  Much better, they believe, just to suffer and pretend to have everything under control until you stumble upon the techniques that work for you.  I think many experienced teachers would agree with me in marveling at how hard it was to get through that first year and how much better it was the second and third years, without really understanding just what happened that eased the pressure and difficulty so much. Co-teaching that one class with somebody who’d been through all that already would help new teachers both practically and psychically—they’d have somebody to turn to without it seeming like they desperately needed to be turning to anyone.

But the veteran co-teacher would also benefit.  I’ve always maintained that the best way to learn something is to try to teach it to someone else.  (That’s another reason that Shaw quote bugs me so much.)  In showing a young colleague what you’re doing, you’d have to sort through all the things that have become your habitual techniques and explain why they work.  You’d need to determine if you’re doing something just because you’ve always done it that way, never bothering to try to find something better, or if you had reasons to support its usage.  Teachers do get careless about making their plans tight enough to get through the maximum amount of material in the most interesting and challenging ways.  All teachers have certain “slack” periods where they coast a little—which will always happen—but having somebody aping your lessons and asking you questions about what you did would have an invigorating effect.

Naturally, there are issues that something this different would have to address: namely, the cost and the pairings.  First, let’s go over the most deadly of all terms when it comes to education reform—money.  If two teachers are covering nine classes when those same two teachers could be assigned ten, then you will need one more teacher for every five new teachers you have.  And if you followed my recommendation and did this for the first two years of a new teacher’s career, you’d carry that extra staffing need for two school years.  There’s no way around it—this system would be more expensive.

The obvious source of revenue to make up for this extra cost would be other teacher training costs.  That would mean cheaper experts for institutes, fewer outsiders coming into schools to train, and not as many teachers traveling to special events that happen in other cities and states.  As a veteran of countless institutes, conferences, and conventions, I will ruefully accept that outcome with a heartfelt, “No problem!”  School districts should always be extremely conservative with spending on things that take teachers out of classrooms.  Far too often, I’ve seen teacher training (especially the ones that involved mostly administrators and required travel) that, while at best interesting, was of very little direct benefit to the students.  Just recently, six people from a local school attended some conference/training in Denver.  Of those six (a principal, an assistant principal, and four department chairs), only four of them taught any classes (a total of seven between the department chairs), contrasted with if six teachers with a total of thirty assigned classes had attended.  Yes, there are leadership skills that need to be learned and everyone should receive useful, innovative training; but my system would probably have rejected a trip like this, not to mention restricting most administrative training in other states to summer, if we could afford them at all.  Keep in mind, though, that at least the money we’re spending on this cooperative teaching plan would go directly to the students, as two teachers instead of one would be in certain classrooms.  I would also argue that the students in the other classes these two teachers taught would benefit from all the positive impact on instruction their cooperation would allow, as we’ve already discussed.

In short, you could fund the cooperating teacher program for new teachers by cutting back on cash currently being used for less effective, more indirect teacher development.  Thus, this program wouldn’t cost most school districts a dime, while providing much better outcomes.  That leaves the last potential problem: how the cooperative teams get put together.

Administrators would have to be in charge of determining which new teacher was paired with which experienced teacher, and these matches would be important in making the program work.  It would be nice if the older teacher wanted to cooperate with the younger one, but I wouldn’t suggest using volunteers for this.  I’ve often seen volunteering used when student teachers are assigned for a semester, and you generally wind up with one of two kinds of teachers who step forward:  “Motherly” or “Otherly” ones.  “Motherly” is pretty self-explanatory: These are teachers who want to shield the poor new teacher from any and all stresses, insist on doing as much of the work as possible, and never let the student-teachers try (and sometimes fail) with their own ideas.  They mean well, but the excess mothering rapidly turns to smothering, which doesn’t help the new teacher develop so much as learn to expect someone else to do everything for them.  Or, the more independent ones quickly stop listening and avoid their extra mother, which would defeat the purpose of the whole team concept.

“Otherly” teachers have other things they care about more than helping the inexperienced teacher learn.  Their coaching or taking graduate classes is what’s important to them, so they go to the other extreme and pretty much ignore the student teachers, again, making the point of their working together moot.  Administrators would have to be aware of the characteristics and distractions of their staffs so that the right blend of helpfulness and distance would be present in the experienced cooperating teachers to make sure the new teachers would be able to learn and grow under their tutelage.  No doubt this would take some experimenting and no administrator could be expected to be a perfect matchmaker, which is another reason why it would be good if new teachers had a cooperating partner for two years, a different one each year.  Or, you might even switch partners at the semester; it would really help if new teachers could be exposed to how dissimilar two effective teachers can be.

Despite some potential problems, I believe this idea would dramatically decrease the time it takes for new teachers to move from ineffectual and stressed to competent and assured.  And if they couldn’t make that transition, you would have a first-hand witness to their lack of success who would be invaluable in helping to make the decision on whether to retain them.  No, I’m not suggesting that the experienced cooperating teacher would determine if new teachers were hired for the next year or not, but their input would be very revealing for administrators unsure as to whether to bring someone back.  More importantly, however, new teachers would be provided with solid assistance in making the transition from students to educators, experienced teachers would be stimulated to examine their own methods, and best of all, students in the classes of young teachers would have a better experience and learn more.

Those who can, do teach, but everyone needs some help in the beginning.  Even Mr. Shaw didn’t start out successfully, but was a bust as a novelist who leaned heavily on his mother in his younger years.  But with some help and experience, he became a Nobel laureate in literature as a playwright.  New teachers deserve better support in their quest to educate our children, just as George received.

New teachers could also get some wonderful insights into the world of education by reading my e-book, Snowflake Schools, and they can check out excerpts of it here.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Two More Public School Ambitions |

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