(This post was originally published on edCircuit.com.)
“Have you ever noticed that a third year teacher and a 30-year teacher have the same job description?”
This question, posed to me a while back by a colleague, seems particularly important in light of a report from the Alliance for Excellent Education released last summer. It highlights what those of us in education already know: way too many new teachers leave the profession. This is particularly troubling given another recent study highlighted in a recent EdWeek article which shows that teachers’ skill sets do not plateau after a few years, as was previously thought. Indeed, teachers continue to get better as they gain more experience. Again, this is something those of us in education already know. After all, great teaching is hard. In Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell touted the 10,000-hours-of-practice rule as the amount needed to achieve mastery and greatness in a field. Though this rule has been much debated, the point is one that’s hard to dispute: Expertise develops over time through hard work and practice.
A Vicious Cycle
And yet new teachers, who need the most support and guidance to develop their skills so they can become experts, rarely get what they need. The surface level reasons that new teachers leave the profession are widely recognized: Low pay, challenging students, high levels of stress, and so on. There’s a deeper, more insidious reason for this problem, though: We have a system set up to ensure new teacher failure. New teachers are often given the most challenging classes and the most difficult responsibilities. Since they are on the steep end of the learning curve in nearly every facet of their work, they are more likely to be overwhelmed and run-down and least able to handle these challenges. This problem is particularly acute in urban schools where conditions in general are often more challenging and pay is low. It’s no wonder that new teachers leave, either quitting altogether or fleeing to the suburbs leaving our most disadvantaged kids—the ones who most need experienced and highly skilled teacher—with a steady diet of teachers with the least developed skills little experience. Additionally, new teachers are too often left to flounder on their own, sometimes even intentionally left to “sink or swim” and “earn their stripes” through “trial by fire.”
Breaking the Cycle
So, you are an administrator or school leader who desperately wants your new teachers to succeed? You know, better than most, the time and financial resources it takes to hire new teachers. You know the price students pay for having teachers who fail. What can you do? Based on my experience as a coach and mentor in many schools over the years, I have a few important ideas to consider.
Recognize great teaching as a skill set, not a gift: Instead of looking for “gifted” or “natural” teachers, look for ones with strong basic skills who are eager to grow and learn. Then, give them the support they need to boost their skill sets.
New teachers need good coaching: The best way to boost a teacher’s skill set is through coaching. This coach might be an officially assigned mentor through a mentoring and induction program. It might be a grade level or department colleague, an administrator, or a building or district coach. Whoever it is, the coach needs to be positive, empathetic, and highly skilled.
New teachers need positive and constructive feedback: Concrete and positive feedback helps new teachers recognize their strengths, helping intuitive skills become more conscious. Constructive feedback, advice that is bite-sized and within reach, will help motivate and inspire growth. It also helps them be more deliberate in their practice, which, according to research is the key to developing expertise.
Lighten the load: New teachers should get the easiest classes, the least challenging students, and the lightest workloads. They shouldn’t be required to handle lunch and recess duty on their own, attend late-night PTO meetings, or help organize a school fundraiser. Veteran teachers, who have more skills and experience (and receive higher pay) should take on the greatest responsibilities and challenges in a school, enabling new teachers to focus on academic planning, building relationships with students and families, and strategies for effective management.
A Mindset of Support
It might be that once upon a time, new teachers could be expected to be fully competent from day one. Perhaps there was a day when “competence” meant sitting kids down in rows, making them memorize low-level content, and not letting them talk. If this was once the case, it certainly is no longer. The skill set needed by highly effective teachers is complex and extensive. School leaders must view new teachers as professionals at the beginning of their learning journey—potentially great teachers who need strong support and empathic guidance to grow and flourish.