Lindsay had been one of our education program's strongest students; she was bright and capable and, upon graduation, had been hired to teach 9th and 10th grade history at a school with a strong reputation and an impressive faculty. But a year into her new career, she wasn't happy. Why?
"It seems silly," she admitted. "I really like my students and I love my job, but I feel lonely. I like my colleagues, but I don't feel part of the community. They include me in social stuff, but I don't have a voice in professional matters. My colleagues want to support me and gladly provide me with all sorts of materials, but I never get a chance to share what I'm doing. I wish I could be part of a professional conversation."
Among novice teachers, Lindsay is not alone in feeling a sense of professional loneliness. Research indicates that isolation is a major reason for new teacher attrition (Darling-Hammond, 2003; McCreight, 2000). In recent years, induction programs and new teacher programs have provided significant support for beginning teachers and have had a notable effect in reducing the attrition rate (Darling-Hammond, 2003; Feiman-Nemser, 2003). However, much new teacher support centers on fixing problems in such areas as classroom management, meeting standards, and supervision. These need to be addressed, but when we focus primarily on fixing the problems new teachers face, we miss an opportunity to invite new teachers into the professional community.
Benefits of Empowerment
When novice teachers share their successes, they grow in their sense of efficacy and empowerment, factors that are crucial in encouraging professionalism and supporting retention (Swicegood, 2005). We need to encourage novice teachers to recognize what they are doing well and empower them to build on that success.
Engaging novice teachers in professional conversations also benefits experienced teachers. Although new teachers may not yet possess the hard-won wisdom of experience (Shulman, 1987), they bring their own knowledge, life experiences, and new perspectives. Many are "digital natives" (Prensky, 2006), comfortable and confident with technology, accustomed to online social networking, and well versed in media literacy. They come from increasingly diverse backgrounds and can contribute ideas drawn from a wide range of life experiences. And they ask questions—questions born from inexperience, questions that represent challenges, questions that require more seasoned educators to explain their thinking, and sometimes very simple questions that cause peers to rethink certain assumptions.
Collegiality in Practice
Of course, it is much easier to talk about engaging novice teachers in professional communities than it is to act on this idea. What might such collaboration look like?
To shed light on this question Heather talked with two teachers—one a 25-year veteran, the other brand-new to the classroom—who had successfully collaborated. In the following interview, Mary McBride and Diana Combs discuss the partnership they developed when Diana was assigned to student-teach in Mary's classroom.
Describe the professional relationship you had in the classroom.
DIANA: When I first met Mary, I was intimidated to be placed with a teacher who had been in the classroom longer than I had been alive. Yet Mary treated me as her colleague from day one, asking for my input, swapping ideas, and helping me come to conclusions without telling me what they should be.
MARY: This person is a fellow colleague. You're trying to encourage someone to be a part of this profession, so you need to treat the person as if she actually is part of the profession.
DIANA: Mary treated me like the teacher she knew I could become and held me to high standards.
MARY: It was fun to have someone bubbling over with enthusiasm and good ideas. I knew Diana would figure out what wasn't going to work on her own. Or we'd talk it through.
What did each of you gain from working in a collaborative partnership?
DIANA: Mary pushed our relationship beyond that of master and apprentice into a collaborative space. One example stands out: We each taught The Crucible in our respective classes. For two weeks, I observed Mary's advanced placement classes during my prep period, taking notes on her teaching, her approach to dissecting the play, and the students' responses. She did the same during her prep periods while I taught. After class, Mary and I would debrief our observations, discuss our rationales, and brainstorm ways to make the unit more accessible.
Despite already having an excellent way to teach the play, Mary eagerly collaborated with me to make changes. One of my experiments was to kick The Crucible into the 21st century with Web quests and online learning. Mary's trust in my abilities gave me confidence to try new ideas. And as I watched Mary adopt technology in her own practice, I felt like she was validating my contributions.
Collaborating with Mary was a challenge in the best sense—she asked the complex questions like, How can you help your students do more thinking than you do? And she was willing to openly evaluate her own curriculum. Mary modeled for me the importance of constant improvement, humility, and a deep respect for the learning process—both for student and teacher.
MARY: Having Diana as my student teacher made me a better teacher. Even the best teachers can become complacent and think there isn't much they don't know about their subject matter or teaching methods. Having a dynamic young teacher in my classroom helped me gain back the early enthusiasm I experienced on entering the profession.
I probably learned as much from Diana as she learned from me. I may be a master in content and curriculum, but I learned much about using different forms of technology and found new ways to engage my students.
In terms of curriculum design, Diana was much more structured than I am, which is probably normal for a beginning teacher. However, it made me look at some of my lessons with new eyes.
What challenges did you encounter in choosing to be more collaborative?
MARY: It's frightening to give up control of the classroom, but it was the first, most difficult step I had to take to allow Diana to grow. As veteran teachers, we become so entrenched in our own ideas that we forget to listen to new ones. Perhaps if we take the time to listen we will appreciate that we have many things in common with new teachers and many ideas to share.
DIANA: One challenge for me was navigating the language barrier: I was versed in the latest university-approved ed-speak, and Mary in an earlier model. The funny thing is that we agreed on how to approach teaching—I called it backward design; she called it good planning.
I also faced frustration in meeting the conflicting requirements of my university program and placement site. The university told me to teach diverse voices, use contemporary literature, and break away from the textbook, but the school site's curriculum was set. Although I didn't want to come across as a know-it-all, I also didn't want to ignore what I was learning in my program. Open communication in which I sought to clarify terms and better understand Mary's perspective enabled us to break down some of those barriers.
What did it take to make your partnership work?
DIANA: Clearly, there's a small age gap between us …
MARY: [turns to Diana, laughs] What, like I'm older than your mother?
I think we were a good match for each other. We are both self-confident with strong personalities. Teachers have to keep themselves open to professional relationships, no matter the age gap. Diana and I probably have more in common than other teachers closer in age. It's more about the person's ability and what each person brings to the relationship.
DIANA: I can point to one incident that highlights why our partnership worked. Remember the foldables fiasco? [Both laugh].
MARY: Diana's only major misstep was the great foldables caper, which she used to help the students remember the characters in The Crucible. It involved a great deal of construction paper in many colors, scissors, staples, and constant folding. The students spent more time folding than concentrating on the play. It was not successful, but she saw it for herself. If I had told her I didn't think it would work, she wouldn't have believed me.
DIANA: Exactly. Mary let me take a risk, and she let me totally bomb! She never stepped in to "fix" my mistake. Instead, she let me learn from it. I think she ended up respecting me more for taking that risk, humiliating as it was to hear students saying, "This is really confusing. Why are we doing this?"
MARY: You can't discourage novice teachers from experimenting; they need to see for themselves why a certain approach does or doesn't work. After all, that's what we do!
What advice do you have for other experienced and novice teachers about collaboration and the potential for learning from one another?
MARY: I respect anybody who comes into teaching right now. Experienced teachers often forget just how overwhelming these early teaching years are. Be generous! We need to give all the support and encouragement we can.
Give time! It is the most precious asset we have, but it will pay off in the long run as we help develop a talented new crop of teachers who will keep us sharp. Some faculties are much harder to break into than others; older entrenched departments can be intimidating, so we need to make sure we let new teachers know their contributions count.
DIANA: There's so much to learn when you're a new teacher, and it is overwhelming. Our first response is often to work around the clock, instead of reaching out to someone who has been there before. So ask for help.
The other advice I would give is to focus on the positive, celebrating the victories along the way. It is important that we, too, assert ourselves as members of the professional community. Asking for help is one way; sharing our success is another. If we are lucky, as I was with Mary, this can take place within our department, or elsewhere in our school. But it shouldn't end there. I have found great support and encouragement from professional organizations like NCTE [National Council of Teachers of English], ASCD, and my graduate school alumni network.
MARY: Learning is a lifetime process, and I learned this lesson well during the semester I spent with Diana. Collaborating with all our colleagues, but especially the newest ones, is both necessary and rewarding. It invigorates us and makes us better teachers.
Darling-Hammond, L. (2003). Keeping good teachers: Why it matters, what leaders can do.
Educational Leadership, 60(8), 6–13.
Feiman-Nemser, S. (2003). What new teachers need to learn. Educational Leadership, 60(8), 25–29.
McCreight, C. (2000). Teacher attrition, shortage, and strategies for teacher retention. Retrieved from ERIC database. (ED444986)
Prensky, M. (2006). Listen to the natives. Educational Leadership, 63(4), 8–13.
Shulman, L. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1), 1–22.
Swicegood, P. (2005, Winter). Teachers' efficacy in preparation and retention. Academic Exchange Quarterly, 28. Available:
www.thefreelibrary.com/Teachers' efficacy in preparation and retention.-a0138703695
Heather Lattimer is Assistant Professor in the School of Leadership and Education Sciences at the University of San Diego in California;
firstname.lastname@example.org. Mary McBride is recently retired from La Jolla High School, San Diego Unified School District. Diana Combs is an English teacher at Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, California.
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