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May 2012 | Volume 69 | Number 8
Supporting Beginning Teachers
Lost at sea … trial by fire … an uphill battle … crashing and burning … almost constant failure … a debacle—that's the colorful language that a few of this month's authors use as they recall their own first year as a classroom teacher. Their descriptions are hardly a persuasive ad for new recruits.
One reason that the first year often gets such bad reviews may be the fact that teaching is such a complex art. As Linda Darling-Hammond relates in her interview with EL
(p. 18), teaching well not only requires subject matter expertise, pedagogical skills, and an understanding of student psychology, but it also demands the ability to keenly observe and respond to what each of 30 students is doing, saying, and meaning—individually and collectively. With little time to reflect before needing to act, teachers must master a performance art and the multitasker's dream job. No matter the preparation they have, you can see why someone might not be able to perfect all that in the first year.
Yet, as Sharon Feiman-Nemser tells us in "Beyond Solo Teaching" (p. 10), we know much more about preparing and supporting new teachers than we actually practice. In this issue, our authors discuss three essentials for helping beginners become competent and effective professionals: sound preparation, yearlong mentoring, and a collaborative culture that fosters learning.
Be prepared. Currently teacher preparation programs might range from five weeks to five years, but length of study is neither the essential nor the only criterion for a good program. As graduates of many different kinds of training relate (pp. 41, 46, 66, 70), good preparation includes multiple chances to observe good teachers teach; a sufficient time to practice student-teaching under the supervision of an expert educator, preferably in the curriculum area or grade level you will teach; and deep study of content and pedagogy related to your in-school student-teaching experience. See Richard Ingersoll and colleagues' research (p. 30) to gain insight into why the "how of teaching" plays such a big role in the retention of science and math teachers. And look at "Preparing Teachers for the Early Grades" (p. 36) to learn what is missing from some elementary teachers' preparation programs.
Find a coach. Speaking at ASCD's Annual Conference this past March, Atul Gawande, noted physician and writer, described how after reaching what he considered to be a plateau in his surgical performance, he invited a revered professor to act as his coach. After observing his work in the operating room, the professor mentioned a few nuances he might try; for example, the coach suggested that the way Atul was draping the table made it convenient for him to work but less so for his assistants. Gawande mentioned that great golfers, musicians, and yes, educators, also benefit from having an extra pair of eyes or ears to suggest tweaks to performance. In the case of an excellent teacher whom he observed, coaches helped her reach the four kids in the room who had not been engaged in the classroom dialogues that were the hallmark of her teaching.
As this issue establishes, mentoring has come of age in the teaching profession, with research showing again and again that good coaching is key to a beginner's long-term success. Those who received two years of intensive induction produced significantly higher gains in student achievement than did teachers in a control group, Feiman-Nemser tells us (p. 14). The best mentors go beyond being a buddy who gives emotional support to acting as a coach who problem solves and fine-tunes skills during the crucial moments of the teacher's first year (p. 54).
Transform the culture of teaching.
Inside and outside the school, the culture of teaching needs to become more conducive to collaboration. Welcoming newcomers into professional learning communities is a step toward reducing isolation. When schools offer everyone the opportunity to grow and learn from one another, novices and veterans benefit.
The pervasive teacher bashing, bad mouthing, and punitive threats directed toward the profession today create a climate of fear and competition and divert educators away from sharing research-based practices. Indeed, the negative climate can create an "antiprofession," as Linda Darling-Hammond relates. "We know what we should be doing with beginning teachers: using professional teaching standards and thoughtful support and evaluation processes to give them the feedback they need … The core value of every profession is that everyone in it has the knowledge and skills needed to be responsible and effective" (p. 21).
Beginners, mentors, experienced colleagues, education leaders, and politicians must do their part if we are ever to rewrite the ending of Survivor stories. Our goal should not be to throw people off the island but to entice them to stay and thrive.
Copyright © 2012 by ASCD
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