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May 1, 2004
Vol. 61
No. 8

Helping New Teachers Cope

Effective mentoring programs respond to the needs of new teachers by providing practical advice about the basics.

Helping New Teachers Cope- thumbnail
Veteran teachers wear their first year of teaching as something of a “red badge of courage.” Reminiscing about those times, we often romanticize the marathon workdays that led to laryngitis and the continuous exhaustion that made us susceptible to every cold, not to mention the student who never quite learned how to raise his hand or the parent who had our home phone number on speed dial. Luckily, there was also the mentor who helped us get through it in one piece.
Or was there?
Perhaps you, like so many other teachers, recall spending your first year overwhelmed and bleary-eyed day after day with no one to whom you could turn. In a qualitative study that looked at why first-year and second-year teachers migrate from one school to another or leave teaching altogether, one participant said she felt isolated, as though she had a “phantom mentor” at best (Johnson & Birkeland, 2003). She, like many others in the study, found the lack of support so detrimental that it ultimately drove her to leave her school, and her students, behind.

Teacher Attrition

This situation is not unusual. In the 1999–2000 school year, approximately 500,000 public and private school teachers left the teaching profession, with more than 123,000 of them attributing their departure to a lack of appropriate administrative support (Ingersoll, 2002). Nearly one-fourth of new teachers leave the profession after only two years, and one-third leave after three years (Ingersoll, 2002). With such a high rate of teacher attrition, administrators must continually work to fill their staff vacancies, a task that takes them away from other crucial areas of need, such as staff support. Principals find school culture difficult to establish, students consistently get inexperienced teachers, and the school community hesitates to make significant personal and financial investments in people who may not stay long enough to give something back.
Currently, 16 states require and fund induction programs for new teachers (Ansell & McCabe, 2003), but not all such programs make a difference in new teacher satisfaction. A study of Massachusetts teachers found that school schedules often lack significant joint planning time for teacher and mentor and that the values of such collaboration are not embedded in the school culture, leaving many novice teachers on their own (Johnson et al., 2001). Even when circumstances are more conducive to developing these partnerships, mentors are frequently given little more direction than to “help out” the new teacher, and many experienced teachers have been at the craft for so long that they have forgotten what they did not know at the beginning. Moreover, most programs ask mentors to make significant contributions of time and energy but fail to acknowledge their efforts with either monetary compensation or formal recognition.

A Principle-Based Program

Reversing this trend of new teacher attrition requires finding cost-effective ways to give teachers opportunities to grow, to learn from their mistakes, and, most important, to ask for help. Establishing a principle-based mentoring program can improve the level of support that new teachers receive, decreasing the likelihood of attrition. A study of new teachers in New Brunswick, New Jersey, found that 18 percent of teachers trained in traditional college programs left the profession after their first year of teaching, but only 5 percent of those whose induction programs included mentoring decided to leave (Gold, 1999).
An effective mentoring program requires great effort on the part of experienced teachers, but only five states currently pay mentors for their time (Ansell & McCabe, 2003). To attract experienced teachers to do this important work, schools need to demonstrate to mentors that there will be other advantages to offering their expertise, such as feeling like professionals and receiving respect for sharing ideas and resources (Johnson & Birkeland, 2003).
As a former mentor and mentee, I have experienced the benefits and challenges of both roles. In a yearlong teaching internship, I worked with two very different mentors. As English department chair in a school with no established mentoring program, I mentored three English teachers who were new to the profession. The tools that I created to address these teachers' emerging needs yielded a framework for a mentoring program built on four basic principles: Codevelopment and collaboration, Observation and feedback, Policies and systems, and Encouragement and support (COPE). A review of research on the support needs of new teachers reveals that such a four-part structure ensures that new teachers are better able to “cope,” and it helps them learn more quickly than the trial-and-error approach. Studies also show that by revisiting basic teaching principles with mentees, mentors often refresh their own instruction with successful strategies and techniques (Holloway, 2001).
An effective mentoring program should meet two important conditions. First, both mentor and mentee must have clearly defined and actionable roles and responsibilities. Second, both mentor and mentee must stand to gain from investing themselves in the process.

Codevelopment and Collaboration

Using the first principle in the process—codevelopment and collaboration—colleagues can be effective peer teachers by working with one another rather than for one another. This kind of relationship enables the new teacher to more easily obtain the information that he or she requires. But such partnerships can be hard to come by.
For example, a few weeks before I started my first teaching job as a middle school English teacher, a soon-to-be colleague graciously offered to send me copies of his materials from the courses that I was scheduled to teach. It must have taken him days to compile the multiple four-inch binders filled to the brim with worksheets, syllabi, quizzes, and assignments. Although a second- or third-year teacher might have considered this a goldmine, I was flabbergasted by all the information that I was expected to learn and teach.
My colleague was trying to be helpful, but at that particular moment those binders were useless to me. Not only could I not conceive of the third quarter, I couldn't even think about the third week. Also, I had no context for using the materials. My colleague had spent a tremendous amount of time and energy collating resources for me when he could have been preparing for his own classes. Neither one of us was better off.
Codeveloping and collaborating on the learning process are far more helpful to the mentee and make wiser use of the mentor's time. For example, having a conversation about an appropriate curriculum for the first week of school is far less time-consuming for a mentor than gathering a year's worth of materials, and it is also far more useful to the mentee. Many new teachers are unaware that they are not expected to dive into curricular content the first day of school and that many effective teachers spend the first several days focusing on establishing expectations and classroom procedures and creating a positive environment (Wong & Wong, 1998).
As mentors help new teachers plan their classes in great detail by asking questions, soliciting ideas, and guiding them through potential problems, mentees will begin to grasp the process of planning effective instruction. New teachers may not realize that a good way to construct a lesson is by starting with the desired end result. They should ask themselves some important questions: What do I want my students to know when they leave class today? How will I know that they have learned it? What must they experience to understand this concept? How can I help guide them? How can they help one another? What will I do if a student or group of students is not engaged in the lesson or does not understand the ideas? In future interactions, the new teacher will likely ask for techniques and strategies as opposed to ready-made handouts and worksheets.
As mentees become more comfortable in their classrooms, they may have ideas for improving their instruction, but specific strategies may seem rather daunting to undertake. Mentors should offer relevant materials and guidance, but if new teachers still hesitate to implement these strategies, team teaching—which encourages new teachers to experiment without fear of serious consequences—can be an excellent solution. Codevelopment of resources for coteaching enables new teachers to see how experienced teachers organize their thinking and structure their lessons, whereas veteran teachers benefit by having the opportunity to deconstruct their own teaching and carefully reexamine a critical process that has perhaps become automatic.

Observation and Feedback

During their first few weeks and months of teaching, most new teachers are simply trying to stay afloat, generally being more concerned with content than process. The better they are at classroom management, however, the more their students will learn. Because new teachers may be reluctant to conduct a lesson under the eyes of a veteran teacher, mentors can invite mentees into their own classrooms to give the beginners an opportunity to see a lesson from another perspective. Before the class begins, the mentor should give the mentee a focal question and offer objective ways to record observations. For example, the mentor might be unsure of whether or not he or she is including all students in class discussions. The mentee can keep a tally of how often each student participates during the lesson and, after class, the two teachers can analyze the data to determine how the mentor can improve his or her practice. Does the teacher favor students in the front of the classroom? If so, perhaps the students should sit in a circle instead of in rows. After the mentor implements this new strategy, the mentee should observe another lesson to see whether the strategy has the desired effect.
In this way, new teachers begin to view observation as an opportunity to be researchers in their own classrooms. They no longer perceive observers as threatening outsiders who subjectively critique their performance, but rather as resources that can aid them in exploring a particular aspect of their instruction.

Policies and Systems

Recognizing that new teachers will be unfamiliar with the school's procedures, administrators usually provide a school handbook for reference. Although these pages may explain what to do in case of a fire drill and when parent-teacher conferences will be held, they rarely include the trivial, but nevertheless important, information new teachers should know—for example, what to do if the copier breaks or what most teachers do for lunch.
A school year abounds with a variety of unique events and unpredictable situations for which there are often particular rules and procedures. Policies regarding nonurgent matters should be discussed only when the related situation is imminent because people more readily absorb information when it is immediately applicable and useful. For example, where to line up one's students for the Thanksgiving assembly is not a helpful discussion in September. Because situations invariably will arise when new teachers can benefit from information and support, it makes sense to sustain mentoring programs throughout the school year.
Mentors can also help new teachers by sharing systems for organization, management, and instruction. Learning how to collect homework, keep anecdotal notes, or create portfolios can take up a great deal of a new teacher's time. Instead, mentors could walk mentees through their current practices and let mentees use those templates as a starting point, to modify as needed.
Mentees will benefit from information about how to organize a grade book, keep track of attendance, or establish a discipline system. Mentors can benefit from this exchange as well. At the beginning of one school year, I shared with a mentee my method for recording class participation, grades, and missing assignments. The fact that I kept everything on paper made it time-consuming to calculate averages throughout the quarter, however, and if I decided after the fact to weight a project differently, I needed to recompute the final grades. My mentee resolved these issues by locating an online grade book. I gained new skills, and she had the opportunity to share some of her knowledge.

Encouragement and Support

A special education teacher of my acquaintance recently left the public high school where she taught and started work at a private middle school. As is often the case for new teachers, she was simultaneously filling multiple roles. After only three weeks of teaching, she felt just as exhausted as she had felt her first year in the profession.
Her supervisor noticed both her hard work and her fatigue and told her to take the next day off. Her assignment was to rejuvenate. She was stunned. No administrator had ever acknowledged her contributions in this way. She was so grateful for this generous deposit into her “emotional bank account” (Covey, 1989) that when she came back the following day, she was energized to give her best.
Although getting a day off for personal rejuvenation may not always be feasible, new teachers can benefit from a number of similar support strategies. Mentors can help photocopy materials or decorate a bulletin board. They can share stories of difficult teaching days, times when they made mistakes but bounced back. New teachers often believe that they are the only ones who struggle in the classroom. Hearing from someone that they are not alone—especially someone they respect and admire—can help them through difficult times (Johnson & Birkeland, 2003).
At one school in which I taught, administrators convened a monthly lunch for new teachers at which the novices could discuss their progress. Occasionally, a second-year teacher joined us to speak about how things got better—or, sometimes, about how things at least did not get worse. Regular meetings of this type help foster professional and personal relationships among new teachers and keep them in the classroom.

Learning to Cope

The first year of teaching is full of extraordinary challenges, and a Darwinist ideology only makes it more likely that novices will leave the field. Supporting new teachers requires significant time, energy, and other resources, but an effective mentoring program can benefit veteran teachers and novices alike. Teachers with greater job satisfaction are less likely to leave the field, and this increased retention will lead to a more stable school community and a climate of instructional improvement.

Ansell, S. E., & McCabe, M. (2003, Jan. 9). Off target. Quality Counts, 2003: The Teacher Gap (Education Week Special Report), 22(17), 57–58. Bethesda, MD: Editorial Projects in Education.

Covey, S. R. (1989). The seven habits of highly effective people: Powerful lessons in personal change. New York: Fireside.

Gold, Y. (1999). Beginning teacher support. In J. Sikula, T. Buttery, & E. Guyton (Eds.), Handbook of research in teacher education (2nd ed., pp. 548–594). New York: Macmillan.

Holloway, J. H. (2001). The benefits of mentoring. Educational Leadership, 58(8), 85–86.

Ingersoll, R. M. (2002). The teacher shortage: A case of wrong diagnosis and wrong prescription. NASSP Bulletin, 86(631), 16–31.

Johnson, S. M., & Birkeland, S. E. (2003). The schools that teachers choose. Educational Leadership, 60(8), 20–24.

Johnson, S. M., Birkeland, S. E., Kardos, S. M., Kauffman, D., Liu, E., & Peske, H. G. (2001, July/August). Retaining the next generation of teachers: The importance of school-based support. Harvard Education Letter.

Wong, H. K., & Wong, R. T. (1998). How to be an effective teacher: The first days of school. Mountain View, CA: Harry K. Wong Publications.

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