Learning the lessons

March 2010

 

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MARIE CAMERON reflects on the lessons for schools, from research into beginning teachers

The first few years of a teacher’s career are crucial in shaping the teacher they become. Our research showed teachers who got off to a good beginning and felt supported in their new workplace were more likely to be still in teaching three years on – and satisfied with the job.

One of the new teachers spoken to in the research told us it took him two terms to stop saying to his flatmate “I’m off to school now”. Finally he began to say “I’m off to work”. Schools are not just schools but workplaces, and principals and the senior management team have clear responsibilities not just towards students, but to teachers as employees. Teachers’ working conditions have an impact on how well they are able to teach and how well their students are able to learn.

New teachers need school leaders who lead, nurture and help them to grow professionally. This is true of all teachers, but particularly those who have just qualified to begin teaching. Beginning teachers don’t arrive from faculties of education perfectly formed. They have crossed a bridge from the place where they were taught about how to teach to the place (their workplace) where they have to learn how to put what they have learnt into practice. The learning and organisational culture of their workplace has as much of an impact on the kind of teacher they will become as their previous preparation for teaching and their individual skills and talents.

So it’s early in the year and your school has one or more beginning teachers on staff. What can you do to nurture their passion, determination and talent and ensure they do grow into a great teacher?

There’s no formula but there are some common themes, drawn from the research literature, the four-year NZCER research project Teachers of Promise, and my book Lessons From Beginning Teachers (NZCER Press).

Tackling the isolation

Teaching can be an isolated job. Some of the people I interviewed had come to teaching from other professions, and the sense of isolation within the four walls of the classroom came as a shock to them. Some were left largely on their own to figure things out, yet solitary teachers working in an isolated classroom cannot meet the needs of 21st century learners – or their teachers.

The isolation tends to be worse in secondary schools. Teachers in primary schools are more likely to meet to collaboratively plan their units across classes, while many secondary teachers were amazed that they had to create their teaching plans from scratch, despite the wealth of experience and knowledge that must have been in their departments.

But there were secondary teachers in our study who had good experiences. They were the ones who went into really functional teams, with a head of department who knew the curriculum well. They were able to be involved in collaborative planning, to use and critique each other’s resources, and were encouraged to watch others in the department teach.

In our study, the most satisfied teachers were those who worked in teaching syndicates or departments that tackled teaching tasks together and where problems were shared. The fresh ideas of new teachers were welcomed, but they also received valuable support and feedback. They felt part of the team and had access to shared resources. Think about your own school – what systems and processes are in place to ensure teachers work collaboratively and particularly with each other?

Observation

New teachers come into schools used to observing and being observed. It’s part of their training and is supposed to be a key part of their next two years. That doesn’t always happen. In teaching, there are not routine opportunities to observe more experienced teachers at work, in the way that an apprentice hairdresser might make use of a few spare minutes to stand alongside a more experienced colleague. One of the teachers in our study told me wistfully: “Apparently there’s someone in our department who is a really good teacher” – yet she had not been given the chance to learn from that person. Several of the beginning teachers said if they had their two years again, they would have been much more active in seeking to organise observations and discussions with other teachers.

Those opportunities need to be created, perhaps by timetabling it in at the beginning of each term and scheduling release time. Beginning teachers need to be able to watch others teach, maybe even share a lesson. They need to get feedback. Auckland University education professor John Hattie says getting feedback is the most important thing for learners. We give it to students but what sort of feedback do new teachers get?

Encourage teachers to be networkers

One of the best lessons a beginning teacher can learn is to network mercilessly – both within and outside the organisation. A teacher who is a great networker and connector is a real asset. If they are a social studies teacher, encourage them to be in the social studies association. That is knowledge building and knowledge creation. However, initially they may want to network just with other beginning teachers.

Usually the only person who gets to leave the school during the day is the principal. But there is time in those first two years for beginning teachers to venture out – to go on a course or to another school. It’s about using the time creatively and purposefully.

Manage workload

Beginning teachers are often their own worst enemies as they relentlessly volunteer for everything. It’s great for them to pursue a passion, but a school management that nurtures its staff will keep a very close eye on workloads as well as encourage teachers to self-manage. They can be helped by recording their activities over the course of a week and then figuring out ways to go on a time diet – that is, to cut less useful time ‘calories’ out of their day. Doing this exercise as a leader often helps out all teachers by, for example, finding better ways to tackle the paperwork.

Several of the teachers in our study did not pay attention to balancing work with their rest of their lives. A teacher who is stressed, overloaded and letting work encroach endlessly into their personal time is not going to be an inspiration for students.

Mentoring

Mentoring is critical but it is not always something schools automatically know how to do. A mentor is a teacher with a formal role and the time to provide personalised guidance, support and feedback to assist a beginning teacher to complete their professional registration. It’s not a one-way street – the research shows mentors can derive many benefits from the role. Mentors will also benefit from opportunities to develop their skill in the role by, for example, a mentoring teacher network in the school or across schools.

There are some clear guidelines about effective mentoring and I’ve included a detailed framework in Lessons From Beginning Teachers. It takes careful thought to make it work well, beginning with the careful matching of mentor to beginning teacher. When mentor and teacher are teaching the same subjects at the same class levels, there are genuine reasons for them to find common ground.

It’s up to self-managing schools to reach out to new teachers and draw them into a healthy work environment so that they can contribute to the school mission and values and learn how to work with commitment and enjoyment alongside their colleagues and communities.

Marie Cameron is a senior researcher at the New Zealand Council for Educational Research (NZCER) and author of Lessons From Beginning Teachers.