Give ‘Em a Boost!
October 7, 2020
October 7, 2020
By Timothy Pressley
First-year teachers enter the classroom with a ton of anticipation, but also with plenty of challenges: they must learn content, develop an effective classroom management plan, and create engaging lesson plans, all in at least somewhat unfamiliar surroundings. They’re striving not just to survive, but also to launch the often up-and-down process of becoming highly effective professionals. It’s not an easy journey, and the turnover rate in the first years in the classroom is high.
For this article, the author interviewed 17 Virginia elementary educators: eight first-year teachers; five highly effective and established teachers; and four instructional coaches. Several new-teacher themes developed from those conversations: classroom management issues, mistakes young teachers make, and ways to support new teachers.
Because new teachers often struggle as they get comfortable with classroom management, they often end up stopping class more often to deal with behavior problems compared to their experienced peers. This takes up precious instructional time and is a distraction for other students.
Many rookie teachers use extrinsic motivators (i.e., tokens, points, stickers) to manage classroom behaviors. These approaches can also be encouraged by some technology-based programs that allow teachers to provide points through smart boards, phones, and tablets. While often effective for a short period, the excitement associated with the rewards often runs out eventually, leading to more behavior problems. Teachers and coaches also shared that these systems can be difficult to keep up with during the day. One first-year teacher in fourth grade said, “I started off doing ClassDojo [behavior program] with points, but since it wasn’t on my board all the time, students weren’t excited about it.”
Because extrinsic motivation can be short-lived, some first-year teachers often end up changing their classroom management system every few weeks. This lack of consistency makes it hard for students to get into a routine or to learn the consequences for good and bad behaviors. Said one first-year teacher, “My classroom management plan changed. I used to do a class economy, which did not work, so now I have a big point system where students compete against each other, but I might try something else soon.” It wasn’t uncommon in the interviews for first-year teachers to change their classroom management systems multiple times during the school year. Some of those changes, however, were positive as some learned to move away from extrinsic rewards and began feeling more confident in their relationships and classroom effectiveness.
In comparison, the highly effective teachers interviewed made intrinsic motivators and developing relationships the core of their classroom management. “I build contracts with my students, all of us creating the rules together, and we all sign the contract,” said one experienced second grade teacher. “It’s very intrinsically motivated with natural consequences for their actions and behaviors.” The highly effective teachers did make changes to classroom management, but to support the students in the classroom for the particular year. “I’ve found that every class is different, so you have to adjust each year, and meet the needs of those kids,” explained one highly effective fifth grade teacher.
As any teacher will tell you, teaching is a tough profession and often especially difficult in the first couple years. Young teachers will make mistakes but can use them for guidance and reflection. One of the main mistakes pointed out by experienced teachers was how first-year teachers develop relationships with students. Rookie teachers, as they learn to interact with students, can often seem to be more of a friend than an authority figure.
“They want the kids to love them, and that’s good,” said one effective third grade teacher. “They should want them to love them, but figuring out the difference between being their friend and being their teacher is an important skill to develop.”
First-year teachers need to understand that relationship building takes time and goes beyond knowing a student’s name and few facts. It includes learning about students as people and about their home life, interests, and dreams.
“This needs to be a priority in the classroom,” noted one instructional coach.
Because there’s so much to accomplish in a school year, first-year teachers must also learn to be flexible. Some get focused more on their lesson plans and curriculum instead than on their students. Flexibility may sometimes mean, for example, moving on with a lesson even if not all students got a solid grasp on the material.
“[New teachers] can forget that these kids are individuals and not everything is going to go according to plan,” said one experienced second grade teacher. There’s a difference between teaching kids and teaching a lesson.”
Rookie teachers should be encouraged to use data on student progress to make decisions on whether to move on or review, rather than feeling pressure to stay on a strict schedule.
Lastly, many first-year teachers are reluctant to ask for help. They may have had successful experiences in their teacher-prep programs, but that doesn’t prepare them for everything they’ll encounter in their new job. When they face difficulty, they may feel embarrassed about it or any resulting decrease in teacher efficacy. New teachers must understand that it is okay to ask for help or guidance, that it’s an important part of their development. “I don’t know if all districts automatically put ways to help in place from the get-go for new teachers unless they’re not doing well,” said one experienced teacher, but such support is essential for first-year educators.
One way to ensure necessary support is by providing a mentor teacher or coach for instructional and emotional support in year one. “I provide both formal and informal feedback,” said one experienced teacher who has served as a mentor. “I model lessons for them, watch them complete those same lessons, and then offer my thoughts.”
Several first-year teachers shared that opportunities like that were critical to them, with one saying, “My coach was able to come into my classroom and provide feedback on my classroom management. We picked out what would work best for certain students, what would work best with other students, and we created a system.” This kind of personalized input creates a safe space for new teachers to voice their concerns.
Along with providing feedback, instructional coaches and mentors help a young teacher implement the basics or set goals, especially in areas where they may be struggling. “The first thing I look for in a struggling teacher is student engagement,” said one experienced teacher. “Are students participating? We work to develop a fix for getting students engaged and then get to student achievement data.” Coaches can also help new teachers develop classroom goals, which can help them overcome small problems and see measurable success.
“I always pre-conference with a teacher to set goals, and then collect data on their goals through observations,” said one coach. “Moving forward, I can then either co-teach or model instruction and then follow up with another observation to provide feedback. I feel this approach works best, as I can scaffold a struggling teacher through to meet a goal.”
Teaching is an emotional career can be especially so when facing challenges for the first time. When a new teacher feels supported, he or she is more likely to see the year as successful. “My team and administration have been great with questions I’ve had, and I’ve been assigned a coach who has been helpful, too,” said one first year teacher. “I have been surrounded by support.”
Emotional support gives first-year teachers the opportunity to know they aren’t alone in what can be a lonely profession. Some of the first-year teachers we interviewed said they got such support from other first-year teachers, which helped build a sense of community. “There are a couple other new teachers in the school I’m able to talk with about my classroom,” said one rookie teacher. “We share the challenges we all face.” A school or school division may be able to help structure these interactions through first-year teacher professional development sessions or allowing first-year teachers to get together in a less formal setting to share experiences.
While the first year in the teaching profession is challenging, the right support from other teachers, school administrators, mentors, and coaches can help rookies build their confidence and find success. Taking steps like providing highly effective mentors/coaches, offering first-year teachers the opportunity to watch highly effective models, using formative feedback to alter teaching practices, and making relevant professional development available will not only ease some of the challenges first-year teachers face, it will increase their likelihood of making teaching a lifelong career.
This year, many teachers will begin by teaching virtually, which brings new challenges for both new and experienced teachers. Even in a virtual environment, new teachers need to understand the challenges they may face with classroom management, relationship building, and instruction.
New and experienced teachers should look to incorporate student interest surveys to build relationships, build in time during video conferences to check in with students, and provide specific feedback to students on the work they complete. As one coach shared, “Find ways to incorporate their interests by sharing about books that might interest them or calling students by name when providing feedback.” Providing interactions such as these may help build relationships with students while the class is virtual and provide extra resources for kids. Even in a virtual classroom, new teachers can provide a daily schedule for students and clearly communicate expectations with students. However, just like in face-to-face setting, rookie teachers need to understand they are the teacher and not friends with students.
All teachers will have an abundance of virtual platforms and resources to use. When choosing, first-year teachers should consider how they’ll use each one. As one instructional coach shared, “There are many different platforms and programs available to teachers and just because it’s trendy doesn’t always mean it’s effective.” New teachers also need to remember to update resources shared with families throughout the year to keep them relevant with instruction and provide additional material when available.
Lastly, as in face-to-face teaching, rookie teachers should not hesitate to ask for help from other teachers, instructional coaches, or the technology department. All teachers are going to struggle, and will need to share ideas. Rookie teachers can still watch mentors and coaches model teaching as well as get formative feedback on instruction in a virtual setting. They should also reach out to their grade-level teams to learn of effective instructional techniques and activities. As a coach shared, “virtual teaching is new for everyone and every teacher is going to overcome several issues. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness.”
Pressley, PhD, is an assistant professor of psychology at Christopher Newport University, where he also teaches classes in the MAT program. His research focuses on effective teaching and teacher development.
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