New Teacher Support: More is NOT Always the Answer

“Sometimes you can get too much support.” This simple statement stuck with me for weeks.

As an instructional coach, teacher retention is always on my mind. The students in my school won’t reach their fullest potential and a culture of instructional excellence can’t be nurtured with constant teacher turnover. In the past few years, supporting and retaining teachers new to the profession is relentlessly on my mind.

Developing novice teachers into confident and effective veteran teachers is what is best for student achievement and school culture. High teacher turnover creates schools that are in a constant state of implementing and improving rather than refining and enhancing. This hinders school culture and makes realizing significant student achievement gains a genuine challenge.

In Arizona, retaining teachers long enough to cultivate them into effective veterans has become increasingly more challenging. We have had a barrage of teachers fleeing our classrooms and can’t replace them at the rate they are leaving.

According to a study by the Morrison Institute, 42% of the teachers hired in 2013 were gone by 2016. Further, in a stunning survey report released by Arizona School Personnel Administrators Association, 913 teachers have abandoned their jobs since the beginning of the school year. This brings the total number of vacant teaching positions to 1694 as of December 2018 . These are alarming numbers and our state universities will struggle to graduate enough people from their teacher colleges to fill this gap.

This is a crisis for our classrooms and makes retaining and developing our brand new teachers imperative.

Because of this, I’ve spent the last year and a half developing and implementing ideas to support first and second year teachers. I want to emphasize the word support. All of my ideas have originated from the perspective that there is no support that is too much support for our novice teachers.

Then someone said something that caused me to pause and reflect. I was in a meeting and we were discussing new teacher supports. One of my colleagues began reflecting on her experience as a first year teacher and how overwhelmed she was by the support she received. She bluntly stated, “Sometimes you can get too much support.” I stopped cold – too much support? Is that possible? Have we in our efforts to support brand new teachers had the opposite result than we intended? Instead of lightening their mental load, have we actually overwhelmed them?

I chewed on this thought for a while and then I approached my colleague who made the statement and asked her to elaborate on her experiences. Afterward, I spoke with several first year teachers, both in and out of my district, to get their thoughts and perspectives. The good news is some of them feel satisfied with the supports they are being provided. However, I also heard many echoes of what my colleague shared. From those conversations, themes began to emerge.

Based on these conversations, here are some tips on how to avoid overwhelming a brand new teacher by giving too much support:

  1. Limit the amount of people supporting a brand new teacher. Too many voices overwhelm our new teachers. They don’t know which voice to listen to or which advice to follow. Further, they report having so many eyes on them fosters the feeling that they are always making mistakes. Having one or two consistent, supportive voices provides focused feedback that is less intimidating.
  2. Let them make mistakes. Avoid jumping in pre-maturely to coach or correct a new teacher. The new teachers I talked to expressed a desire to be allowed to make mistakes. They need the opportunities for self-reflection and self-realization. When a coach or mentor is always interceding to prevent errors in judgment, they are depriving the new teacher the opportunity to learn. As one new teacher stated, “I wish she didn’t correct me during a lesson. I know I make mistakes but let me reflect on the lesson myself and then give me feedback.”
  3. Limit the amount of resources. As mentors, we truly believe we are being helpful when we provide articles, files of worksheets and activities, and resource books to new teachers. However, new teachers find it overwhelming and don’t know what to do with it all. One teacher confessed to me that she threw piles of stuff her coach had given her in the trash. She said she had no idea how to use the resources and didn’t have time to look at it all. The more supportive alternative to piling on the materials is providing one or two focused resources for something the teacher needs right now and then coach him or her on how to use it.
  4. Listen to new teachers. Our new teachers are bright, resourceful, and capable. Let them tell you what they need. Ask them what type of coaching support works best for them in their current reality. Many of them know and are just afraid to tell us. Step outside the one-size-fits all approach and tailor your coaching to each individual new teacher.

 New teacher supports are vital for teacher retention and I’m encouraged to see more and more schools emphasizing the need for these supports. However, as coaches and mentors, we need to be sure our supports are the right supports and not just one more stressor for our already stressed out rookies. Let’s not make the mistake of giving “too much support” that overwhelms and pressures our new teachers right out of the classroom. As instructional leaders, let’s listen to our new teachers and prevent turning them into the next statistic. Our students’ education depends on it.

What ideas do you have for “just right” support for new teachers?

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