Partnering, not Prodding: Autonomy and the New Teacher
Written by Sharon Thomas.

Autonomy and the New Teacher, Instructional Coaching Group

 

I trust the young. In a world that consistently criticizes the generations behind it, I believe that younger people have so much to offer in the hope that comes with new ideas and limitless possibility. The younger voices I value are not just those of students but are those of the younger professionals in a school as well.

The excitement and openness of new teachers has lifted me countless times. I remember how it felt to think that all of the other teachers in the building had their acts together while I scrambled to feel confident about what I was doing day to day and block to block. I remember how quickly the workload enveloped me but also gave me purpose and joy. I love new teachers, but looking back on the ways in which I first tried to support them, I’m not sure that I made the difference I hoped.

 

The Impulse to Mother Other People

Are you hungry? Are you cold? Is anyone being mean to you? With new teachers, my maternal approach meant gifts on your desk, occasional baked goods, plenty of sage advice, and often running interference for them with administrators and colleagues. I was trying more to protect new teachers from the challenging aspects of the job than to help them navigate problems for themselves. I was parenting them, not supporting them as adults and professionals. When new teachers were upset or stressed about some aspect of a problem and said, “I don’t know what to do. Just tell me what to do!” I thought they wanted my advice. I now see that statement was actually the teacher saying, “I’m overwhelmed. I’m scared. Help me not to be overwhelmed. Help me figure this out.” They wanted support in navigating the problem for themselves, not three easy steps to be me.

 

“Interestingly, young people don’t come to you for advice, especially the ones who are related to you.”

—Meryl Streep

 

Controlling behaviors are a result of fear, and a reasonable person has plenty to fear in schools:

  • Meeting the educational needs, biological needs, and physical and psychological safety needs of the children in the classroom
  • Meeting the requirements of various mandates
  • Meeting parent and community expectations that are ever changing

Every issue that arises in a school feels like an emergency because so many issues are legitimate emergencies, and that makes educators seek control.

 

Controlling the Impulse

Because new teachers are often the youngest adults in a school, the impulse to try to control them is intense. This impulse is not intending to be unkind—its intent is to keep students well and learning, and to keep new teachers feeling supported and not wanting to quit. Unfortunately, the more we try to control that situation—the more we treat new teachers like students, like children—the more likely we are to have the opposite effect.

The more advice we give, the more we are unknowingly saying, “You don’t know much. Here’s how you should handle that.” The more mandatory mentoring and top-down professional development we require, the more we subtly say, “All that cool stuff you learned in college and wanted to try here? No, no. You need to get on board with how we think about learning. Your own judgment? Well, you won’t be needing that here.” One professional supporting another professional should have a peer-to-peer dynamic, a partnership dynamic. Instead, most teacher support involves a teacher-student dynamic, which younger adults often read as a parent-child dynamic. No adult wants to be treated like a child.

 

I believe without a single shadow of a doubt that it is necessary for young people to learn to make choices. Learning to make right choices is the only way they will survive in an increasingly frightening world.”

—Lois Lowry

 

 

Partnership Principles

In our work with school districts to strengthen their coaching programs, the issue of how much partnership to extend to new teachers often arises. Coaches and leaders ask, “I can see the benefit of the Partnership Principles for veteran teachers, but new teachers—they need more advice, right? Don’t they need us to tell them what to do?” In coaching a new teacher, some instructional practices and problems that arise may be newer to that teacher than they may be to a more veteran teacher. Regardless, that adult new teacher is just as worthy of partnership—of making professional choices and decisions—as anyone else in the building. If they were not worthy of that respect, then why were they hired and assigned entire classrooms of children to teach and to keep safe?

Coaching new teachers may involve a different level of exposure to and explanation of new practices than it does for veterans, but new teachers do have knowledge and ideas, especially their knowledge of their students. To encourage their engagement in coaching as a learning partner, consider the following:

  • Make coaching a new teacher an option or allowing the new teacher(s) to choose the topics of new teacher support sessions (True, many systems make new teacher mentorship itself a requirement, but the approach for that support can take many different forms and still involve choice for the teacher.)
  • Ask questions about the types of support they need and not assume that all new teachers have the same needs
  • Engage fully with new teachers in Impact Cycles in which they decide on the goal they want to achieve with their students and in which they choose the strategy they should use to hit that goal

Treat new teachers as adults and professionals, not as students, and then watch them grow in their willingness to accept support once they see that requesting support is their professional call to make, and that coaching is something that all teachers need because everyone wants to improve.

 

Sharon Thomas, Instructional Coaching Group

The Impact Cycle

In our Impact Cycle workshops, we show participants video clips of real teachers working in Impact Cycles with Jim Knight. The elementary school teacher videos involve Crysta Crum, who is at that time in the early years of her career. Crysta is more than able to identify issues with her students, to set a powerful goal for them, to choose an instructional strategy to use to hit that goal, and to take the lead in working on that goal to its completion. She doesn’t need Jim Knight to tell her what to do. Rather, she needs the coach to set up an environment for her in which she can think for herself and ask for various types of support as she needs it.

To build a positive professional culture in which everyone is learning and improving, we cannot extend partnership to veterans while trying to control the novices. Those novices will age, and as they become leaders, they will try to support others in the same ineffective, top-down mode that they were assigned, instead of viewing the new teachers in their building as colleagues from whom they can learn, too. For years, professional development sessions have admonished teachers for thinking that children are “empty vessels” in which teachers “pour knowledge,” yet support for new teachers often looks exactly that way.

Yes, new teachers need support, but not support as students, not as children. They need support as teachers, as professionals, as partners in learning.

 

What have you learned in working with new teachers? Add your answer in the comments below.

 

5 Comments

  1. Karen

    Thank you.
    Great thoughts here!

    Reply
  2. Jennifer Kevorkian

    Thank you for the comprehensive article. You’ve addressed this topic in a positive and meaningful way.

    Reply
  3. Susie Reilly

    As an instructional coach specifically supporting new teachers, it is so easy to just jump in and give advice, especially when the new teacher is afraid to explain their ideas at first. So, this helps remind me to take myself out of it and listen, listen, listen to the things they care about and want to work on. Thank you.

    Reply
  4. Jonathan

    In theory, I agree with this, but it’s challenging in practice. I’ve been assigned (no choice on either end) to work with a new teacher who neither has any formal experience in teaching nor training. She frequently screams at the students as a management tool and delivers instruction in rote ways that they don’t understand. However, she’s resisting any form of feedback. While I get the value in partnering, I think there are issues around preserving student dignity and ensuring that the class actually learns that out-prioritize her personal comfort with coaching. What advice would people offer about how to collaborate in this situation?

    Reply
    • Sharon Thomas

      Hi Jonathan! You are right that students deserve the best, and that’s our priority, too. Our research has shown us that adults respond to change based on how we approach them, and you’ve hit on two key issues here. The first is giving teachers no choice about working with a coach. Our research shows that practice usually does not result in positive change for the classroom. When professionals are forced to work with a coach, they will often resist the support entirely or minimally comply with what the coach says, and once they are no longer working with the coach, they go back to their previous behaviors anyway. Making working with the coach a choice (even from a limited set of choices for improvement) results in more engagement for the teacher and a higher likelihood of real change.

      The second issue involves putting the coach in a quasi-administrator role in which the coach is expected to handle communicating and reinforcing job expectations to the teacher, often in the place of the administrator having those conversations with the teacher. Coaches are teachers’ peers and thus should not be the ones having job performance conversations with them. That’s the administrator’s job. But often, coaches are made to feel like it’s up to them to “fix” the teacher, and that results in the kind of top-down relationship that our research indicates isn’t effective in bringing about change. If an administrator has the conversation with the teacher about the areas in which he or she needs to improve, and then gives the teacher some choices about ways to improve (one of which would be working with a coach), then the teacher would be more likely to engage in a real coaching relationship that results in true change (because it focuses on the areas that the teacher has decided to work on and doesn’t put the coach in the position of being “the boss”). Forcing them to work with the coach and having to act as their quasi-supervisor not only doesn’t result in much long-term change; it also gives the coach the reputation as someone who “fixes people in trouble,” and that makes other teachers less likely to ask for coaching support. It’s a complex issue, for sure, and I understand why administrators would want to delegate the tough supervisory conversations to someone else, but it shouldn’t be the coach. That kind of delegation only makes the coach’s job more difficult and harms their reputation with other teachers.

      If compulsory coaching brought about change that gave students the kinds of improvement they deserve, we’d be all for that, but our research (which you can find at instructionalcoaching.com) doesn’t show that it works. Choice is crucial to get those results for students.

      Reply

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