Coaching Tips: Support First Year Teachers (Not Overwhelm Them)

Coaching Tips: Support First Year Teachers (Not Overwhelm Them)

post by Elizabeth Lacy Schoenberger, Fellow with The Educator Collaborative

Coaching Tips: Support First Year Teachers (Not Overwhelm Them)

The first year teaching can be rewarding and challenging. There are well documented cycles of hope and stress. As veteran educators—specifically coaches and administrators, but also anyone reaching out to support newer teachers—we often aim to help our early career colleagues because we believe in them and know that with time and experience, even the biggest hurdles can be overcome.

That said, it is important to consider how we support. If we are not careful, our good intentions can simply add to the avalanche of information first year teachers are already pressing through.

I still remember a lot of the “support” I received during the first months I was a teacher: 

“Ya know, its okay to feel defeated. If you need to just curl up under your desk during your prep and take a nap, you can totally do that. I still do that sometimes.”  

“Don’t worry, you’re working really hard, everyone sees that. They didn’t behave when I walked in either! It takes time to get a class under control.”

“The union stipulates that teachers are not responsible for lifting, moving, or otherwise dealing with heavy furniture.  So you shouldn’t carry those, you wouldn’t be covered if you hurt yourself.” (This was said to me as I was hauling desks from the storage closet to my classroom…which had no desks and chairs…one day before students were to report to school.)

“Here, read this, I found it really helpful.” (This was said repeatedly to me in my early years, as a copy of an article, chapter from a book, etc., was thrust at me.)

Here’s the thing: I’m sure all of this was well intentioned, but none of this was exactly helpful in the ways I needed. Feedback, advice, resources, etc., are not helpful when delivered in an off-the-cuff way. They can further overwhelm, confuse, or frustrate new teachers already in an incredibly steep learning curve.

Instead, deliberate practice, where we are intentional about our steps with our colleagues, can make the greatest gains.

One example of this careful decision making is to commit to limiting our feedback and resources to those that we can help support and incorporate. Feedback and resources are not as obvious or self-explanatory as they may seem to those of us with more experience. To truly be supportive, it helps to be a guide for colleagues. Just as students benefit from scaffolding, we, adults, do in many ways, too.

Share More Useful Teaching Ideas

Instead of giving feedback in the form of suggestions, consider ways you can connect well intended feedback with active support. For instance, try some of these behaviors:

“May I show you what I mean by that?

Feedback followed by an active example is effective. This might mean you model a classroom management technique in addition to recommending “give clear directions.” Do this while talking together or even volunteer to visit your colleague’s classroom. Another example may be, co-writing a lesson plan, adding in the independent practice you think is needed right there on the plan.  Whatever it is, make it super tangible and concrete.

“How about you practice that back to me now, so you have a chance to try it out before you get in front of students?

If your feedback is around a teaching move, have them try it out in front of you, without students present. Yes, it might feel funny or awkward, but this is what growth is all about! It can feel safer for some teachers to try a move out and make any mistakes in front of you than in front of their students.  If your feedback is around planning, have them take out an additional lesson plan and practice what you just explained. You can help them implement your ideas in a way that will directly support their planning and make an impact if they try it out while it is fresh.  This can also help you make sure that you were clear and they understand what you are suggesting, in the way you intended it.

“I have a prep third period, would it help if I came in?”

Setting a time to see how things are going is an opportunity to circle back and give positive reinforcement. Of course, this should not be a formal observation or meeting.  This might look like popping back into a class for five minutes to see something in action, followed by a quick praise post it left on your colleagues’ desk or in mailbox. This could look like stopping by for five minutes at the end of their prep to ask how something went. This not only shows that you care about how they are doing, but that you think the feedback you gave is important enough to be followed up on, not just mentioned once and forgotten.

Share Resources In A More Useful Way

Passing along resources can also be more effective if we include support.  Plopping a book in a new teacher’s box or attaching a million readings to an email only goes so far.  Often, new teachers are inundated with resources, blog posts, grad school assignments, Pintrest ideas, etc., every day. Truthfully, usually way more than can ever be useful or applicable.  I remember the piles of resources I was handed and gathered and found the amount to be too much to take in.

If you have a professional reading, a planning guide, a supplemental workbook you think a colleague needs to see, consider first how you can support them in experimenting:

First, figure out a time and place that you can help them navigate it.  

Could you ask for part of a department meeting or staff training for everyone to read something and discuss how they might implement it? This can help early career educators hear from many others.  Lunch and learns, where teachers come during lunch to do a book club style reading and discussion, are one helpful example.

Next, think through how you will help them embed this resource in their immediate practice.  

Building from the earlier suggestions, could you have them come and observe while you implement something from a resource book, so they can see how and why it is a useful tool?  Could you help them see how this resource can be something they could try with their small groups? Can you anticipate a way it could become a part of their planning and reflection?

Less Is Often More

Here’s the thing—helping our early career colleagues is often more about us making good decisions then about their ability to implement ideas. A good rule of thumb is: if you can’t decide how you can carve out the time to read and reflect together and/or you model how it is immediately applicable to their practice, then (and trust me, I know how hard this is) you should consider holding off giving it to them. Yes, even if you love it.  Even if you think it is really useful.  Even if someone gave it to you once and you really appreciated it.  

We can help first year teachers prioritize and focus in on a few things at a time to help them grow, not further add to their piles of stress and confusion.

Now, of course, this isn’t just true for first year teachers! It’s true for all of us! Did you know George R. R. Martin types on a computer without internet or other programs, so that he can solidly focus on one thing at a time?

Well focused cycles of feedback and limited, well-supported resources, can help early career—and veteran—educators focus energy on study and growth.