Being in charge of young people is hard. Teachers are all so desperate for that proverbial village but it’s so hard to ask for help.
For all teachers, but for new teachers in particular, the pressure to preside over your island-like classroom with unflappable cool is significant. In reality though, the emotional rollercoaster of learning to bring children into their best selves thirty at time is overwhelming and exhausting.
It’s also impossible to prepare for. Student teaching for one semester in partnership with a mentor teacher whose classroom is already managed when the student teacher arrives is not enough. For new teachers in America the model is trial by fire and the burnout rate is evidence enough that big change is needed; over half of all teachers leave the profession before the end of their fifth year in the classroom.
Not only are teachers are leaving the classroom, often despite their love for students and their subject area, the teaching profession is having an increasingly hard time finding new recruits. There is a shortage of substitute teachers across the country. The number of teachers entering teacher prep programs is steadily declining.
Class sizes are swelling. Panorama is grading teachers with student surveys that ask kids, If you walked into a class upset, how concerned would your teacher be? Test scores are being linked to teacher pay. The pressure on teachers is more crushing than ever. But as any teacher with challenging students can tell you, it’s more support, not more pressure, that gets the best results.
For Jennifer Johnson of the Bellevue School District where I work as a middle school Humanities teacher, that means leading a team of Instructional Mentors to support the District’s new teachers. It’s a two-year model serving teachers in their first years in the classroom. New teachers to the District are also welcome to opt in, regardless of their time in the field. All of the Instructional Mentors are former full-time classroom teachers, including Jennifer.
When I asked Jennifer what’s involved in mentoring new teachers, she listed the expected responsibilities: her mentors provide feedback on lessons, help with creating portfolios for evaluations, and share strategies for classroom management. The day-to-day logistical grind of being a new teacher is truly daunting. However, when Jennifer described the reasons she loves this work, I truly began to understand it’s the space between lessons–the drive home after ten hour days in the classroom, the last minute assessment planning at 5am–where the impact of having an ally who has been there themselves is really evident. “Basically, we’re teaching teachers how to be resilient in a safe space,” Jennifer explained. And yes, she acknowledged, sometimes there are tears. Sometimes contracts don’t get renewed at the end of a very hard first year. Sometimes her mentors are sharing more about sleep and carving out time for family dinners than Shakespeare or geometry curriculum.
Jennifer calls this “valuing the adult learner” and it’s not the extra credit component to the Instructional Mentorship program, it is the program as much as the classroom observations and feedback. In the Bellevue School District, social emotional learning is one-third of our mission included as Positive and Productive Life, equally weighted along with Academic Success and College and Career Readiness. And although this mission is intended to focus our hopes for our students, this peer coaching program is a reminder that if we are practicing what we teach, then we must seriously value the social emotional lives of teachers too.
Teacher evaluation systems are slowly starting to understand this as well. The TPEP evaluation system that Bellevue is currently piloting scores teachers on collaboration right up there with providing intentional focus on content.
If teachers are going to make it and survive all the trials even veteran teachers still experience each year, it will be because we are going to do it together. Progress in education is not going to come from incentivizing teachers to teach to tests. It’s not going to come from State or District outlined initiatives. The constant call for education reform misses the mark. The system is being reformed all the time with so many well-intentioned and seductively-worded races to the top and calls for not leaving anyone behind. It’s revolution we need now if we are going to save teachers and in turn save the students. And like any good revolution, it must start from the ground up with the ones doing the hard work coming together to help each other survive, rise up, and be better than we ever imagined—for teachers, for students, and for the future.
Good job on another school year, teachers. We did it again.
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