Mahwish McIntosh, Berkeley County Schools
I started my teaching career in January 2001. Since I started my position as a high school ELA teacher mid-year, I already faced challenges: first, the students I inherited expected me to be like their former teacher. Clearly I was not, and this did not sit well with some students, which led to behavioral problems that I was not fully equipped to handle as a first-yearteacher working hard to hammer down classroom management. Next, since I did not have the opportunity to start the school year with the students, I often times felt like the odd-person out. Couple all this with being new to the profession – I felt alone and isolated for that first semester. Other incidents during that one semester made me question my purpose and myself: Am I supposed to be here? Am I meant to be a teacher? Do I have what it takes to be an effective teacher?
Some teachers were wonderful and assisted me however they could, but they were also very busy with their own students and schedules. When I transferred to another high school in August 2001, I was blessed to have a knowledgeable and patient mentor and a close-knit ELA department. Fourteen years later, I am friends with so many of them. When I needed immediate answers, my mentor and department colleagues provided them. When I needed to grow, my mentor guided me into discovering my own solutions. She served as my customized set of “training wheels” for the teaching profession.
Years later when I completed mentor training, I mentored two ELA teachers in my department. Being a mentor allowed me to not only pay it forward, but to learn from these intelligent colleagues. They shared with me new instructional strategies and the latest research, while I helped them to discover their true potential as educators. Today, as a teacher evaluator, I also work with educators new to the profession and provide additional support as they learn in grow within their first year of teaching.
For the first year teacher, remember to:
1. Steer clear of toxicity: negative comments, pessimistic individuals, and toxic environments all directly impact you. Sometimes, it is too easy to fall into the teachers’ lounge “gripe sessions”. Rather, consider ways to foster meaningful conversations that help lead you and your colleagues to solutions or strategies towards solutions. Inspirational quotes and posting the school’s mission/vision could serve as strong reminders of the center point of the educator: to positively impact students’ learning and lives. On days when I felt defeated (and trust me, those days will happen regardless of what stage you are in your teaching career), I would go to my filing cabinet and open up my “Why You’re Here!” folder to read a note, a card, or a quote from a student or colleague to remind myself that I have the capacity to succeed. This was my personal treasure box and over the years, I collected news clippings, notes, and words of wisdom from my students and colleagues. It always helped me get through the toughest and darkest days.
2. Seek out unofficial mentors: experience comes in all ages and stages. Unofficial mentors do not necessarily have to be that 20+ year teacher. Colleagues bring a variety of strengths and perspectives to a school – determine what those strengths are among your colleagues and gravitate to those who you can learn the most from to become the best at what you do.
3. Recognize that you are learning and growing: you may at times put a lot of pressure on yourself – remember, if you are new to the profession, cut yourself a bit of slack! You are
learning and growing and have opportunities to “get it right”. Be a reflective practitioner each day to help you learn and grow to your fullest potential. For example, journaling about my lessons was a great way for me to monitor and adjust instruction to meet the needs of my students, and it also helped me to realize where I needed to improve my own aspects of teaching to effectively meet their needs.
4. Advocate for your needs and support: don’t be afraid to ask for help! If you need resources on how to interpret and analyze data, ask your instructional leaders/administrators. If you are having recurring behavioral issues with certain students, talk to other teachers who work with these students to determine the best action plan for addressing the specific concerns.
To experienced educators:
Remember your own first year in the classroom – the anxiety you experienced and the pressures you put upon yourself as a rookie teacher. Empathize with our new educators to determine the best ways you can support them. Sometimes, they need an ear to simply listen. Other times, they need your hand to help guide them. As we monitor and adjust to meet our students’ needs, the same applies to our first year educators. Don’t forget about the stages the first year teacher experiences. Understanding these stages to determine how you can best respond and support the first year teacher is valuable to you and to the first year teacher.
Demonstrate life-long learning – our first year teacher have so much to teach their colleagues. Share knowledge by giving the first year teacher a “seat at the table”. Their innovation and approaches can breathe new life even into our tried and true best practices. These opportunities can help build confidence, leadership, and a voice for the first year teacher.
Be positive and offer solutions – if the first year teacher needs to vent, then allow her to do so. However, it should not dominate the discussion. Find ways to nudge the discussion into a problem-solving conversation. First year teachers should walk away from these conversations feeling equipped to tackle the challenge. Whatever the solution or strategies may be for the issue at hand, purposeful and targeted conversations will foster meaningful solutions for the new teacher. Consider cognitive coaching techniques when communicating with the first year teacher.
Mentoring is a crucial component to retain effective teachers. Research through the New Teacher Center reveals that implementing high-quality mentoring programs promotes teacher retention. Experienced educators must recognize the importance of taking our first year teachers “under our wing” to not only show them the ropes of the profession, but to remind them through purposeful conversations that they may hold within themselves the solutions to their own professional challenges.