I remember my first year of teaching as too many gallons of coffee and energy drinks, not enough hours of sleep, and a blend of euphoria and frustration. The sprint to winter break especially is one of the toughest times of the year for new teachers, because the honeymoon is over. Students have tested teachers’ boundaries, and in some cases, broken them. The new teacher’s organizational skills are strained, as evidenced by stacks (virtual and real) of ungraded assignments. The New Teacher Center labels this period as a new teacher’s “disillusionment phase.”
The first-year experience can be compounded by joining a school that implements a model that incorporates a personalized learning and/or blended learning model. Right now, it is extremely unlikely that a first-year teacher did their student teaching or training in such a model or attended a school that looked like this as a student. And while a lot of teacher training is transferable (e.g. classroom management, organizational skills), the new teacher must shift gears in terms of what their classroom looks like, what their role is, and how to plan instructionally.
As someone tasked with supporting those who implement personalized learning, I have been reflecting on how to support first-year teachers who are both new to the classroom and new to a next generation model of teaching. These points are not groundbreaking, but they are best practices that coaches and instructional leaders have implemented for years. However, the focus on the shininess of online platforms and executing new models perfectly often leads us as instructional leaders to place a lesser priority on these strategies. Here’s what I’ve discovered works well.
1. Distill the model to the foundational components.
The first year of teaching is already an overwhelming year. So, articulate the handful of base competencies that teachers will need to make the model work, and then focus on developing these skills in new teachers. These components–such as giving clear instructions and establishing tight transitions, for example–often center around classroom management and procedures that keep students on task and guide them as they move from activity to activity.
Underlying all of this should be an explicit explanation of the why behind the model. Explain the journey that led to the model and include what pain points the model is aiming to solve. And don’t be afraid to share what hard lessons have been learned. This rationale builds trust to at least try the model out.
Elena Sanina, Senior Manager of Blended Learning at Aspire Public Schools, puts it this way:
“While I’d love to do deep dives into the online programs and closely examine every bit of data these programs produce, I recognize that new teachers have, quite frankly, more pressing priorities to focus on. If we believe in a personalized approach for students, we should model this for teachers as well and let them develop blended practices in their own time. Of course I want to do it all, but I want to make sure new teachers leave training with an understanding of why we do the work, what it should look and feel like, where to find resources on developing their practice, and a sense that they should take their time in getting ready.”
2. Provide north stars.
The sheer amount of data that administrators and teachers can access from blended and personalized learning programs is overwhelming–even for the most seasoned veterans.
To help new teachers, provide clear structures and goals around each part of the personalized learning model. For example, here’s a concrete example: students should aim to complete 2 modules on this online program and spend 30 minutes a day three times a week. Accompany this with a way to hold students accountable for these goals. For example, show teachers how to pull a report from an online program and use this information to make hitting these goals a gradable assignment and to publicly celebrate students who hit their goals multiple times. As teachers mature and develop strong management and procedures, give them the space to riff on these expectations.
3. Give opportunities to see excellence.
In sharing the vision, show the roadmap of the journey you want teachers to take. Where is this development taking them? Focus on the key levers for them and show how those build up to more good to have skills.
A great way to do this is to show new teachers examples of what you see as excellence by visiting bright-spot classrooms both in their school and in other schools. For example, I have a teacher who could spend hours diving into online programs and finding another tool to use. I do not want to discourage that but also want to show that the key lever to focus on at the moment is stronger transitions. Having this teacher see a classroom where transitions are strong which allows online programs to be leveraged at a higher level is much more effective than a coach just saying what the next steps are.
Virtual visits are also possible with videos and resources. Relay/GSE released three free modules that show concrete of systems and procedures that teachers are using in blended learning classrooms. Khan Academy in partnership with the Silicon Schools Fund and the Clayton Christensen Institute also released a series of videos around blended learning that include profiles of schools that highlight their teachers’ practices.
4. Scaffold as much as possible.
Just like we do not expect teachers to be master classroom managers and planners from Day 1, your teachers will not be masters at implementing a blended or personalized learning model at their first at bat.
Think about when teachers need to know certain skills. For example, establishing a strong classroom culture so that students are working with minimal supervision is needed earlier on than diving into the reports of online programs. “With new teachers you have to pick and choose what’s important,” Sanina said. “Just like we believe in differentiation for our students, we should differentiate support for our teachers. If not, we are talking a big game and not walking the walk.”
As teachers develop, skills should get deeper and not stagnate. While online programs can provide leveled practice and aid in classroom management to an extent by providing a task, teachers need to develop to be able to use the data from these programs or it becomes a glorified and expensive babysitter.
These winter months of disillusionment can be a tough time for new teachers. But, winter break is the time to revitalize, catch up, tweak plans, and sleep. The next phase is rejuvenation. Use these guidelines to help teachers reach that rejuvenation faster.
And keep the conversation going. Comment below! If you are someone who supports first year teachers, what pain points are you grappling with? If you’re a first year teacher, what is some support you have found to be helpful and what areas would you like more support in?