One of the most profound and rewarding parts of my job as a Principal is to coach & support new teachers. I adore seeing them transition from knowing the theoretical aspects of teaching to implementing the practical (people) part of the job. It’s really cool to watch a new educator apply and execute what they’ve learned.
Typically, new teachers begin full of enthusiasm and creative spirit, with high hopes of landing a great position in a school that they love. They’ve spent years training and working towards the moment when they sign their first permanent contract and then, reality starts to creep in. This typically happens in the first few months of being in the role. The enthusiasm dips and the creative spirit starts to dwindle. They begin to feel crushed by the daily demands of the profession and it’s not entirely their fault or within their control.
I have noticed some common characteristics that seem to be on repeat for these struggling individuals. New graduates tend to fall into one of these three buckets:
Bucket One - This is the top 20%. They are the shining stars - the top performers. These educators need very little support or guidance and are experts at figuring stuff out for themselves. They are highly motivated, adaptable and will succeed at all costs. This group is likely to seek out leadership opportunities at some point during their careers.
Bucket Two - This is the bottom 20%. These candidates may never be suitable for permanent teaching positions. They may be a good fit for daily substitute work, but that’s about it. They simply don’t have a natural affinity for connecting with students and may not want to put in the work necessary to improve their skill set. Sadly, the list of deficiencies for this group is long. They often have this mindset: “I’m here to teach & not manage behavior or babysit”.
Bucket Three - The middle 60%. These are the candidates who have adequate skill, good potential and are genuinely interested in working with students. They acknowledge that they have much to learn and are usually willing to seek out ways to improve their skills. This is the group that is most at risk of significant struggle - for the reasons I’m about to show you.
There are a million reasons why new teachers might feel overwhelmed - and not all of them are easy to spot. And, when you combine two or three of these reasons (in undesirable combinations of luck, timing and circumstance), it can be one hard road for a new teacher to overcome & I think it can be prevented.
Reason #1: The Teacher Training they’ve received is sub-par and they do not yet know it.
In most jurisdictions, gaining entry to a Faculty of Education Program can be highly competitive & very challenging. The admission requirements are numerous and teacher candidates don’t always get an offer from the school that they want. As a result, students can sometimes accept offers that are their second (or third) choice. They are highly aware that their Teacher Training Program is a means to an end, and that they cannot acquire a teaching license without this certification.
In my opinion, the effectiveness of teacher education programs can vary greatly.The reality is that some universities talk a good game but fail to deliver. Some schools offer much more comprehensive training compared to others.These schools tend to produce teacher candidates who have skills & attributes which far surpass those of their peers.The unfortunate part is that the student (who is writing the cheque from the sub-par school) does not yet realize that their chosen institution may not be at the top of the class. This realization becomes evident way too late in the game and only becomes apparent during their first few weeks of “real” teaching. The end result is a new teacher who finds themselves in a deficit right out of the gate. This is not the position we want to put our newest people in.
Reason #2: The onboarding & mentoring for school boards is not adequate.
The process of welcoming a new teacher can vary greatly depending on the jurisdiction where you’ve been hired. I have seen some amazing examples of meticulous onboarding. There are Districts that do this very well and others who struggle immensely. Unfortunately, I have seen mentoring programs that feel like an afterthought and thus, become low priority and don’t offer enough support. There are many challenges: a) Access to a “qualified” mentor does not exist. In some cases, the teacher mentor is a volunteer and is not chosen. Therefore, the mentor’s skill set may not be refined enough to be in a position to offer expert advice. b) The touch points for mentoring programs are too sporadic, inconsistent and don’t occur in the proper format. c) The “workshop style” approach of mentoring is not effective. Yes, there is some relevance to presenting information to large groups, but the bigger ROI happens when the mentor is elbow to elbow with their mentee. This provides the most retention and new skill acquisition.
Reason #3: Principals are stretched too thin to give proper support.
Let's face it, the role of the Principal is extremely complex.
With so many things on our plates and so many moving parts during the school day, the well-intended time set aside to support new teachers is often hijacked by unexpected challenges or more urgent matters. It can be one of the first things to get rescheduled.
Let me also make mention of those schools with solo administrators. Again, depending on where you work, it is possible that you’re the only Administrator in your building. Carving dedicated time to coach a new teacher is next to impossible. The opposite also holds true if you have been assigned to a large school with a big team. Other challenges arise because of sheer volume and this can sometimes derail this important task.
Reason #4: Their people skills and communication skills may be lagging.
New Educators often struggle with some of the “people skills” aspects of being a teacher. The refined soft skills are just not there yet.
Specifically, I'm referring to their ability to: a) read the room, b) manage conflict, c) participate in a difficult conversation and d) initiate a difficult conversation. Many have little to no experience in dealing with objections, hearing tough feedback and handling parent criticism. Their communication skills are lagging behind and they lack awareness on what’s appropriate and what is not. Just because an educator is a good presenter or speaker, it does not mean they are a good communicator. More importantly, it does not mean that they are adept in creating great relationships or building meaningful connections with others.
The inability to establish and maintain boundaries is also a pattern that I have seen often. Young educators want to please and as a result, they run themselves into the ground with trying to be everything for everyone.
Reason #5: They are not taught to think strategically - yet. They can move too quickly.
This one can throw people for a loop. I think this skill is wildly under-rated. Not everybody sees the value in becoming a strong critical thinker or a strong strategic thinker. New Educators get stuck in the”react quickly” cycle. They do not see the value in planning more deeply, nor do they understand the importance of slowing down to think about how to handle a certain situation. Learning to use time and space effectively is a skill that often needs explicit practice.
The second element connected here is that decision-making is weak. This area is weak because the strategic thinking muscle is weak. Some new teachers spend way too much time consulting and crowd sourcing their options ( usually through a What’s App Chat Group ), that their ability to think for themselves and work their way through a reasonable plan of action are hindered. The ability to anticipate possible challenges and outcomes is not something that is intuitive for young educators. This is one of those abstract skills that you just have to dig into and fumble around to see growth. And yes, it’s a hard one to teach.
Reason #6: New teachers cannot yet navigate the daily struggle. The ability to grind it out doesn’t exist.
Being a permanent teacher is really hard - especially in the beginning. We do a poor job of illustrating this struggle with accuracy & transparency.There is a massive difference between being a student teacher versus being THE teacher. When you are THE teacher, there is nowhere to hide. There is nobody to insulate you & protect you from the exhaustion that some days bring. There is no option of taking it easy the next day because you have the safety net of your mentor to back you up. Now, you are your students’ go-to person. You are the person running point. And, this requires a mindset shift from when you were the substitute (or student) teacher who could just walk out at the end of the day. You are now required to show up everyday and execute - and follow up. This takes a certain amount of stamina and the ability to set a pace that you can manage. The amount of time and emotional energy sometimes required in student follow up is something that we don’t discuss enough.
Reason #7: They never considered the political angle, or its influence & impact.
Sometimes as a student teacher, you are insulated from the politics of our profession. Teacher Unions are very powerful and understanding the political landscape of teaching comes with experience. It does take a bit of getting used to and you need to build some thick skin. Depending on where you live and work, the general public can sometimes have a negative opinion of the teaching profession. And sometimes, this is for good reason.
For young teachers, this creates an unexpected level of stress and another area that no one coaches them on. I already mentioned the need for thick skin to cope with the media’s antics. You also need to be able to navigate the internal politics at the local school & board levels. New teachers need to think critically about who to align themselves with - depending on beliefs. It has been my observation that the majority of teachers remain silent because they hate conflict. In the end, their silence ends up biting them because the pressure mounts. The pressure builds and the overall messaging becomes controlled by the small majority who are the most outspoken.
In public education, the contract negotiation process is widely publicized and can be very messy. You need to develop a method for understanding this cycle and being able to decide what’s accurate and relevant and what is not. The rest is just noise.
Reason #8: The pathways & topics for professional learning are antiquated. These selections can be motivated by the wrong thing.
More autonomy and individual choice is needed when teachers are choosing professional development. Gone are the days of “sit down + whole group + talkin’ at you” for the full day of professional learning. This style of staff development flies directly in the face of how we aspire to instruct our students, so why do we tolerate it as a gateway to our own learning? We want teachers that are excited to learn something new. We want high engagement, personalized material and choice. Depending on where you work, the content for professional learning is mandated by the Board or is driven by another larger initiative - which is often political in nature. Many young Educators choose specific professional learning courses as a means to receive a bump up in their salary grid. And, unfortunately many of the course options that are eligible for grid increases are courses that many have zero interest in. Again,this is not what we want. I think how we create, deliver and access professional learning needs a major overhaul. To me, there needs to be another way to track credits for courses taken. And we need to offer credits and courses that people are actually interested in - not a list of course options that are bare bones and boring. We need some standardized method of encouraging PD - based on interest - rather than on getting to the top of the pay scale. Personalized staff development is a key to keeping new teachers interested & engaged.
Reason #9: They do not yet have the emotional rigor, resilience and regulation to become a top performer.
Bold statement here… I think emotional resilience, emotional rigor and emotional regulation should be at the top of the list of required teacher competencies. And, we talk little about this component. We don’t place enough emphasis within this domain. It should be the core baseline for all candidates who are considering entering the profession - even more critical for anyone who is considering Leadership in education. (That’s a topic for another time… )
The demands of the classroom are wide, deep, complex and heartbreaking all at the same time. I see some young teachers who are poorly equipped themselves in the area of emotional regulation. So, how can we expect those adults who are struggling themselves to be supporting young people in difficulty? If the emotional bucket of the teacher candidate is often low or empty, this teacher is going to struggle immensely with the emotional demands of the students who need them most. So yes, there is a lot of work to be done here & support to be offered.
Wrap Up: What does the future hold for new teachers? Where do we go from here and what should we do about it?
Education is headed towards a major overhaul and parts of “the system” need major disruption.
During the past 30 months we’ve learned that different models of learning can work for different categories of learners.The current staffing challenges and departure rates are evidence that things need a shake up. The status quo - of only one outdated model - is no longer relevant or suitable for all.
So, in one word, what’s the fix? It’s coaching. That's it. It all comes down to this - the right type of coaching.
I remain hopeful that the current manner in which the government is funding new public educators needs to shift. More specifically, today’s model for New Teacher Induction Programs is simply not effective. Districts place high emphasis on subject matter coaches or coaches for province-wide initiatives. For me, we need to narrow in on coaching people - not subjects.We do not need additional funding towards literacy, numeracy or equity coaches. We need “people coaches”. It’s that simple. These should be fully funded, stand alone positions that are carefully crafted. The coach’s only job is to build skill, increase competency, mentor and give feedback.
The Who & The When & The Where
The selection process of how we choose our coaches could also use some scrutiny. We don't always have the best candidates who raise their hand to be a formal coach. Why do you ask? In many cases, this position is an afterthought. This position is often voluntary and is “in addition to” the coach’s regular teaching duties. It means a tremendous workload. I can’t for the life of me wrap my head around how these positions are not stand alone jobs?