The Trust Fall
As a 6–12 curriculum and instruction administrator, one of my most important responsibilities is to select the best possible teachers for the students in our community. Hiring great teachers, especially ones fresh out of their teaching programs, is no easy task. More and more throughout the years I have realized the importance of both parties finding each other to be the “right fit.” A large part of what I’m looking for in my screening interviews and model lessons is whether or not I see these new teachers as future teammates of my current teachers. After our quick introductions about why they
want to teach with us, and after I’ve asked a few teaching-based questions, I dive into questions that I hope will show me who I’m really talking to. I ask questions like, “What do you do when you feel overwhelmed? How do you relieve stress? What do you do for fun? What are you the most passionate about in life? How do you need to be supported?”
After the initial screening interview, the next step is a model lesson round. To make it to this round, I am looking for a few key characteristics. If a candidate conveys sincerity, humility, and reflection, I typically see her as someone I can work with. If a candidate offers stock answers, or says she never really gets stressed out, I quickly realize that she might be a wonderful teacher one day…she just won’t be a teacher with us. Because the reality is everyone gets stressed out from time to time; that’s life when you are pushing your limits. Part of what our new teachers need to learn — especially in our current educational climate — is that one of their biggest jobs starting out is to embrace the fact that they will feel stressed, they will feel overwhelmed, they will feel utterly defeated at times. They need to see — right from the start — that they are about to enter into the most rewarding and exhausting profession, and in order to excel in this field, they will often push themselves to their limits. The key for people like me (you know, the ones who get the awesome responsibility of offering our new, energized and excited teachers their “first shot”) is to do everything we can to keep these teachers from falling over the edge.
If my first responsibility to a new teacher is to make sure I have set her up in the right school and system, that she truly has found a good “match” in us, then my second responsibility is to do everything I can to earn her trust. It is imperative that new teachers feel absolute trust from their administrators — especially from the person who hired them. Beginning a new career can often be a frightening experience. New teachers are trying to learn their school system, the hidden norms of their building, colleagues’ names, how to find the printer, and of course what to teach. They are often worried sick that they will look foolish in front of their students, peers, and administrators. They are nervous about their abilities to put philosophy into action. They are judging themselves, and they often worry about the judgment they will receive from their evaluator. But that’s not all they worry about.
Our new teachers today are also worried that no one will push them to grow. They worry they won’t get the much sought after feedback they crave, and they are worried they will be abandoned to all their own devices. They aren’t worried that they will be told what to do — they are worried that no one will tell them what to do. New teachers worry that they don’t know the most effective practices to reach their students, and they worry that no one will ever step in to help them figure it out. They worry they are secret frauds. They worry that they are secret rock stars — hidden behind stacks of assessments to grade.
Worry and anxiety are heavy burdens to carry. They weigh on our new teachers, and they push them closer to that proverbial edge. It is my responsibility to my new teachers to earn their trust — and quickly — so that they can drop some of these weights and put more energy into creating engaging lessons for their students. So, how do I do this?
I am your Coach
New teachers need to view their administrators as their coach, not their boss. Here’s the reality: they know I’m their boss. This automatically creates distance and the slightest of slight tension between us. Not all tension is bad, in fact certain amounts of tension and stress are thought to increase our abilities to perform at high levels. The fact remains, however, that it’s my job to help this new teacher grow, and she will only do this if she views me as a trusted, invested coach who wants her to succeed. Coaches support. Coaches push their players to work hard, reach new limits, and attain new goals. Shouldn’t I do the same for my new teachers?
When I describe my administrative role to new teachers, the first responsibility that I describe is that I am a coach. It is my priority to listen, to get to know them, to earn their trust. And I need my teachers to know me, as well. Administrators need to be human and humble. We need to talk about our own interests, families, triumphs and failures. We need to openly share our growth areas and describe our own journeys through education. This is my twelfth year in education, but my new teachers need to see and hear me as the first-year-teacher version of me, too. We have all been there. We all had to start somewhere. We have all struggled.
I am your Cheerleader
My new teachers are going to make mistakes. They will not be perfect, and they know this. What they don’t know is how amazing they are. They don’t see their energy and spirit. They don’t see how their students light up when they enter the room. They don’t realize how hard they are working. Part of effectively coaching my teachers means that I need to build up their confidence. I’m not suggesting that I fill their heads with alternate realities about their instruction or management, but I do need to encourage them. We need our teachers to be willing to take risks. These highly effective strategies that they are craving to learn…well, to a new teacher, this is a risk. We need the teaching environment in a school culture to be safe and secure. I need my new teachers to trust that I know they will mess up (psst…I knew that when I hired them). I am here to try to help them avoid these pitfalls as much as possible, but when they fall — they have to know I’ll catch them. My new teachers need to know that I will practice with them, I will go to bat for them, and I will advocate on their behalf.
I am your Mirror
If they know they can trust their administrator, and they know their administrator wants them to succeed, then new teachers will trust the honest feedback they receive in walk-throughs and classroom visits. Per my school district expectations, I formally observe my new teachers six times a year. I know many school districts where that number is higher, and I also know districts where that numbers if drastically lower. I maintain that honest, relevant, timely feedback is an essential component of the trust relationship with a new teacher, therefore administrators need to get into the classroom. Even if your district only requires you to have one formal observation a year, (which is hard for me to fathom) I argue that new teachers need, and more importantly — want! — consistent feedback all year long. I have hired several second and third year teachers, and one of the shared concerns they have all expressed was the lack of consistent observational feedback they received from their former administrators. Newer teachers want the assurance that they aren’t completely messing up. They want to know what to fix — and how to do it. They also like to get a pat on the back sometimes. This isn’t to say that all feedback is positive. One of the crucial components of effective feedback is knowing how to honestly deliver the tips and suggestions you have to offer. There are times when you need to be blatantly clear and say, “This needs to change” and there are times when you can take a softer approach. It’s tough to be new. Want to know what’s tougher? Feeling like your addition to your school was inconsequential. When we don’t observe our new teachers…when we don’t offer feedback for growth…our new teachers feel invisible. They feel as though they aren’t worth our time. They wonder: does anyone see me? Does anyone know how hard I’m working? Does anyone see how near the edge I am? Will anyone catch me if I do fall?
I am your Safety Net
At the start of this school year, our high school of 2600 students (with roughly 125 teachers) hired 13 new teachers. Not all of these teachers were in their first year, but all were new to our district. Part of our acclimation to our district is to host new teacher orientations at all of our schools. At the high school, we had the idea to bring in two new teachers from the previous year. They would do a bit of Q and A and offer insights and suggestions to our newest teachers.
It was mid-day as we settled down to eat lunch, and our two previously new teachers entered the room. One of these teachers is a 14 year veteran who teaches science. Another was a soon-to-be third year teacher who is in my department. Both shared engaging stories about the support and teamwork they felt with their PLCs and colleagues. Both shared how they felt supported and coached by their evaluators (in our district, these are our 6–12 curriculum administrators) but near the end of their sharing, Josie, my teacher, shared a story about a tough time she experienced in her first year with us.
I hadn’t asked our two teachers what they would share, and they really didn’t know what they’d be asked, so I was surprised when Josie began to open up. She described an event that took place within her first three weeks of school. A parent had called one of our assistant principals, then our principal, and then subsequently our superintendent, upset about a news article her student had read in class. To the parent, the content was controversial, and Josie — only three weeks into her teaching career in our school — was floored. In her previous school, parents couldn’t care less what their students read. She had also come from a community whose demographics varied widely from ours, so she was not prepared for the onslaught of negative reaction she received from this parent (and the student). As Josie re-told her story, I flashed back to the events in my mind, and I began to remember how I (her coach and evaluator) responded to the news.
Josie went on to explain that she would never forget how I reacted to the situation. She was frightened, anxious, and embarrassed. But a year later, with the most sincere smile on her face, she confidently told these 13 new teachers, “You will be supported here. I cannot tell you what it meant to me to have complete, 100%, unwavering support from Carrie and our principal, Mr. Daghe. When I learned about the controversy, the very same day, Carrie came to me and she calmly talked me through how she and I together would try to address the parent concerns.” She went on to say that she had never before felt so completely supported and safe. She knew in that moment that we had her back, she was on our team, and that she didn’t need to feel judged by me, her boss, her evaluator…her coach. Had she made a few mistakes — well, the answer is yes, and she admitted this to the group, too. But in the moment when she needed someone to catch her, we were there.
Now, I had no idea she was going to share this experience with a room full of new teachers. But I also had no idea how much of an impact my support in that moment meant to her. She went on to say that it was a huge turning point for her. She knew from that day forward that she was where she wanted to be, and she wanted to grow here.
You know, Josie said she’ll never forget the support she felt in that situation, and the truth is I’ll never forget Josie sharing this story with our new teachers that day. Josie’s experience taught me just how vitally important it is that I earn the sincere trust of my teachers. I thought I knew this before that day last fall, but after her story, it really sunk in. My teachers must know that I will catch them with grace, empathy, and love. There are literally thousands of Josies out there entering our profession every single day. There are also thousands questioning if they should enter, or if they should stay. They are at a precipice and they are wondering: But if I fall, who will catch me? Who will have my back?
It is time that all educational leaders answer with an unapologetic declaration to our new teachers: “We have your back.”
Originally published on Medium.com on November 5, 2018.