We may not be Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, but as educators, we are unsure of what is surrounding us. Whether a new teacher, or a teacher with years of experience, being in any of these positions for 2020 can be similar to walking around a forest without knowing the pathway out. Most have started the school year from scratch, trying to teach virtually or doing both virtual and in-person instruction. In any case, it’s like being a beginning teacher all over again.
Why should we work together to get out of this forest?
The Phases of First-Year Teachers’ Attitude Towards Teaching (2015) from Tina Boogren, through Marzano’s research, is very interesting to me. It shows beginning teachers working their way into survival mode within the first month or two of a school year. Then, dropping into a disillusionment stage quickly. Many, if not all educators, are following that same descent. What do most humans do in a survival mode? Fight or Flight might be a common response. Mostly, we fall back on our beliefs and personal experiences as we work harder and longer. Teachers tend to do the same: use instructional practices that we hope will be enough and spend more hours than ever preparing for our students. Do we know if we are on the right path? Do we know if our choices are effective or if we are truly making an impact on students?
One thing I believe deep down will help educators in finding the pathway out of this forest, along with making an impact on students’ learning, is supporting each other. What does that really mean though? I think we know collaborating with teammates and planning together are ways to support each other. To get out of a forest, whether with someone or alone, one of the first steps is to try to get your sense of direction. Focus on looking for the moss on trees, because that means you are on the North side. It helps to keep us from circling back to where we started. So, as teachers, is our focus on the students? Is our focus on supporting our colleagues? Or, are we frantically going in circles, feeling like we are making little to no progress, with no sense of direction?
How can we help each other find our sense of direction?
Whether trying to find a sense of direction in a virtual world, or even in-person, can be tricky. To start with, have a focus on student learning and helping colleagues in providing engaging and impactful lessons. Now those are not easy tasks when we have no idea what will happen next week or next month. But, we have to keep that focus on the North to make our way out of the forest! Here are the top suggestions I would give when mentoring beginning teachers that could help ALL of us to stay focused on supporting students and each other.
Tip #1: Listening to Students, Colleagues and Yourself
There is power in listening. Just like finding a sense of direction in the forest, listening to what’s going on around you is important. In conversations, it is second-nature for many to be thinking in the moment of what we would do in a situation and to reply immediately. Instead, we should be listening to understand. Start off with listening to students and their needs. This could look like listening to what they say and listening to how they say things. There is also the aspect of fulfilling students’ needs and really listening for what a student is struggling with. It also looks like us listening to their learning and understanding. This small action of listening can be helpful, especially after teaching students to be assessment-capable learners. John Hattie’s work around developing assessment-capable learners could be a great direction to help guide you on that right path of listening to students and their learning.
The same steps of listening can be done with colleagues as well. Beginning teachers especially need a mentor and colleagues that will listen to their needs. As a mentor, to know what kind of support to give a new teacher, we have to listen to mentees first. Whether the support is needed for more physical type work, such as how to use the new LMS (learning management system), or more supporting of emotional needs. The assumption cannot be made as to what a mentee’s needs may be – unless we listen. The same goes for any of our colleagues right now.
I invite you to take the challenge of listening to your own listening. In these virtual times, you can easily do that by watching one of your recordings with your class. You could also ask colleagues to record one of your virtual planning sessions. If you’re unable to take that opportunity of recording, just thinking and being mindful of how you listen would be powerful. Consider the times of interruptions, pausing and even when you are trying to be 2 steps ahead in the conversation.
Tip #2: Ask questions
What a valuable strategy this has been for myself! I obtained questioning skills through my role as an instructional coach with Diane Sweeney, author of Student-Centered Coaching. My work on this became more routine after reflecting on my desire to be a better listener and wanting to always be a learner.
Again, it starts with the students. What kind of questions are you asking them in relation to the student outcomes? Are you asking surface level questions or going more in depth? How are students, themselves, asking questions? Many times when it comes to planning instruction, we assume we know what students already know. Pre-assessing can help, but can be seen as cumbersome. I have found that less is more and that it comes down to questioning. If we really want true feedback, that can be useful, we have to make sure that the questions asked can give the information needed to make intentional and purposeful next steps. I hear time and again that research shows students are being taught the majority of information that they already know. In a webinar about the Power of Feedback by John Hattie, he mentioned that 80% of what is being taught to students, they already know. So, I highly suggest spending those few minutes figuring out what it is the majority of your students already know. Engagement may go up as well as achievement.
How does questioning relate to supporting colleagues? Having effective conversations with colleagues is important in not only collaborating around students, but also in providing the appropriate support. Again, rather than always replying to colleagues, we should seek to understand. It has been amazing to see the results of embedding more questions into my dialogue. It has allowed colleagues to either just share their thinking, or solve their own problems. And just like with students, they are then better able to solve their own problems. Whereas if we were to go right into replying, colleagues are less likely to feel heard, as well as learn.
Tip #3: Find the balance
Well, balance has been a tip many have given in the past year in spending time working, in conjunction with self-care. I am still working on that one, as I know many are! It honestly is like being lost in a forest, we have to sometimes stop to rest. This idea of finding balance has made me reflect on where balance needs to be in our work. What are our priorities as teachers, especially if we are new? There may be things we want to do in our classrooms or lessons, but we are unsure of where to begin. Focusing on learning and relationships are a must – with students and colleagues. Learning and relationships, in my opinion, go hand-in-hand.
In the end, we are still trying to find the pathway that leads us out of a forest, or the pathway that leads us to successful teaching. If you are a mentor, what should you encourage your mentee to prioritize on a daily to-do list? Any teacher may need to ask themselves that question. Other possible balancing acts would consist of considering what skill or strategy will make the most impact on students? But, more importantly, who can help me accomplish this work?
The next cluster of thinking for me is around mindset. I have been excited to think more about innovative learning and about the year 2020; it definitely has been a learning mindset curve for all of us. Stay tuned for my next blog around that topic!
- Boogren, T. (2015). Supporting Beginning Teachers. Bloomington, Indiana: Marzano Research.
- Frey, N., Fisher, D., & Hattie, J. (2018). Developing Assessment-Capable Visible Learners, Grades K-12: Maximizing Skill, Will, and Thrill: Corwin.
- Sweeney, D. and Harris, L. (2020). The Essential Guide for Student-Centered Coaching. Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin.