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Coaching New Teachers: The Importance of Modeling

A couple weeks ago I offered some tips for coaching new teachers. In addition to those suggestions, I want to make one more that is super high leverage and I can almost guarantee that it'll shift a teacher's practice. Here it is: Get in there and do some model teaching.

It's very likely that new teachers have never seen exemplary teaching. If they were lucky, (and selected a traditional teacher preparation path) then perhaps they saw some strong teaching from their master teacher. In the context I work in, most of our new teachers haven't been in a K-12 classroom since they were grade school students. Even if they had incredible professional development in the summer or since starting teaching, they need to see the skills and moves of a master teacher, and they need to see those delivered in their own classrooms, with their own students.

As I write this, I can imagine that many of you are nodding your heads in agreement. Maybe you've been wondering if you should do this and you've had some questions. Here's what I often hear from coaches when I suggest/nudge/tell them to do some model teaching, which is followed by my response:

1)"Won't I take away the teacher's authority by teaching a lesson? Shouldn't I wait till later in the year when she's established herself as the authority?"

No and No. By doing one model lesson (or a few) you won't subvert a teacher's authority. If it's so extremely fragile that you suspect this then that needs to be addressed. While you might model a classroom management strategy or a routine such as entering the classroom, you are not becoming the authority in the classroom. Furthermore, when you are in the classroom observing your teacher, you probably shouldn't be redirecting students or helping manage the class. If you do that, you could disrupt the teacher from developing her skills at managing her kids.

Even if you are concerned there's a risk of messing with the teacher's authority, do a model lesson anyway. The benefits to the teacher are so potentially great that it's worth taking the risk.

2) "What should I model? Should I do my best lesson ever?"

Model a specific instructional practice that the teacher has identified wanting to work on or that you know is high leverage. Of course, you'll be modeling other practices as well because teaching is complex, but it's important to name one practice you'll be doing well. For example, you could model checking for understanding every 5-7 minutes, or introducing the day's learning target, or circulating through the classroom, or a structure for collaborative group work. Make a decision with the teacher about what you'll model.

And don't do your best lesson ever--in fact, tone yourself down. It doesn't really help a new teacher see a phenomenal lesson from which they leave saying, "Wow, well, I guess after 15 years of teaching I might be able to do that..." This isn't the time to impress your new teacher with your mastery of the profession in this way. You also don't want to hear a teacher say, "Well, that's your personality. I'm not like you." If they say something along these lines, that means your charisma might have been cranked up too high. While you might be a charismatic teacher, you need to highlight the replicable skills to which your new teacher can add her own personality. When modeling a lesson, you want the new teacher to say something like, "Oh, that was so helpful to see you do that! I can do that too!"

3) "What do we tell students?"

This is a great opportunity for the new teacher to show up as a learner. Of course, what she says needs to be age-appropriate, but it can sound like, "My coach is here today to teach a lesson on...She's been a teacher for many years and I'm excited to see how she teaches you this material. I'm hoping to learn from her and become an even better teacher."

4) "I'm nervous I won't do a good enough lesson or that she'll see that I'm not a great teacher."

I always appreciate this comment because I know it reflects a coach's commitment to her coachee and to her practice. Being nervous is ok as long as it doesn't stop us from doing something. So we learn to manage our emotions, to put aside our performance anxiety, and then we do the necessary and lengthy planning that will allow us to successfully teach this model lesson.

Sometimes lessons bomb. And if the lesson you're modeling does so, then it can still be a powerful learning opportunity for the new teacher--as long as kids aren't blamed for what happens. If the lesson doesn't go well, then engage the teacher in a thoughtful conversation analyzing what happened--maybe you over estimated the skill level of the students; maybe you forgot that if kids don't trust their teacher, they can be challenging to work with--and as a stranger, that might be the case. (Last year I taught in the classroom of a new teacher and that's exactly what happened. I wrote about that experience here.)

Be open to whatever happens and just make sure that your own nervousness doesn't get in the way of what can be a powerful learning opportunity for your coachee.

5) "What if the teacher doesn't pay attention and starts filing papers/checking email/organizing stacks of homework/etc.?"

If you make an agreement with a new teacher to teach in his classroom, then make sure you make agreements about what he'll do during the model lesson. After you decide what the focus of the modeling will be (which management or instructional practices you'll model) then decide what he will do during the lesson. Perhaps he documents the questions you ask of students, or how you move through the classroom, or perhaps he scripts what you say. The new teacher must have a way of documenting what he observes and if you have any concerns that he might file papers/check email/etc. then make sure to address those before doing the lesson.

6) "I've done model teaching before and afterwards the teacher says thank you but that's about all that happens. I never see her do what I modeled."

Model teaching is extremely useful to help a teacher see an instructional practice delivered well, but there's more than a coach needs to do in order for a teacher to internalize what she's observed and be able to implement it. Think about using a gradual release framework: you've just done the "I do" part of a lesson, you've modeled. Now you need to help the teacher break down the skills and knowledge you employed, help her determine which ones she needs to refine, and then gradually help her practice those elements. She can't just see you do something and turn around and do it alone the next day. You need to help her bridge that knowledge and skill gap.

And by the way, in case there are any administrators reading this, principals, assistant principals and deans can also do model teaching for new teachers!

What other questions do you have about model teaching? What benefits do you see to modeling for your new teachers?

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