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Tips for Coaching New Teachers

I've received a number of emails asking for advice when coaching new teachers--especially during these often challenging fall months. Let's start with considering what new teachers need: They need emotional support, they need some quick wins in the classroom, and they need feedback. The following coaching actions can address these needs.

Listen, Listen, Listen
Listen to whatever they have to say. Try to refrain from interrupting with questions of any kind, only give little dollops of advice, and don't share your "war stories" from your first year teaching. Although many new teachers are young, see where they can get to when talking through their own problems. Sometimes, just having someone listen to you can be incredibly cathartic--especially if in talking through whatever is going on you can figure out how to deal with some of what's coming up. That can be very empowering.

Know When to Interrupt
While listening is an essential part of coaching, we also want to be mindful of not listening to teachers talk themselves into a rut story and get stuck in their dilemmas. Skillful interruption can be well received because it can help someone move out of distress and into problem solving. It's okay to ask for permission to interrupt. Imagine saying this in a soft and caring tone: "Hey, you've been processing that incident with your 4th period for about 15 minutes and I hear how hard it was and how much it upset you. Would you like to talk about some things you might try tomorrow in that class?" But of course, determining the right moment to interrupt takes sharp judgment. And if the teacher quickly lapses back into emotional processing, then you may have interrupted too soon. While we do want to be cautious about listening to venting for weeks and weeks, it's a tough call when working with new teachers. They need the time to process the overloading amount of experiences that are coming up.

Determine Small Goals
Because a new teacher is so overwhelmed with everything, it's essential for a coach to narrow what that teacher focuses on in the first months. I've seen most new teachers fall into two groups, either, "Everything is going great!" or, "Everything is horrible!" A good chunk fall in between, but more often than not, I've found new teachers polarized between extremes. Regardless of where they find themselves, setting small, high leverage, measureable goals that can be reached within a few weeks is important.

Here's an example: when coaching a teacher who is really struggling with management, a high leverage, measurable goal could be to increase positive narration with students by 50% over three weeks. In order to do that, a coach can gather some baseline data and then suggest this as a focus area. A coach can also track positive, negative, and neutral interactions in the classroom. A new teacher could aim to maintain a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. Here's a tool that can help you do this. Those of us with teaching experience know how essential it is for a teacher to engage positively with her students--we know this is a meaningful goal that will pay off. In this case, working with a new teacher, a coach needs to suggest a goal--and not ask the teacher to propose one. The new teacher just doesn't yet have the knowledge to identify the highest leverage strategy that will make a big difference.

Small goals can yield quick wins. A new teacher needs to build her confidence around establishing a positive classroom environment, developing good relationships with students, communicating high expectations, and positively impacting student learning. Focus goals (and therefore coaching) around those areas and you'll be on a good path with your new teacher.

Give Feedback
New teachers need feedback on their emerging teaching practice, but a particular and thoughtful kind of feedback. Perhaps most important is to give feedback that is 1) grounded in observational data and 2) restricted to one or two key points that the teacher can actually do something about. Make sure that the feedback falls within their Zone of Proximal Development. That's a hard thing to assess initially, but more often than not, I've heard coaches give new teachers feedback that's just too far outside of their ZPD--the teacher can't implement the feedback and both end up feeling frustrated. For more on feedback, see Chapter 12 of my book.

Give Fashion Advice
Here's another kind of feedback I want to encourage you to give new teachers: feedback on how they are showing up as professionals. Where I work, many of our new teachers are 22 years old. Sometimes I notice that they appear dressed as they must have in college, or they're still using their non-teaching-life email address that is inappropriate for a work. I'm increasingly not hesitant to suggest that a new teacher ditch her jeans and sweatshirt and see if that shifts how her 9th graders respond to her authority. I'm fairly blunt when making these suggestions--and so far, they've been well received. While yes, it would be easier if administrators set dress codes, it's not often that I see those established. But when trying to gain the respect of our students and their families, it helps if we create a professional environment. I don't suggest stockings and heels, and I know teachers don't have a lot of money to spend on fancy clothes; I suggest a couple of button down shirts and slacks. Ok, this has clearly become a pet peeve of mine (but it's hard not to notice).

But finally, and connected to this last rant, I sometimes think about what I wish a coach or mentor had said to me when I started teaching. I had the professional dress down, but I wonder if there were other ways in which I could have shown up more professionally in my interactions with colleagues, or parents, or students. Given what I know now, I can easily recall a few things I wish a trusted mentor had brought to my attention.

Coaches: What tips do you have for working with new teachers? And do you give them advice on how to dress?

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The opinions expressed in The Art of Coaching Teachers are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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