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How Can I Stop a Teacher From Quitting?

A coach emailed me yesterday saying that she'd been working with a new teacher all year, a teacher she thought was doing well, but that the teacher just announced that she wants to quit. "I don't know what I did wrong!" the coach wrote. "I thought I'd been so encouraging but the teacher said she feels like a failure, that she can't do another year, that her kids would be better off without her. What do I do?! Can I stop her from quitting?"

This email brought back memories and my own waves of feelings of insecurity as a new coach and fears that I wasn't "doing coaching" right. I recently wrote about one of these experiences here, and about why new teachers need explicit support in cultivating emotional resilience. But there were many other incidents where teachers I'd coached struggled and felt like they weren't doing a good job, where I wondered what I could have done differently or better to support them. Reflecting on those times and what I've learned from them, I've settled on six suggestions for the coach who reached out. Here they are:

  1. Don't give up yet. Don't give up on the teacher or on yourself. The teacher is expressing strong emotions—fear, insecurity, perhaps sadness. Help her explore those. Give her space to describe them. Help her recognize that she's experiencing strong emotions. The teacher's comments are perhaps intended to capture your attention so that you focus on her and give her support. Don't push her to feel any different, don't tell her she's wrong or that all new teachers go through this—just hold space for her to explore what's going on.
  2. Help the teacher develop an expansive perspective on her first year teaching. Give her chart paper and colorful markers and ask her to visually depict the year's ups and downs. There were many ups--she just can't see them. When we experience downs, disappointments, fear and sadness, our perspective narrows. It's like we have blinders on and can only see the challenges. Help her see all the moments in the year that were neither great nor terrible--there were also a lot of those--the neutral, forgettable moments. We're not great at remembering those, because they were neutral. But they are important for us to recognize because they help us round out that picture of how difficult a period of time can be. You'll need to engage her in this reflection when she's ready--so don't jump into it too early. Ask her if she's interested in expanding her perspective of her first year--and do so when she's really willing.
  3. Don't be reticent to be directive and share the successes that you witnessed. Ultimately, you want to guide her to see her strengths and successes, but it's okay to nudge her along and help her see what she can't. Use evidence in this sharing--say, for example, "Just last week I was in your classroom and I noticed that Juan, who has often struggled to stay on task, worked on his project for a solid 18 minutes. That was great!" Or "A few weeks ago we were talking about a lesson and you described a new formative assessment strategy that had been really useful. You're really focusing on high leverage instructional practices, and taking risks, and learning from what you're doing." It's okay to say things like, "It's been such an honor to witness your growth this year. Teaching is hard work, and the first year is hard for everyone. I've seen you struggle and grow and I have complete confidence in your ability to keep growing. That's what's most important for a teacher—to be able to keep learning. I'm pretty sure that next year will be a lot better for you." ¬†
  4. Help the teacher paint a new reality for her to live into next year. What does she want her year to be like? How does she want the year to be? What does she hope will be different? She needs to develop a vision first--and then help her backwards plan from it.
  5. Reflect on yourself as a coach. Has this teacher communicated distress before but you didn't notice or pay attention or give her space to process her feelings? What could you do to more accurately and more frequently do a pulse check of how your teacher is doing? What can you learn about your coaching from this experience? How can you continue to grow and develop as a coach from this experience? We all need (and deserve and usually want) to continue learning. So what can you do this summer perhaps to learn more about coaching?
  6. Finally, watch this videos of these ducklings. Do that for yourself. Boost your own reserves of resilience. Cute baby animals do that for us. (This is a serious suggestion, folks.)
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