Flying Solo: The Need for Greater Support

Ask any teacher about their first year, and you will no doubt hear responses including phrases like, “incredibly challenging,” or “the kids were exhausting,” or “not sure how I made it through,” perhaps even “that year was brutal!” In some ways, the student teaching experience and the first year in the classroom are like a rite of passage, a sort of initiation to see if you’re tough enough for this line of work. I used to find teachers’ stories of their first year endearing, even entertaining, but not any more. For some time now, I have found myself thinking, why? Why does the first year have to be so difficult? Why are first year teachers not finishing that initial year filled with a great sense of accomplishment, eagerly anticipating the next group of students? What is it we are missing in our university prep and district induction programs that is leaving our newest teachers feeling inadequate and frustrated? Given our current nation-wide teacher shortage, there is no better time than now to answer these critical questions.

A recent report by Hope Street Group entitled On Deck: Preparing the Next Generation of Teachers offers answers to these very questions. In this report, nearly 2,000 educators reflected on the needs of our newest teachers and offered suggestions for future teacher preparation programs. A repeating theme within this report was the need for increased time with a mentor. The power of mentoring actually has the potential to impact many of the other suggestions in this report, including pedagogy, classroom management, differentiation, and collaboration. Until we can implement these suggested changes in our preparation programs, we must at the very least focus on mentoring.

I have taught elementary school for the past 28 years, and I have also served as a full time district mentor. For me, the greatest support a pre-service, student or first year teacher can have is the opportunity to be formally mentored by a master teacher. And yet, far too often, novice teachers are simply matched up with a ‘buddy’ teacher on the staff. This veteran teacher may be a seasoned educator, but there is no guarantee this teacher has had any formal mentoring training. The same is true for student teachers. When university programs partner up with local districts to place their student teachers, districts do not always have access to veteran teachers trained in mentoring. In fact, few teachers have had formal mentor training, and this results in inconsistent student teaching experiences for teacher candidates.

We cannot assume that an accomplished teacher will automatically be an effective mentor. Mentoring includes a specific skill set. For example, a trained mentor is skilled in the art of reflective questioning and can masterfully guide a colleague through reflection rather than just offering advice on how to solve daily problems. Reflective practice should be used by teachers of all levels of experience, and the student teaching rotation is the obvious time to begin applying this skill.

Content mentoring is a critical need as well. In recent years, changes in state standards have produced more rigorous expectations that require students to demonstrate a greater depth of knowledge in all subjects. If our standards have deepened, then why have we not expanded our teacher preparation and student teaching experiences? The new standards require teachers to use more effective instructional strategies, and yet we continue to offer teacher candidates a traditional student teaching rotation with a ‘sink or swim’ theme. We must find ways to match the level of expectations found in the state standards to our own teacher preparation programs, and formal mentoring embedded in the school day is a great place to start.

Until we can implement the suggested changes found in the Hope Street Group report, at the very least, teachers who work with pre-service and student teachers should be well trained in mentoring strategies. If needed, individual districts must offer this training for their cooperating teachers. By offering greater individual support, perhaps our newest teachers will more often describe their first years as ‘gratifying’ rather than ‘grueling’.

Allison Riddle was the 2014 Utah State Teacher of the Year and a Top 5 Finalist for the NEA's National Award for Teaching Excellence.  She can be reached [email protected].

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