Sunday, November 4, 2012

Who is Flying the Plane

Somewhere over Nebraska my plane began to experience serious turbulence.  It was like being on a rollercoaster in the sky.  Being the nervous traveler that I am, I thought to myself “It is a good thing that every commercial pilot needs to go through many hours of training before they become licensed to fly these planes.”  But what if that wasn’t required.  What if pilots were in such demand that we hired ‘really smart people who were good with buttons’ straight out of college?  Would you want to ride on that plane?
All too often we put our children in classrooms with ‘really smart people out of college who are great with children.’  They have no training or support, and many of them are destined to crash and burn. 
So what can we, as school leaders do to make sure that these new teachers succeed?  As a field we first need to acknowledge that teaching is truly a craft.  It is not merely a set of skills, tricks, and techniques that can be taught in a week.  No one was ‘born’ a teacher. Teaching is truly an art cultivated over many years through practice, thoughtfulness and deep self-reflection. 
We must set up systems in our schools to develop and cultivate new talent in the field. New teacher induction begins even before a teacher is hired.  Administrators need to be planful about how we hire and how we place a new teacher.  We realize that a new teacher is not seasoned or adept at their new position just because they have a teaching degree.  The number of classes, size of classes, and the specific children placed in a class are all need to be strategically chosen to allow for the success of both the new teacher and the success of the students.  All too often new teachers are given the most challenging classes with students who are struggling to learn.  Would you rather be with that new pilot on a 14 hour flight in the middle of a snowstorm or on the Boston to New York shuttle on a balmy July morning?  We tend to think the stakes are lower with our children in a classroom, but if your child were flying in that classroom with an ill equipped and ill supported teacher, you might feel a little differently.
Through the Yeshiva University School Partnership we have been able to develop systems of support for the new teachers in our classrooms.  Our New Teacher Induction Program currently works with five schools around the country to do just this.  The schools have partnered with our team to help develop systems to support the new teachers they employ.  The Institute works with the veterans, administrators, and new teachers to ensure that this support is sufficient to meet the needs of the new teachers.
When a new teacher walks in to the school there should be a plan to help him adjust to the new environment.  Where do I park? What do I wear? How do I order supplies? What are the students supposed to call me? Are just some of the questions that a new teacher doesn’t know the answers to when he first walks in to a new school.  This doesn’t even begin to address the issues of what do I teach, and what is the tone I set with parents. 
Once the new teachers feel some level of comfort with the school culture and the daily expectations, then comes the time for the serious work.  Each new teacher needs a mentor—a veteran teacher who can reflect on his/her own practice and help the new teacher learn to do the same.  The mentor is a new teacher’s guide to the complex thinking and planning behind what goes on in a classroom.  These two teachers need to build a relationship where they can learn from one another and each hone their individual craft.  Through the New Teacher Induction Program each new teacher in our participating schools receives a one-on one mentor to help him/her through these challenges.
The new teachers need to be able to explore their role in the school with other new teachers.  They need to feel a comfort in sharing their doubts and reservations with colleagues at a similar level of professional development.  Each new teacher needs to have an audience of colleagues who can truly appreciate a new success and who understand how to help him recover from a failure.  We have seen that schools that setup new teacher study groups, a network of new teachers, led by a veteran teacher have helped new teachers to deal with the common struggles they face as a cohort.   Camaraderie is what keeps teachers vibrant, dynamic, and ever learning.
Our teachers are the most reliable variable in predicting the success of our students.  Countless studies have shown unmistakable correlation between the effectiveness of teacher instruction and the accomplishments of their students.  Every student is going to have a new teacher at some point in his/her schooling.  That new teacher is given the invaluable task of guiding that child on the road to success for an entire year.  We need to be confident that our new teachers will have all the resources they need to ensure a smooth ride for both the teacher and the student in that first year.   Next year, the YU School Partnership will be partnering with 15 schools on this important endeavor.