Rookie teachers are unusually prone to highs and lows. Good teachers, over time, find a way to mute the lows. They still have them, sure. But like good athletes, they often "grind it out" in those situations. They still "win" in a sense -- a low-energy class or a bad lesson plan can still result in decent learning.
Here is an email from one of our recent teacher prep grads from July 2010. Z* now teaches in an NYC charter. That is not her in the picture. That is a very successful coach, albeit one who presides over the forces of evil in Los Angeles. One of our staff members visited Z* a couple weeks ago. Z* writes:
This is probably the most MATCH Teacher Residency-nerdy email I could ever send, and I'm sort of embarrassed to be writing it. However, since you did get the chance to observe me in my homeroom's "pit of despair" mode, which I am obviously working on transforming into "peak of enthusiastic joy," I wanted to pass along the following.
I finally got observed by a number of people on Friday (thanks to your advice to more aggressively seek out feedback). One of the observers sent me an email to say it was the best ELA class he has observed at a school yet in our NY network! I'm sure that's an exaggeration, and it may never go that well again. But I wanted you to know that while I am sometimes close to tears after class, other days go very well :)
1. Preparing For Lows
A teacher prep program should explicitly raise this issue with the trainees. It's normal for rookies to have gut-wrenching lows. Precisely how will they deal with these?
One aspect of this is learning to vent in a healthy way -- so you get it out, but it doesn't consume you or harden you. The other aspect is stress management (sleep, exercise). It's one reason we purposefully have our trainees experience a hard, stressful year -- the same reason that the military makes its training pretty tough -- to prepare you for an even tougher following year as a rookie.
2. Seeking Out Coaching
In sports, it's common for athletes to seek out extra coaching. It's normal self-interest. I want to get better. So I ask someone to watch me and give me feedback. Sometimes I even pay for it (private lessons). Other times it's free.
In teaching, it's uncommon for rookies to seek out feedback. That is bad. Here's what we'd want rookies to think:
My own personal satisfaction as a rookie will be waaaay higher if I improve. Good coaching would make me improve. Hell, I should simply buy some. Isn't that rational behavior? If it happens to have a side benefit -- kids learn more -- so much the better. I'm making $40,000. Why wouldn't I set aside $1,000 to make myself happier?
But very few teachers buy coaching.
In fact, few teachers seek out free coaching. Free coaching that would make them better and happier! Even though there is no constraint on supply (other teachers who can observe you 10 minutes a day, and give constructive feedback). And even though the cost would probably be low (baked goods, handwritten thank yous, itunes gift cards).
I'm trying to understand this puzzle. I've come up with 3 ideas.
a. Teachers are conditioned to expect that the only coaching should be provided by the school. Rookies, when hired, are told they will get X hours per week of coaching. (Often, including at our MATCH Charter School, they get less than X, because the coaches have other stuff on their plate. But that's another story). It never occurs to them to actively pursue -- through charm, cash, or Chex Party Mix -- additional coaching.
b. Teaching a bad class is painful. But usually only the kids and teacher know it. A teacher might think: "Do I really want another person to watch my humiliation? He'll think less of me! I'm fairly impressive during staff meetings."
c. Many teachers, particularly in this type of charter, are super-busy. They know their colleagues are, too. So they are reluctant to ask for help.
Do we need a culture shift where teachers take ownership of seeking out feedback, instead of waiting for it to come to them?