One Simple Change That Will Improve Your Teaching Today
I was new to teaching, the school, and the district, and was very excited about the teaching opportunity. I quickly made friends with another first grade teacher and welcomed a new group of students to my classroom. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I was in deeper water than I was equipped to handle. There were a variety of serious issues in the class, but one left an indelible mark on my memory. A defiant little boy sat at the front of the room and frequently yelled out, “I’m going to kill myself” as he flung himself out of his chair. Having no idea what to do, I reached out to the other first grade teacher who had befriended me. She helped me when she could, but she was very busy with her own class and a variety of family demands. I began to get migraines, severe and often. The excitement of the new opportunity diminished to simply surviving. By November I was thoroughly disillusioned and plotting my exit strategy.
I didn’t know the one thing that would have turned my teaching around and can make all the difference for you:
ASK. FOR. HELP.
“Sometimes asking for help is the bravest move you can make. You don’t have to go it alone.”
The misperception of asking for help
New teachers often develop the misperception that once they have their own class, they are on their own and shouldn’t need help. Nothing could be further from the truth! The reality is that you don’t step out of clinical teaching as experienced, accomplished teachers. Growing into a seasoned professional is a journey and your first few years of teaching are part of that learning process. In the learning process, the first and second years of teaching could actually be viewed as extensions of clinical teaching. At this beginning stage of teaching, the teacher is also a student, constantly learning through a continual process of trial, error, and reflection. This is the stage of development when you need to be less critical of yourself and give yourself a lot of grace. You want to be a reflective practitioner and honestly examine your teaching, but in that reflective process, you must give yourself permission to make mistakes and ask for help so that you can grow and develop in your skill level!
The importance of asking for help
Teaching is an incredibly stressful and taxing job. The learning curve is steep and it’s too complex to master quickly. So unless you want to make a lot of messes that your principal or assistant principal has to clean up, it’s very important that you ask for assistance. Whether it’s as serious as a lawsuit or as common as hindering student achievement, by asking for help you can avoid a disaster and experience effectiveness in the classroom!
Another reason that asking for help is important is because it will give you confidence in yourself and what you are doing, and it will give your school leadership confidence it you. That go-it-alone novice teacher can really worry a principal or instructional coach. When they see you asking good questions and implementing strategies that you have developed in your meetings with them, they will feel more confident in your teaching.
A third key reason for seeking guidance is to keep you in the teaching profession! Our country needs more matured teachers in this country, not teaching drop outs. When you compare the years 2000 and 2016, there are currently 1/3 fewer teachers with over 20 years of experience. Ten percent of our teachers have less than 3 years of experience (NCES). Constant turnover isn’t healthy for the development of the profession or for kids. Ask for help so that you can persist in teaching rather than plan your exit strategy.
The fear of asking for help
When I was hired for my first teaching job, the principal took me on a tour of the classrooms of my grade level co-workers. I was struck immediately by a common factor. They all had paper boxes stored above the lockers in their classrooms. These boxes were labeled by theme and filled with teaching materials. When I went to set up my classroom, I showed up with a load of neatly painted and labeled paper boxes—with not one thing in them!!! I was determined to look like I knew what I was doing, even though I didn’t. New teachers often possess a very real fear of being perceived as incompetent, and no one likes that feeling!!
When new to the profession and trying so hard to prove that the principal did the right thing in hiring them, the last thing new teachers want to do is give any indication that they don’t know what they are doing. Naturally, new teachers are out to prove themselves. This desire to prove that they are a good teacher and know what they are doing can easily make a beginning teacher reticent to ask for help. Furthermore, if a new teacher has already had some struggles and is under principal surveillance, the fear of losing their job can squelch any willingness to take risks or ask for support.
Another source of fear for beginning teachers also the “should syndrome”. Believing things like, “I should be able to handle this on my own” and “I should know what to do with this child” can keep a teacher from admitting their need for assistance. Unrealistic expectations of self make novice teachers reticent to pursue support, slowing their development and shortchanging them of the assistance that could help them develop into master teachers.
When is the right time to ask for help?
Ask for help before you make a costly mistake. There is an old adage that “It’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission.” Most principals of inexperienced teachers do not agree. Principals don’t have the time to do damage control for new teachers’ mistakes, nor do they want to do so. When your error could endanger a child or put the school or district in a bad light, it’s better to ask for help. Mistakes aren’t bad; they actually are critical to growth and development. Sometimes it’s our mistakes that are our best teachers. Yet there are some mistakes we cannot afford to make, and that is when we ask for help.
A second time to ask for help is when you consistently feel overwhelmed. Recognizing that you are in deeper water than your equipped to handle is a clear sign that it’s time to ask for help. Even the most amazing veteran teachers have bad days, so don’t let a few here and there trouble you. However, when you see a pattern and feelings of being overwhelmed start to paralyze you, it’s time to reach out for support.
Seek out support when you are ready to receive help. There is no point in asking for help if you are not willing to learn from the person you are asking. A teachable spirit is one of the most important characteristics that make for a successful beginning teacher. When you get to the end of yourself and realize your teaching is all about your students and not about you, that is the right time to ask for help because you are truly able to receive it.
The right way to ask for help
Asking for support in your work shouldn’t be like going through the drive through at Sonic. You are asking for something more complex than a cherry limeade! You cannot get what you need by running into someone’s classroom or office with a rushed request while on your way to teach a class. Schedule an appointment in person with whomever you are asking for help. Go to that meeting with a notepad, a pen, and a list of specific questions or concerns. Decide what you want to get out of the meeting before you ever get there.
A second critical thing about that meeting is to honor their time. Educators are extremely busy and their time is valuable. When you go into that meeting, make the meeting as concise as realistically possible. They will appreciate that you were careful with their time and will be more welcoming when you need to meet with them again.
A third part of asking for help the right way is to go to the meeting with a self-focus and the expectation of success. Whereas it’s typically important to be student-centered, a coaching meeting shifts the focus. Be careful not to let the opportunity of assistance turn into a whining session about someone or something other than what you can control: YOU. Focus on what you can do to deal with the someone or something.
The last thing that is essential about the way you ask for help is the “thank you”. After you have implemented or tested whatever direction came out of the meeting, email the support person. Thank them for their time and assistance and give them some feedback on your implementation of whatever you got out of your conversation. This will generate their investment in your success.
Who to ask for help
As a new teacher, it’s easy to know that you need help. A bigger challenge is figuring out who can help you. Depending on the size and location of your school and your district, there are a variety of professionals who typically are more than willing to lend an ear and a helping hand. Educators as a whole are sharing and caring people. They want each other to succeed, because teacher success means student success and they are there for the kids.
With so many qualified and helpful people that you could approach, who do you ask for help?
Build rapport with your principal by connecting with them when you have the opportunity. Let them know when they were helpful to you with a student or made a point in a faculty meeting that helped you understand an expectation. However, the principal is not usually in the best place to be your primary support person. That is why they typically assign you a mentor. Use your principal as a guide to know with whom you should connect for support in different areas.
Your fellow grade level or content area teachers
Your fellow grade level or content area teachers are essential for help with planning. If you are struggling with what to teach, when to teach it or how to communicate in a fresh way, ask for their input. Don’t hesitate to ask for a copy of a lesson or a scope and sequence they are using. Ask for a copy of their classroom management plan and any other materials that will give you ideas. However, be careful to ask for permission to use their materials and ideas, give them credit for these items, and always shower them with appreciation. In the beginning you will feel like all you ever do is ask for help, but one day you will be able to give back. When you are new, all they expect you to give back is appreciation and your respect of their time. Remember that your co-teachers are extremely busy and coaching you to greatness is not their job.
Oh the difference a great mentor can make! If your principal assigns you a mentor, lean on them for emotional support. Also seek out their input for how to obtain resources you need and information about the structure of the school and the way things work. Mentors are often selected because they are good role models. Ask for the opportunity to watch your mentor teach, and to have them come and watch you teach and give you feedback. I would suggest getting a copy of your district’s assessment instrument and asking them to use it to evaluate you so that the feedback is directly relevant to your future success. Remember to show considerable appreciation for all the free coaching your mentor provides. Whether you put a chocolate bar on their desk or give them a hand written note, a little appreciation will help them to feel like there support is a gift rather than an expectation.
NOT your mentor
Even your mentor is limited in the time and expertise that they can offer you. In some cases, your personality just won’t mesh with the mentor you are assigned. Either way, study the make-up and structure of the support personnel in your school district. This will allow you to seek more specific help from sources who are experts in areas where you are encountering the biggest learning curve. Seek out your campus Instructional coach, campus counselor, behavior specialist, diagnostician, technology specialist, curriculum coordinator, RTI director, or any of the PT, OT, speech, or other special education personnel. Your principal, teammates, and mentor are of critical importance, but enlisting specific support from the specialist to whom you have access on the campus level will get you the specific helps that can transform your teaching experience.
For beginning teachers who are developing their skillset and perfecting their craft, developing into a strong, effective educator is a process. Professional development is not a solitary process. You are not alone! When you realize that asking for help is a strength, and you do so in a strategic way, you will improve your teaching. By considering the right time to get help, ways to seek out his support, and persons who will have the skills to give you maximum input, you can improve your teaching today!
“Help comes to those that have courage to ask for it.”
Kylah Clark-Goff, Ph.D.