K-12 Teaching and Learning From the UNC School of Education

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Teaching can be a lonely profession — one where the adults close their doors and rarely talk with one another. This leaves teachers to solve their problems on their own. But new teachers can’t solve all their own problems. Luckily, teachers can take charge of their own professional growth by building support networks. Building a support network can be a powerful way to break through the isolation that many teachers experience, especially early in their careers.

A support network is a group of colleagues who provide guidance and assistance to one another throughout their careers. By designing your own support network, you can tailor it to suit your needs. For some teachers, a support network means a weekly meeting to exchange lesson plan ideas; for others, it involves stopping by a neighboring teacher’s classroom as needed.

Questions to ask yourself

Whatever form your support network ultimately takes, there are some important questions to ask yourself when you begin building it.

  • Can I admit to myself and others that I don’t know everything and that I might need some help? A new teacher may feel uncomfortable approaching a colleague for help, fearing that he or she will seem unprepared. But people are usually more than willing to assist new teachers.
  • What do I need? Perhaps you are struggling with how to teach a particular student or how to include hands-on learning in your lessons. Maybe you need some advice about the best place to order lab materials or how to respond to a note from a parent. There are many things that you may need as a new teacher--that is to be expected. Taking some time to pinpoint major areas of struggle will help you focus on finding the right help.
  • What support is being offered to me through formal channels? New teachers in North Carolina should be assigned a trained mentor teacher. Ask your principal for a mentor if one has not yet been assigned to you. Additionally, schools or districts sometimes provide new teacher support meetings that orient you to curriculum requirements, assessment techniques, and rules and procedures. Teacher handbooks may also answer some of your basic questions.
  • Who has been supportive of me in previous situations and are they available now? Depending on what kind of support you decide you need, there are many avenues that exist for getting that assistance, ranging from college contacts to websites to your family.

Finding support in your school

Support networks within a school can take many shapes and forms. Most people start with their assigned mentor teacher. This person should make herself available to you throughout the year for a variety of purposes — everything from describing the evaluation process for new teachers to helping you understand how to get a fresh supply of paper towels for your classroom! Make it a top priority to meet your mentor as soon as you arrive in your school and make full use of his or her knowledge and expertise.

Be proactive about introducing yourself to neighboring teachers, as well as other teachers on your grade level or in your department. Most likely, you will also be working with people outside your department, such as guidance counselors, reading specialists, and social workers. Introduce yourself to these people early on and try to start a conversation with each of them. One teacher I know made a point of sitting at a different table at each staff meeting in order to meet as many colleagues as possible. Ask general questions such as “What’s the best thing about this school?” or “What do you think is the most important thing I need to know as I get ready to start my first school year?” Listen carefully to their responses. Choose to spend time with those who answer positively.

Many people forget that their administrators are often a valuable source of support. Understandably, some teachers are afraid to let their administrators view them in a vulnerable light, but a good administrator wants to help you become the best teacher possible. As long as you frame your need in a way that suggests that you want to improve, your requests for assistance should be greeted with enthusiasm. For example, you might ask your administrator to arrange for you to observe a teacher who uses cooperative learning groups because that is something you would like to try in your class; this is a specific request and implies that you seek to incorporate best practices in your classroom.

While they may not be able to help you directly with lesson plans, most school secretaries and custodians can tell you who can! These people are an invaluable resource for many reasons. During my first year of teaching, the custodian twice woke me up from unplanned but much needed naps in the class bathtub-turned-reading center. He helped me finish my work so I could get home safely before dark. I put him at the top of my support network that year!

Don’t get discouraged if people don’t come to you right away to offer information and ideas. It’s important to remember that the beginning of a school year is a busy time for everyone, even a veteran teacher or long-time custodian. Be proactive and go around to meet these folks. Although you will be excited about organizing your classroom and getting ready for your students, the time spent up front building relationships with your colleagues in your school will help you determine who will be most helpful to you throughout the year.

Other sources of professional support

Support networks are built over time, and there are likely already people in your life who can serve to support you as a new teacher. Reflect on people who have provided guidance to you in the past. Many new teachers who have recently completed teacher preparation programs find that their cooperating teachers or university supervisors continue to be a strong source of support. Also, what are families and friends for if not to lean on? When I was unsure of the most effective way to respond to a parent letter, I almost always called my mom and dad to talk it over. My non-teacher friends were supportive in numerous ways, too, from letting me vent about difficult students to saving their recycled soda bottles for an upcoming craft project I was planning. Not all support has to be from within the profession.

An often overlooked source of support for new teachers is other new teachers! Think about it — who knows better what you are going through than another new teacher? Most school systems offer some type of new teacher orientation. Make a point of introducing yourself to the other new teachers in this orientation. If they are willing, make plans to get together early in the year. You may find it extremely helpful just to know that other people share your difficulties and concerns, and you may find solutions together that you wouldn’t find separately.

At some point in the future, you will come into contact with other teachers from outside your school. This type of opportunity is sometimes organized by school districts, perhaps when all of the chemistry teachers in the district meet to choose new textbooks or to receive training about lab safety. While these relationships are sometimes more difficult to maintain, they can be well worth the effort. It is very easy to think that the way things are done in your school is the way things are done in all schools, but that is rarely the case. Take advantage of opportunities to converse with teachers at district meetings, conferences, and gatherings of professional organizations to learn about new ideas and build additional collegial relationships.

Not all support needs to be “people” resources. A good website can be a valuable part of your support network, especially if it is geared towards teachers or to the subject matter that you teach. Look for such sites through LEARN NC or DPI’s website, or through the links provided on the websites of professional organizations. It may take a little time to find useful sites, but once you do,they will enhance your teaching. One example of a site that a friend found useful during her initial years of teaching is Harvard University’s ALPS site.

Changing support networks

Education is not static. Students are constantly changing, the curriculum is continually revised, and your skills and understanding of the teaching profession will grow each day. The kind of help and advice you need will also change over time. You will find yourself looking in different directions for meaningful support. As one veteran teacher in Durham explains,

My first few years I needed help with “stuff,” like books to read to my
students and lesson plans. The stress of having all of those first graders needing you all the time is something that I discussed a lot with a neighboring first grade teacher. A little later on, when I became a mother, I needed a different kind of emotional support — juggling my family life with my teaching life. It seemed as if the two were always colliding and I never did justice to either one, especially when my daughter was really young. Other teachers in my building with families helped me through that time, as did my principal, who was feeling some of the same things I was feeling.

Later, when I switched from a first grade teacher to a reading specialist, I needed more technical kind of advice. I found going back to college and getting the chance to discuss those issues in depth the best possible thing. Now, after twenty-two years (as a teacher), I find that I still need support, but it’s more about refining what I’m doing. I just went through the National Board process, and having three other veteran teachers with whom to look at videos of my teaching and examine student work samples, gets me reinvigorated about becoming the best teacher I can be.

Most important, this teacher did not wait for support to find her. She sought it out. Not only did she surround herself with people who could help her, she chose the right people at the right time in her career.

The pressures teachers face on daily basis often make us feel that the last thing we have time to do is chat with a neighboring teacher or attend a professional conference. There are parents to call, papers to grade, lesson plans to write. However, it is precisely the opportunity to talk with our colleagues and engage in professional activities that sustains us, nurtures us, and helps us become better at what we love to do. For your students and yourself, take the time to build your support network.