I’m going on my seventh year at my current school, eleventh in education. Three years ago I was teaching a full load and was asked to help out a new Biology teacher.
Informally, I was asked to do what I could to assist her in classroom management and content-based instruction. I learned a lot that year, about managing my time, the importance of starting with building relationships, and fine-tuning conversations around small do-able goals.
The next school year I was given one less class and one additional teacher. In speaking with other coaches, this seems to be a common occurrence. If you do good work, OK here’s more. We had a small, but burgeoning mentoring program that I joined as a content specific coach in the sciences.
I had two vastly different experiences with my two mentees that year. One teacher, John, was open to coaching on day one. He was a solid instructor who had some issues managing his class and other early career issues. He was reflective and made adjustments quickly. The second, Jeff, was not as open to coaching. He was also early in his career and had similar issues as John. But, he didn’t believe he needed any help. What was working with John wasn’t working with Jeff. I finally realized that and threw out what I knew about coaching. We spent the next three months working on what he needed and wanted to work on. I was determined to build trust between us, and it worked. By January we had a strong foundation and began the work of strengthening his practice.
This year, I was given one less class, and coach five teachers, with whom I observe and meet with them weekly. To do this, I really have to be on my game. I took all the lessons I learned in my first two years to make gains this year. I started by simply saying hello.
The first thing I did this year is found every mentee before school started and said hello. I wanted to know how their summer was, what brought them to our school, and how I could help. Did they know how to take attendance? Did they need help making copies? Any questions they had were fair game. I tried to check in a few times before the first day to make sure they were getting settled in.
Our program is made up of two coaches and a director. We have ten new teachers on our staff. Each coach has five teachers and the director oversees the mentees and us. So far, we’ve made it all work by using Google documents to share notes with our Director of Mentoring in real time. We’ve also coordinated schedules of what teacher is free when and who is meeting who when. It’s a bit of a dance, but I think we have it worked out. We were aware that it wouldn’t be perfect on day one, and that would be OK.
Over the years I’ve refined what I’m looking for in a classroom on day one to three key areas:
- The teacher should come off as engaging and excited about their class. They should show they are happy students are there and can’t wait to get started.
- Procedures should be explained, modeled, and practiced. How do students do the things they need to do in that room? Can they use the bathroom? Do they need to raise their hand? Where does graded work go? These are just some of the questions on the minds of students the first day.
- Finally, students need to be engaged in the course. No student loves to listen to a recitation of the syllabus for forty-five minutes. If a teacher does something simple on day one to get students thinking and engaged, the rewards will be compounded over the year.
Even on day two students know what is going on and most times, they will tell you, especially if they are familiar with you. I had a student turn around and ask me if I am here to help her teacher. I said of course. She then asked me to pass along this nugget, “Tell her she seems uncomfortable up there and that we notice, if she just relaxes I think we’ll be good.” It’s funny, she didn’t want her teacher, that she just met to get in trouble, but as long as she knew I was there to help, she wanted me to help her.
After a lesson, when I sit down with any new teacher, I might have only one thing that I want to convey. I let them drive the conversation with the phrase, “how did it go?” Many teachers can quickly identify what went right and wrong even early in their career, but if not, I can refer back to that one thing we need to begin work on, like a safety net for them. When I was a new teacher, sometimes I didn’t know what to do, and my mentor’s steady hand was key in my growth.
And so the school year begins, with a start centered on building relationships and trust, targeting a few key classroom details, and having focused conversations.
About our Guest Author: Jason Falconio is in his third year as an instructional coach at a small charter school in Philadelphia, where he has been for the past seven years. There, he also teaches Biology and AP Biology as well as runs an after school robotics program. He has received his Masters in Educational Leadership from Penn State and is certified as a K-12 Principal. In the summers he is the site director of a Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth summer residential program. He lives with his wife and dog, Molly, just outside of Philadelphia. He has recently started a blog pedagogynext.com and can be found on Twitter @jasonfalconio. He also writes at ASCD Edge.