Help for a struggling colleague

Last year, a new science teacher in our middle school really struggled with classroom management issues. My principal is trying to help him, and she asked me if I could also work with him this year. I have some ideas, but I’m not sure how to approach him and offer suggestions.
–Melissa from  Nebraska

Even successful student teachers can get a rude awakening in their first year, when they are responsible for their classes from Day 1. They don’t have the advantage of stepping into a situation that was already in place, in terms of setting up a lab/classroom, equipment inventories, safety, and routines. It can be overwhelming, and some may be hesitant to ask for help.

Your principal must see some potential in this teacher, such as his content knowledge, real-life experiences to share with students, or ability to connect with adolescents.  She also seems to have recognized you have the experience and expertise to help this new teacher.

I would start by talking with the principal about the task. Are you to assume an evaluative role? That usually requires administrative credentials and there may be issues with the teacher contract if you were to take on this level of responsibility.

I suspect, however, that the principal is asking you to take on the role of a mentor—someone who can be a role model, a good listener, a provider of feedback, and a source of suggestions and resources. I’d ask what kind of follow-up, if any, the principal expects of you and the other teacher (e.g., a written report, a summary of your conversations). Even if the principal does not require any documentation, I’d still keep an informal journal of the process and suggest the new teacher do the same.

You’ll want to be helpful to your colleague but not a judgmental know-it-all. You could start with an informal conversation. “I understand that you had some challenges with classroom management last year. This happens to everyone, and Ms. Principal asked if I would be willing to help you. I remember my first year, and I had some real difficulties, too.” You could ask questions as discussion starters: What were your successes last year? What routines worked for you? What were your greatest challenges? What are your goals for this year? He may not realize that even experienced teachers face new situations every year, so it may help to share some of your current challenges and how you’re working on them.

Start with one or two issues he identified. For example, ask what routines he has in place for the beginning and end of the class period. Disruptions often occur at these times, and it is important for students to be engaged and to know what is expected of them. Having routines in place frees up time to spend on more important topics and activities, rather than dealing with discipline or logistical issues.  Share some of your suggestions for bell-ringers and exit activities, ask him to try them for a week or two, and debrief on the results.

Ask your principal if you may visit this teacher’s classroom. (Perhaps the principal would be willing to cover a class for you to do so.) As you observe the class, you’ll probably identify other items to discuss related to organizational strategies, safety issues, or student participation. It might also be helpful for him to observe your classes as your students follow your routines and engage in planned and purposeful activities.

The ultimate evaluation of this teacher is the responsibility of the principal, but your input and support can be helpful in helping him learn from his experiences and get his career off to a good start.

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