Paula Rutherford
Issue III

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 I’m in the Slump and I’m Normal

It is that time of the year when new teachers are in The Slump. Despite our best mentoring efforts, they are in a perfectly normal down cycle. What they desperately need to know is that all new teachers are experiencing the same sense of inadequacy, that this is a normal stage, that it will most likely get a bit worse before it gets better, and that it will get a great deal better in the not-too-distant future.

Michael Fullan, Professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto, identifies the implementation dip as a component of the change process. He uses this term to identify the decrease in effectiveness we experience whenever we undertake any change initiative. The change can be in our professional or personal lives. For example, when one changes the grip on a golf club or a back swing in tennis, the results are worse before they eventually get better. When we assume new positions such as the superintendency, the principalship, a new teaching assignment, or begin new ways of collaborating, we all experience Fullan’s implementation dip.

First-year teachers are particularly prone to experiencing a deep and wide implementation dip, or in other words, a steep learning curve. They are experiencing multiple, simultaneous beginnings in their professional lives; many of the novice teachers are also experiencing changes in their personal lives. Geographic relocation often leads to loneliness and a lack of opportunities for fun. Adrenaline, excitement, and the fact that they do not know what they don’t know, support them through the first few weeks. Then reality hits. The words they are now hearing in their heads and sometimes even saying aloud are, “I’m the teacher and I’m not at all sure that I know how to do this job; in fact, I may not be cut out to be a teacher.”

Ellen Moir, Executive Director of The New Teacher Center at Santa Cruz, identified and labeled the Phases of New Teacher Development experienced by new teachers as they move through the implementation dip. The phases are anticipation, survival, disillusionment, rejuvenation, and reflection. In October and November, new teachers are in the lowest points of the dip, The Slump, and desperately need our recognition and understanding of what they are experiencing as well as appropriate interventions by us.

There is no one right way to respond to the challenges and concerns of new teachers at this point in their first year. Just as we have to differentiate to create the best possible learning environment for students, we have to differentiate the ways we support new teachers. All of them respond positively to our use of best practice in adult learning theory and thoughtful use of communication skills, but we need to plan our interactions purposefully if we want to successfully help them move through this low point in their first-year.

In order to identify the best mentoring approach, use the ASK Construct (Attitudes, Skills, and Knowledge). Every behavior has a cause; the better we can identify the cause(s) of the behavior, the better we can plan our intervention. The ASK Construct helps us be diagnosticians and identify the cause(s) of challenges and concerns. Even though the new teacher may exhibit an attitude (A) of helplessness or frustration, it is likely that the exhibited behavior is caused by a lack of skillfulness (S) with or knowledge (K) about the initiative, program, or strategy they are expected to use.

Across the land new teachers with whom we interact during October and November ask the same questions. These questions include:

How do I…

  • Use the IB curriculum
  • Go about co-teaching
  • Keep from drowning in paperwork
  • Deal with absent students
  • Plan more than one day in advance
  • Frame essential or guiding questions
  • Ever get caught up
  • Have a life

It is essential that we listen carefully and ask probing questions to find out what is behind such queries. It may be that the new teachers posing these questions are lacking knowledge (K) about content, learner theory, and/or repertoire. On the other hand, they may know what we are talking about or asking them to do, but are not skillful (S) in using that knowledge in the current work context. If knowledge is lacking, then our mentoring interactions should be directive and informative. If the new teacher is knowledgeable but is struggling to apply that knowledge in this context, a collaborative or coaching approach is most likely the appropriate choice. It is also important to realize that issues of knowledge and skillfulness may exhibit themselves as negative feelings and attitudes (A) rather than being presented as what they are.

Mentor Interventions during The Slump

Help them understand that they are normal. Share the Phases of New Teacher Development as presented by Ellen Moir. Access the original article at www.newteachercenter.org/article2.php or see the reprinted graphic on page 68 of The 21st Century Mentor’s Handbook. Pages 73-77 in this book relate actual new teacher statements about their challenges and concerns during the survival and disillusionment phases.

As Art Costa and Bob Garmstron recommend in their work on Cognitive Coaching, use the coaching skills: pause, paraphrase, and probe, to help the new teachers get inside their own heads and build skillfulness at identifying the causes of their angst independently.

Increase the frequency of your contacts via quick face-to-face interactions, notes in mail box, emails, or a muffin or candy bar left on the new teacher’s desk.

Check on the balance in the new teachers’ personal and professional lives – without being or appearing nosey. Engage in conversations that assure you that basic human needs are being met. Listen for the four needs William Glasser identifies: a sense of belonging, power, freedom, and fun. These needs may be met either at school or beyond the schoolhouse doors. Their lack of experience and skillfulness at accomplishing all the tasks in their professional lives often leads to fatigue, illness, and even less of a personal life.

A sense of social isolation may be behind new teacher wariness. For probably the first time in their lives they are spending five days a week with children, with minimal adult interaction. Make arrangements for you and the new teacher to have a cup of coffee or drink with a second-year teacher who can credibly say that it will get better and that it worth all the first-year angst. The third clip on the Points to Ponder DVD features words of wisdom from second-year teachers set to music; it is a good tool to use with a group of first-year teachers.

If you have multiple mentors and new teachers in the same building, arrange a brief after school networking opportunity, either at the school or at a local restaurant. Many mentors have found this type of no-agenda gathering a real tonic for the feelings of stress and “overwhelmedness” new teachers are universally feeling right now. Even though you may have to be assertive in getting new teachers to attend, the social networking will lead not only to a greater sense of belonging but a sharing of knowledge and strategies.

Co-observe an expert teacher who demonstrates the joy of teaching and debrief on what you see the teacher and the students doing. Do not jump right in and say what you saw and why you thought it was good. Instead, listen carefully to what the novice teacher notices. Frame your comments and questions on those entry points.

Holiday mentoring tips:

  • Make sure that your new teacher does not fall into the turkey and Pilgrims trap. It is easy to lose valuable instruction time with fun holiday-related activities. New teachers really need us to keep them focused on student learning of the articulated curriculum.
  • Recommend that you both walk out the door for Thanksgiving vacation with no school work in hand and use the break to rejuvenate and re-energize with family and friends.
  • If this is a novice teacher’s first major holiday away from family, brainstorm with them about what they might do to minimize the loneliness and make the holiday fun and rewarding.
  • Review the Mentoring Calendar in The 21st Century Mentor’s Handbook for additional mentoring interventions during October and November.

And, finally, keep reassuring the new teachers that feeling the way they do is absolutely normal and that it will get better!  They need to hear that over and over!

 

Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Rutherford, Paula. “I’m in The Slump and I’m Normal.” Mentoring in the 21st Century® October 2006. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2006 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at www.justaskpublications.com.