Part 3: Lack of Support

Note: The following is an excerpt from Becoming a Win-Win Teacher: A Guide for First-Year Teachers, chapter three, “Climate Advisory: Entering Win-Lose Territory.” Although this book also elaborates on why teachers stay in the profession (in my case, since 1973), I believe it is important to also address some of the issues that were tripping up many of the teachers I encountered in the survey responses and interviews I did for this book. This chapter includes six challenges facing people entering the teaching profession.

Teachers have come under increased scrutiny in recent years. Unfortunately, this examination rarely focuses on the most important skills and talents, those that can have the greatest impact on children’s confidence or love of learning. There is, instead, a tremendous pressure for teachers to “get it right,” and in many settings, this has come to mean having their competence reflected in test scores or other measurable outcomes. I haven’t met many people who were drawn to the profession so they could devote their time and expertise to giving (or preparing for) tests, and more and more I encounter people who are finding that the priorities that called them to the profession are significantly different from what receives the greatest emphasis in their district and community.27 Any teacher will be challenged by the various— and often incompatible— expectations of colleagues, administrators, parents, and the students themselves, and holding onto ideals can be tough in an environment that does not actively support them.28

Additionally, consider the fact that although “it takes at least two years to manage the basics of classroom management and six to seven years to become a fully proficient teacher,” according to a report by Claudia Wallace,29 teaching is the only profession in which beginners are expected to do the same things as 25-year veterans,30 and are generally held to the same performance criteria as experienced teachers. It takes a tremendous amount of trust, especially for a beginning teacher, to be able to go to a colleague for advice, suggestions, or support and not risk being perceived as incompetent. (Ask anyone who’s ever been told, “I didn’t have a problem with them last year,” how safe that person felt about requesting assistance after that— and how much energy was channeled into appearing capable and in control.)

And consider the incongruous, if fairly prevalent, practice of placing teachers with the least experience with the most challenging classes, often in schools with the greatest number of problems and fewest resources. “It would be ideal if every teacher taught in an environment that matched his or her skills and temperament,” stated one report on teacher recruitment and retention.31 But this is often not the case. Many new teachers end up at grade levels for which they are not best suited, or teaching subjects for which their knowledge is not as strong or adequate as it needs to be. Further, this report said that “schools with the largest percentages of poor and minority students tended to have the least qualified teachers,” and high-poverty schools have nearly double the percentages of teachers with three or fewer years’ experience as their higher-income-area counterparts.32

There are good reasons that newcomers to other professions are not assigned the most difficult cases or the most complicated accounts. And yet, that is often exactly what happens with teachers. The absence of emotional safety and support can present significant challenges even for veteran teachers; for beginning teachers, the consequences can be devastating. I received a note from a first-year kindergarten teacher at the end of September saying, “My experience so far has not been very good. I started as a fourth grade teacher. Last week I was moved to kindergarten. I was informed by the two other kindergarten teachers that they were each given five minutes to come up with a list of seven students who would go to my section. Guess who I ended up with?” Her note continued, “I’m starting to second-guess my career as an educator. I hope it gets better because I really love being with children.” And in what may be one of the strangest conversations I’ve ever had, a teacher in a recent seminar I was presenting on the topic of dealing with difficult students told me that her colleague refused to attend the program because, “she’s afraid that if she takes this class, the principal will give her all the bad kids next year.”

New teachers with the least seniority are also generally the most vulnerable to being subjected to last minute grade changes. I often saw this happen to my first-year teaching interns who had spent the summer preparing and collecting the materials and resources they would need for one grade, only to be switched to another grade level at the last minute. In more than one instance, the individuals were notified the night before school started (although these individuals had a much easier time than those who were switched a month into the school year). That these practices— the professional equivalent of hazing— can easily lead to heartbreaking, no-win outcomes should surprise no one. Success builds confidence, and first year teachers who don’t get a chance to experience either are usually the first ones out the door.

I regularly hear from beginning teachers who are feeling completely defeated after continually hearing that they have to “do better” at their jobs. (I find it interesting that so many of these teachers use this same language, that so many report that the feedback they received focused on inadequacy, and that so few received specific suggestions about what they were doing wrong— or what they could do instead.) Former Labor Secretary and head of the New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, William Brock notes the incongruity in assigning new teachers “to the toughest jobs in the most challenging schools with very low pay” and then, “when the results fall short, [telling] them, ’You just have to work harder…’ This is no way to treat professionals.”33

I honestly believe that most veteran teachers sincerely want new teachers to succeed, and that most are more than willing to provide information, materials, time, and encouragement. Still, a number of educators reported feeling very much alone and without support during their first year. Colleagues have their own issues and pressures, and even the best-meaning mentor or administrator can fail to appreciate certain procedures or resources that are unfamiliar to a new teacher, things a veteran would simply know about from experience. But a lack of sensitivity and awareness is one thing (and provides a good argument for beginning teachers becoming proactive about finding out what they’re supposed to know or do); asking for help and not receiving it is quite another.34 “With the lack of administrative support, it almost feels as if we are fighting a war on our own without the backing of our ’Commander in Chief,’” wrote one third grade teacher. A high school principal commented, “New teachers get beat up for their enthusiasm and their ideas— not just by their administrators, but also by colleagues who have no incentive to change or raise the bar.” And several echoed the sentiments of a first-year elementary teacher who wrote, “I’m pretty sure the rest of the staff were making bets on which of us wouldn’t last the year.”

Even worse is the possibility of working with someone who will actually make the job more difficult than it already is. News writer Barry Ray noted that people are more likely to leave a job “if involved in an abusive relationship [with a colleague or superior] than if dissatisfied with pay.”35 Even if the interactions aren’t overtly abusive, negative feedback, disappointment, impatience, derision, or contempt from colleagues or superiors can be especially corrosive to someone just learning the ropes. One elementary teacher told me about a principal she had in her second year who called her “a failure as a teacher” when large numbers of her students did poorly on a test. Although she admitted that she might approach her instruction and evaluation processes differently today, this feedback accomplished little more than to inspire self-doubt and mistrust, which took years to overcome. A veteran middle school teacher wrote, “I have been a teacher for seven years and the area where I needed most help was my confidence. The principal was an expert at making you feel like a failure.” Despite receiving Teacher of the Year, this individual wrote that she “felt like the worst teacher in the world.” (This contributor was fortunate enough to find a position in another district where, she reported, “I am finally treated with respect.”)

How often do teachers get written up for trying new things or hassled for attempting to take advantage of professional development opportunities on their own? I recently received a correspondence from a teacher who attempted to notify the staff at her school that a national speaker would be making a rare appearance in her town. “I sent out an email to my colleagues and got busted for encouraging folks to take a day off!” she wrote.36 Adding insult to injury, it’s not unusual for me to hear from teachers who also had to reimburse the districts for the substitute teachers needed to work in their classrooms while they were off trying to improve their skill and effectiveness in their jobs, frequently at their own expense.37 I have likewise heard from far too many teachers who had been sent to a conference or seminar (not infrequently because of a perceived weakness in their teaching) to learn the latest strategies and then received poor evaluations— generally from the person who had sent them to the training— when they were observed implementing the skills they learned there.

Inman affirms that teachers “are more likely to perceive themselves as isolated and even ridiculed when they are not supported by the individuals within their school.”38 One middle school English teacher stated, “I wish someone had warned me about the politics and negative attitudes I would encounter the first day of school.” Anissa Emery, a high school counselor and English teacher, acknowledges, “I have known some phenomenal teachers in my career, who were generous and excited about working with students right up until the day that they retired.” But she also wrote, “I was really unprepared for dealing with the pettiness and personalities of some of the other teachers on staff. It just never occurred to me that other teachers could be as vindictive and non-supportive as I have found some to be.”

In an opposite scenario, there are some settings in which teachers actually get too much help. I received a long, plaintive email from an assistant superintendent in a district whose good intentions to provide support from a variety of sources had clearly gone awry. “These ‘helpers’… all have their own agendas and assignments to improve the schools,” she wrote. “They all demand another report, another look at one’s lesson plans, another observation, another coaching session, another two meetings (pre-plan and debrief), and another idea of how to do it differently and by when. I’m sorry, but if in any job you had to jump through hoops for eleven different bosses while doing your job for the first time, you’d run away as well.” She related a conversation she’d had with a talented new teacher who already had twenty-one hours toward her Master’s degree and successful student teaching and part-time teaching experiences before coming to this district. “I knew it would be hard,” this teacher had said, “but… I can’t teach these children, collaborate with my peer teachers, and please these other nine or ten adults who tell me something different every day!” Not surprisingly, this young lady left in the first two months of school, along with seven other beginning teachers in that district. On paper, this approach might look supportive, but in reality, it’s placing excessive demand on new teachers and frankly chasing some of them headlong into other careers.

Click here to continue reading this chapter. (List of chapters below.)

27 And while teachers who assume their primary role to be one of “raising test scores” may be a good match for some schools and districts, I would hope that along the way they are encouraged to value other, less measurable goals that their students can carry with them as learners for life, long after anyone has ever looked at the numbers.

28 Educator Roland Barth wrote, “By the time a beginning teacher waits the obligatory three years to speak in a faculty meeting, she, too, is likely to be so immersed in the culture that she will no longer be able to see with a beginner’s clarity the school’s cultural patterns of leadership, competition, fearfulness, self-interest, or lack of support.” (Barth, Roland. “The Culture Builder.” Educational Leadership [59, no. 8, 6-11, May 2002]. Available: Winona State University Web site: http://course1.winona.edu/lgray/el601/articles/Barth_Culture.html)

29 Claudia Wallis, “How To Make Great Teachers,” Time (February 25, 2008): 31.

30 I have paraphrased a comment by former NEA president, Bob Chase, who was quoted in Barbara Kantrowitz and Pat Wingert, “Teachers Wanted,” Newsweek (Oct. 2, 2002): 37–42. Since I first encountered this quote, numerous administrators, mentors, supervisors, and veteran teachers have validated Chase’s observation.

31 “Eight Questions on Teacher Recruitment and Retention: What Does the Research Say?” ECS Teaching Quality  Research Reports, Sept. 2005. Available: Education Commission of the States Web site, http://www.ecs.org/html/educationissues/TeachingQuality/TRRreport/report/introduction.asp

32 Ibid.

33 “Fixing Our Schools,” Parade (July 6, 2008): 10.

34 Lack of support from parents and administrators is one of the chief complaints of teachers in my seminars. To some degree, I believe this reflects our approach to these individuals, as well as the things we’re asking them to do. There are ways to effectively build collaborative and mutually supportive relationships with administrators, parents, and other staff, and strategies for doing so will be offered in later chapters in this book.

35 Barry Ray. “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Boss?” FSU News, Dec. 12, 2004. Available, Florida State University Web site, http://www.fsu.edu/news/2006/12/04/bad.boss/

36 I had a similar experience when I was in the classroom. Despite the fact that I would have to take a personal day and pay for my own attendance at a one-day conference featuring well-know, well-published, national speakers addressing issues specifically pertinent to our community, and come back and report on the latest research findings they were presenting to our staff, I was accused by my principal of “just trying to get out of work.”

37 I marvel at friends whose companies send them across the country for professional development and absorb all costs, including travel and all other relevant expenses incurred, all the while compensating them for this time as regular work days! In fairness, as certification requirements increase, some school districts have improved the support they are able to offer, although this is certainly not uniformly the case. Relying on in-house training is, of course, an option, but staff development budgets are generally the most vulnerable to cutbacks and often the first to go any time money gets tight. Further, in-house programs are often devoted to district- or state-specific procedures and requirements, and do not necessary offer credit toward certification, salary increases, or graduate degrees. Likewise, while some districts (particularly those with large turnover or rapidly increasing student populations) offer tuition toward advanced degree as an incentive to attract new hires. Nonetheless, despite these efforts, there is typically less financial and other support for professional development for teachers than in other fields.

38 Inman.

Excerpt from Becoming a Win-Win Teacher: A Guide for First-Year Teachers, chapter three, “Climate Advisory: Entering Win-Lose Territory.” This material was taken directly from the final manuscript submitted and may be slightly different from the actual text of the book. For full bibliography listing all of the the resources used in this book (and details on the references listed above), click here.

This chapter includes six challenges facing people in the teaching profession:

Part 1: Financial Realities
Part 2: It’s Harder than it Looks
Part 3: Lack of Support
Part 4: Difficult Students, Difficult Parents
Part 5: Value and Status
Part 6: Issues of Autonomy and Discretion

Also check out:

Book: Managing 21st Century ClassroomsHow to avoid ineffective classroom management practices!
Article: “Great Expectations: Good News for Beginning Teachers
Podcast: “On the Right Foot: Support for Beginning Teachers” with J. Victor McGuire
Presentation: “Great Beginnings: Special workshop for beginning teachers, returning teachers, and preservice teachers

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