A timely challenge

March 2010


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MARY JAMIESON talks to NZ Teacher about the issues facing new teachers

Mary Jamieson has been coordinating the University of Waikato’s School Support Services’ support programmes for year one and two secondary teachers for several years. She agrees that little has changed in terms of the key challenges for beginning teachers such as managing their time, getting to know their students and managing their classrooms.

Top of her list of common issues for new teachers is the sheer amount of information that first-year teachers have to come to grips with. It can be overwhelming, she says, advising that new teachers should have a ‘buddy’ somewhere in the school who can help them make sense of it all. That person need not be the same person as their mentor or supervising teacher – in fact, it’s better if they are a different person – and should be familiar with the school’s culture and systems. Most schools have orientation and inducation programmes, but the buddy role is so useful it is really a necessity, Jamieson suggests.

One of the more obvious challenges is simply having your own classes to teach. “The reality that you’re alone in the classroom with 30 students can be quite daunting,” Jamieson says.

“One of the best things beginning teachers can do is get to know the class,” she suggests. “Slow down in the first few lessons and get to know the students – who they are, how you pronounce their names, what ethnicities are there in the class... how that will affect your teaching programme.”

It is also a good idea for beginning teachers to share information about themselves – not too much as teachers need to keep a professional distance from students, but enough to appear approachable.

Jamieson agrees that getting to know students can be a challenge for secondary teachers with different classes, particularly if they have a heavy junior load and suggests teachers jog their memories by keeping photos of their classes with students’ names.

On the subject of classroom management, Jamieson suggests that control of secondary school classrooms is shared with the students themselves. It is important to be clear and consistent and notes that many teachers negotiate classroom rules with their teachers. “To do that with the students is a good idea because they have that buy-in that ‘we create this together’.”

Also important in this respect is the school culture and its policies and expectations of students. Those set the bottom line as far as student behaviour is concerned. From there it is a matter of finding an approach that works for each teacher – some seek to build good relationships with their students while others are more traditional.

Keeping the teaching programme on track so students learn what they need to learn is a key responsibility and Jamieson says beginning teachers should keep asking questions. “As soon as you stop... you might go off on a track that’s not intended,” she warns.

Time management is a huge issue for beginning teachers, Jamieson says. A common pitfall is for new teachers to feel an obligation to take on extracurricular roles or help out in some way. “Some can manage that and some can’t,” Jamieson says. Though helping with a drama production or coaching a team is a great way to get to know students, it can take up a lot of time.

Beginning teachers have a time allowance which means they should not have a full teaching load. Jamieson says teachers need to negotiate this with their school and it can be more difficult to ensure in hard-to-staff schools. In some cases, beginning teachers might negotiate to have no time allowance in one term, but it is made up in the next term.

She says the time allowance is valuable and there are good recommendations on its use in the Teachers Council publication Towards Full Registration.

“One of the best things they can do with it is go and watch other teachers teaching,” Jamieson says, noting that beginning teachers can learn different things from different teachers. Someone in the school might be particularly good at managing large classes for example.

But new teachers can also learn from one another. Jamieson encourages first and second-year teachers to join networks in their area so they can meet others who are in the same situation.

Mentoring the mentors

While beginning teachers need help getting to grips with their new job, those who mentor them in schools can also benefit from a helping hand.

Mary Jamieson says there is a real gap in terms of support for mentor teachers – the experienced teachers who work with new teachers to help them meet the requirements of registration.

She says there seems to be an assumption that heads of department or specialist classroom teachers automatically have the skills to coach another teacher. In reality, teachers often need training so they can fulfil this role well.

Jamieson’s core advice for mentor teachers is to try and remember what it was like for them as a beginning teacher. “Can they remember what it was like and how daunting it actually was?”

A key requirement is the ability to mentor someone who might have a quite different teaching style to their own. “That’s probably the biggest challenge we find,” Jamieson says, explaining that a mentor teacher with one way of doing things might encounter a beginning teacher with fresh ideas and a new approach. Can the mentor teacher discuss that approach and avoid simply leaping to the conclusion that it won’t work?

Jamieson says time is also an issue for mentor teachers. They are often heads of department who are under pressure already in terms of the demands on their time, and they receive a time allowance of only one hour per week for year one teachers and nothing for second-year teachers.

Overall, says Jamieson, schools really need to consider a system of support for mentor teachers that parallels that of their beginning teachers. They also need to make sure they choose the right people for the role.

Recommended reading

Mary recommends the results of the ‘Learning to Teach’ research programme that the Teachers Council ran from 2006-7. This includes a survey of provisionally registered teachers and also case studies of successful teacher induction. It is available at www.teacherscouncil.govt.nz under the publications section.