Thursday, October 11, 2012

Too much handholding for new teachers?

I'm a part of our county's steering committee that determines how we will roll out professional development, materials, and support for teachers through the transition.  It's been an interesting ride that I've not always agreed with (I tend to agree with Dr. Yong Zhao when he says he would like the common core standards a lot better....if they weren't "common" or "core").

In our last steering committee meeting, our director of curriculum did an excellent job of refocusing the group on the purpose of what we've been doing since the start of last year.  The various content-level teams are working with teachers to create a common set of transfer goals (what skills we want students to have when they leave), learning principles (what we believe about learning), enduring understandings (main concepts/content), and essential questions (provoking questions that lead to explorations of the topic at hand).  These foundations are then put into course maps and sample units that teachers can rely on in their teaching.

The curriculum department basically states that we will work together to create these common items but the actual delivery/instructional methods is something that is completely up to teachers and their PLC's.  When first hearing this I thought it sounded like a good approach.

But then I started wondering.  Our curriculum director relayed a story of his first year of teaching that was very similar to my own- he was handed a textbook and a pacing guide and then left to figure out everything else on his own.  That's exactly what happened to me as a first year kindergarten teacher- I was thrown to the (cute) wolves and had to literally figure out every activity, every objective, every facet of my day as I went. That process fundamentally changed the teacher/educator I would grow to become for the better.  It forced me to be creative.  It forced me to work hard.  It forced me to think deeply as I was planning how each student would accept or reject what we were doing.

I've talked with a lot of GREAT teachers with similar first year stories.  So I've begun to wonder- where is the line with supporting new teachers?  How much should we hold their hands, give them all the materials, give them the questions they should be asking, etc.?  Do we run the risk of stunting a good teacher's growth into a great teacher by holding their hand too much?  Is the common "safety net" we're casting to make sure poor teachers achieve at least a base level of competency also dragging our potentially great teachers back to the middle?  Is there a way to support poor/average teachers to become better without hindering the good ones from becoming great?

I don't know the answers to these wonderings.  It just struck me that one of the primary goals in education is to create students that are confident, independent problem solvers. We try to foster independent problem solvers that can define, approach, and attempt to solve whatever problem or obstacle they find in their way.  And handing teachers a common set of expected materials/requirements/sample units seems to do the very opposite of what we want to be doing with students.

While I think new teachers need all kinds of support, I wonder if one of the best ways we could help is to do what we often need to remind ourselves to do with students....."be less helpful."