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The Gifts New Teachers Need Most

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As part of a new partnership, teachermagazine.org is publishing this regular column by members of the Teacher Leaders Network, a professional community of accomplished educators dedicated to sharing ideas and expanding the influence of teachers.

This holiday season I've been spending some time mulling over what gifts to give my colleagues at school. But I know without a doubt what I will give the first-year teachers with whom I work. In my eighth year as a new-teacher mentor in my school, I've learned that these novice educators are always in need of two things—hope and belief in self.

Our school’s Resident Teacher mentoring program, a partnership with the University of North Dakota College of Education, offers groups of inexperienced teachers (residents) the opportunity to earn a Master's degree and receive intensive coaching during their first year of teaching.

In my job, I get to work with four new teachers each year. Every week I meet with each resident during one of their prep periods to talk about how things are going. My practice is to ask them both what they're feeling good about and what they are most stressed about. It's important that they answer both questions. The first question helps them see that—as difficult as teaching is—they are having some successes. The second question opens the door to a discussion about their greatest concerns.

Teaching is deeply difficult work, even for successful veterans. Novices often use the metaphor of "drowning," especially in the early months of their first year. The gift of hope comes when I help a new teacher clarify and focus on a problem so it doesn't seem so overwhelming. Once the problem is isolated, we can identify specific strategies they might try. I think it's best to give them several ideas and then let them make their own choices.

The gift of belief in self comes when they hear me say that they are capable and doing a good job, at least in some areas. By sharing ideas—not prescriptions—I am communicating the message that they know more about their classroom than anyone else and have the knowledge and skills to make the best choices for their students. They also need specific feedback about things they are doing well. There’s an anonymous quote that might well have been written about new teachers: "A word of encouragement during a failure is worth more than an hour of praise after success."

I've learned over the years that no matter how well trained they are and how much self-confidence they bring to their first classroom, new teachers always have times when they doubt themselves and their career choice. It's my job as their mentor to always offer hope and belief in their abilities, to nurture and sustain them through the most difficult time in any teacher's professional life.

If you're a teacher leader, you may or may not be in a formal mentoring role. But perhaps, at least in some small way, hope and belief in self are gifts you can also offer to our newest colleagues this holiday season.

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