Tag Archives: new teachers

Three VIPs for New Teachers

You’re a new teacher, worried about how to start? Let me tell you about the three most essential contacts to make in your earliest days. Notice that none of these people are, technically speaking, colleagues. If you can find teachers who want to help you, great. I always make sure new teachers have a mentor or at least my help if they need it.  But this is about getting the support you need to do your job and other teachers aren’t really the first line of defense.

The Tech Guy

It’s usually a guy, so I will call him a “he”. Districts usually centralize technology, but each school site usually has a dedicated support guy. The first person you’ll meet is the principal’s secretary (more about her in a minute) but your first real friend must be the tech guy.

Few teachers recognize the advantages to being on first name terms with the guy with keys to the computer room, so they often won’t think to mention him. “Who’s the tech guy?” is a question that leads to other questions. Try “Is my email set up already, or will I need to request it?” or “Do you know if I have an account on the district server?” are excellent questions to elicit the tech guy’s name quickly.

I’ve been at three considerably different schools and found good tech support. But even if the guy is a lazy loafer with no real redeeming qualities, cultivate his acquaintance.

Take printers, for example. You can buy your own printer and request to set it up. This often violates several district policies, needs approval, and in some cases can’t be done at all. Alternatively, you can casually mention to the tech guy that if he has any spare printers, you’d be happy to set it up yourself, keep his workload low….and leave it dangling. Three schools, three printers set up for the asking in under three days. Old ones, sure. But they all worked, and I had them day one. And got replacements when needed.

I’ve seen teachers go two weeks without email, been forced to take attendance (shudder) manually, have no idea how to print to the main copy machine, all because they didn’t take twenty minutes to meet the tech guy. Meanwhile, I’ve gotten ten minute turnaround time when my DVD player doesn’t work on Movie Day, even though I make it clear my problem is non-critical.

Our school paid for our own tech guy for several years by giving up two class sections. He was worth every penny, and we’d still have him except the district technology director didn’t like him and reinstituted centralized control. Our current tech guy, supplied by the district, is also terrific. He likes green beans. I give him two or three bags of freshly picked beans from my garden, every year.

The Principal’s Secretary

Some schools separate actual secretarial support from the administrative tasks of running the school, but in my experience the job is usually centralized. Simply put: who does keys and subs? Who manages the missed prep list? Who runs work orders and facilities requests? If it’s not one person, you don’t need to worry. But it’s usually one person, and it’s usually the principal’s secretary. It’s almost exclusively a woman, so I will call her “she”.

She is actually the VIPest of the VIPs. You will meet her first when you start the year, but that’s the time to get out of her way. She  will be tremendously busy  and ferociously focused, particularly in the days leading up to the start of school.  Get your early business down quickly, smile, and begone.

In my experience, the principal’s secretary has an undocumented but strictly followed communications regimen. I’ll share the one consistent to the three I’ve known; yours may be different.

  • Email–only for work orders or other action items that go to someone else, something she can put in a folder for documentation.
  • Phone–only used for the immediate action of Send Someone Now. There’s a wasp in your classroom. There’s a fight in your classroom. There’s someone injured in your classroom.  You are about to vomit and need someone to babysit while you run to the john. Etc. You don’t call 911. You call her.
  • In person–the best way to handle three or four questions at once. Stop by during prep, or 15-20 minutes after the last bell.

In person, the five most important words to start all conversations with the principal’s secretary are “I’m sorry to bother you….”  Possibly add in “and it’s probably not your job, but I thought I’d check with you first.” Because in most cases, she will have sent out a document giving you the correct procedure, and in most cases you will not have bothered to read it. That’s fine, just slap your head and look apologetic, and try not to ask her two or three times in as many days for the same instructions.

Carefully restrict these in-person visits with questions in the first weeks of school. Don’t be a nag. Whatever other mistakes you might make, never ever think that your needs outweigh the importance of her job. You’re one of, what, 50? 80? If you don’t show up, a sub’s just a few minutes away. If she’s pulled away, a non-trivial chunk of school business gets put off until she gets back.

Eventually, she shares her observations with the principal. You want her report to be positive.

The All Powerful One at my second school had clearly decided long ago that most teachers were trying to make work for her. So outraged was she at the most innocuous query that I resorted to pure groveling.  “I know this isn’t your responsibility, and I swear I wouldn’t ask you except I’ve tried everyone else and you always seem to know everything that’s going on. Do you know where the purchase orders are kept?”

“THAT’S NOT MY JOB!”

“Oh, ok, it’s not your job to tell people where the purchase orders are kept. Could you tell me whose job it is to tell me where they are? I’m sorry again for bothering you.”

This, she found amusing and deigned to respond with reasonably useful information. After I left, an ex-colleague got in trouble when, irritated at her reflexive outrage, he snapped at her, “I’m helping kids. Your job is to help me.” This earned him a reprimand that went into his permanent file. I advise grovelling.

My current Principal’s Secretary is excellent, properly inspiring fear, respect, and rapid learning curves for all things administrivia. We’d gotten along well for three years until I didn’t call in a sub in a timely manner. No points were granted for my heroic attempt to avoid taking a day off.  I was originally somewhat nonplussed that she didn’t give a rat’s ass about my almost non-existent absentee rate. Then I realized that her job is to get coverage, which meant healthy, noble me was far more hassle than the teacher taking thirteen days a year with a properly notified sub. Humbling.

But she forgave me after a few days of grovelling. I bring her squash and cucumbers every year. Plus, she thinks I’m a pretty good teacher–she’s the mom in this story.

The Attendance Clerk

This will be less focused than the other two because in order to properly value the attendance clerk, you need to understand the importance of attendance.

On the first day at my second school, the union rep reminded us all of the two Do’s and one Don’t: do be on time, do take attendance, don’t touch the kids.  These, she stressed, were the essentials of the job. We all laughed at the truth so brutally expressed: actual teaching is a secondary consideration.

I got a call from my attendance clerk one time, “Why is Darby skipping your class every day?”

I was confused. “He’s at basic training.”

“What? No, he’s not.”

“He said he was accepted to the military and had all the credits he needed to graduate, so he was starting basic training early….this sounds really stupid now that I say it out loud.”

“Yeah, he’s lying. And he’s in all his other classes.”

“Um. No. He’s not. He’s out of town. I know this because he texted another student to ask me not to mark him absent, but I told him…”

“#(S&U#*(&*QT!” and the clerk hung up the phone.

Darby was in an entirely different time zone. His parents were out of town and thought he was in school. When his parents got automatic notifications of his first block absence, he told them he was sleeping in and showing up late. I was the only one of his four teachers marking him absent. The other three thought he was in basic training, too.

At best, that’s embarrassing. At worst, it’s a lawsuit. At really worst, it’s a lawsuit and millions in settlement.

Schools are legal custodians of the children (in loco parentis) while they are in school. Taking attendance creates a legal document, one that is audited and cross-checked, establishing that the student was in the school’s custody. (Note: Many high schools, like mine, have open campuses, allowing students to leave and return. I have never known how that squares with our legal custodial responsibilities.)  That’s not even getting into the fact that schools often get paid for each student in attendance, and the government likes schools to be able to prove in regular audits that they got paid for actual butts in chairs.

All sorts of  caselaw abounds defining school responsibilities, where they exceed parents, what a “reasonably prudent parent” would do, but we’re all just one nasty case and a cranky judge away from utterly ridiculous strictures. Fortunately most of it is out of your purview. Except attendance.  Most of the admins who’ve evaluated me have also checked with the attendance clerks to see how I’ve done. New teachers in particular want that report to be good.

But that’s all just about taking attendance on time, which you should do anyway. Why is it a good idea to be buddies with an attendance clerk?  As you’ll soon observe, these ladies are at best mildly friendly, at worst complete grouches. Their job requires a great deal of nagging teachers, apprehending students in the act of cutting,  and placating parents when teachers (raises hand) accidentally mark a present student absent.  Never mind the daily duties of nagging teachers to take attendance, sign off on their weekly audits, and so on.

But all of this is why it behooves any new teacher to seek them out and befriend at least one clerk. You’ll screw up occasionally. Or a lot, if you’re me. Don’t hide your mistakes. Don’t hope they won’t be noticed, because they will. Acknowledging your errors and emailing them will not irritate the clerks, but win their appreciation. I once apologized to my favorite clerk for being such a screwup–on more than one occasion I’ve somehow missed taking attendance for an entire day and had to email with a deep grovel and my best recollection of who wasn’t there. She laughed. “You’re in the top 15% of all teachers here. Twenty three percent of our teachers don’t ever take attendance.”  I bring them all a bag of heirloom tomatoes to great acclaim.

Pick an attendance clerk to be your “buddy”–she’ll call you up with questions instead of assuming the worst, allowing you to correct minor errors. She’ll send reminders. She won’t nag. She wants teachers to value her work, not despise her picayune corrections. Let her help you. If it ever comes to a lawsuit, you want to feel good about your attendance record.

What about…..?

If you teach K-5, custodial staff replaces attendance clerks. Custodial staff almost makes the cut, but honestly, you won’t need reminders to be nice to them. These are the first folks to enter your room after the last bell, when they get the trash, take a quick look around the room to plan for later. They’re often the first adult you’ll have seen in hours, so smile and take the time to talk.

Leaving administrators. Shouldn’t new teachers cultivate administrators?

Yes, but this is outside of your control. Administrators make their own choices.  I’ve been at two jobs where the teachers loved me and the administrators looked through me, and one job (here) where administrators loved me from the first day, while  three senior math teachers considered me a dangerous radical, best purged.

It sucks to be unpopular with your colleagues. But if you want the time to build relationships, then it sucks more to be unpopular with your administrators. I wish it were a choice. But schools are an ecosystem, and fitting in is outside simple behavior changes.

Of course, that might just be me.

In any event, you don’t need me to tell you to make nice with the boss.

Here’s to a new year.

 

 

 

 

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Mentoring Teachers

Last August, our new AVP asked me if I wanted to be an induction mentor. I fought off the urge to look at her in shock and said sure. I am not a fan of induction, but what the hell. My views on ed school have changed round the edges since that post, so maybe I could re-examine my firm belief that induction is the devil. Besides, neither of my induction mentors taught math, and if I’d refused this assignment the new teacher would have been assigned to someone Not a Math Teacher. Plus, amazingly, I get paid extra.

I would have done it for free, simply for the novelty of having been asked. Apparently, the move to my third school mad me a terrific teacher. All the administrators say hi unprompted and look at, rather than through, me. They ask my advice and want my feedback on interviews. I’m in my third year here and still haven’t really gotten used to being considered a valued resource. And the only thing that changed about my teaching practice was the address.

My mentee is a third year teacher who was very nervous that her induction mentor would treat her like a newbie whose ears needed wiping. Once we got past that, I think we’ve been doing well.

Induction itself has been a challenge. I’m a good mentor for new teachers (more on that in a minute), but she doesn’t really need mentoring on the basics. She needs me to play the other half of the induction process. Order. Following instructions. Attention to detail. Listening more than speaking. All attributes missing from my toolbox. I actually wake up nights every so often worried I’ve neglected something, that I’ll have let her down. Which means, I think, the exercise is good for me.

In addition, induction requires regular conversations about teaching practice, conversations that require give and take, as opposed to just jabbering about my own teaching which, it will come as little shock to regular readers, I am very fond of doing. I have to think about asking good questions of a peer, to be probing and challenging without dominating the conversation.

And at some point, I’ll have to observe her which means getting a substitute. Not crazy about that part. Still, this has really been useful professional development. Quite apart from just being thrilled to be asked, I’m learning a lot and working outside my comfort zone.

Meanwhile, we finally hired a full-time math teacher to replace the long term sub who was being terrorized by her Discovery Geometry class. Watching that go down was to witness a grueling demonstration of student brutality that I felt helpless to stop.

I met with this sub on many occasions. I personally handed her referral slips and wrote down the number to call to get students removed. I called supervisors to the room when the thumping and banging went on for more than two minutes. I told her not to let the kids even go to the bathroom and certainly not to let them go twice. Instead, she kept her door open in defiance of rules we’d been repeatedly told of, and kids came and went as they pleased. The other teachers in the surrounding classrooms were equally troubled; one of the most respected teachers on campus came in the classroom when the kids were throwing paper and empty water bottles at the sub. She told me privately she’d never shown so much contempt for students as she did in yelling at them—and that she could see some of them were ashamed. But they were at it again the next day. Those two months were an exercise in abuse psychology I’d just as soon have skipped, thanks. I learned that some teachers who can’t manage their classrooms just….go somewhere weird in their brains. They see themselves as helpless, even when they aren’t.

All of the teachers who witnessed this met with the administrators at various times to formally report the problem. I asked that supervisors stop by the classroom each day once or twice and just randomly remove kids who were acting out. Doing that a couple times would get kids leery waiting for the next supervisor appearance. It would have worked, I think. But no such action was taken.

While I wish our administrators had responded more vigorously, I’ve heard of this happening at other schools and it seems to be a universal response. I have concluded tentatively that administrators simply can’t bear to deal with the problems that occur when teachers—long-term subs or out-of-their-league probationaries—can’t control their classes. They look away. They have other things to do—including hiring replacements so they won’t have this problem next year.

What administrators ignore–or maybe just don’t let themselves think about or worst of all do think about and don’t ignore but can’t prevent—is the damage done to the kids. Never mind whether or not they lost instruction time (in fact, this sub was good on content). Kids in control of a classroom upsets the natural order. Students are troubled by this. Even the defiant nasties, the ones who’d do their best to disrupt in any circumstance, are bothered by teachers who just sit there and let it happen.

Anyway. When the new teacher came in, I came by to see him in his first hour on campus and recounted this history. He’s an intern, so he’s finishing up ed school while teaching (we should all be so lucky), a mild-mannered young guy with long hair and multiple piercings. I told him that I had zero authority over him, that he could take or leave anything I said, but that I believed he could permanently destroy himself as a teacher if he didn’t make classroom management his top priority. I don’t know how teachers recover from the memory of entire classes that hold not just their authority but their very existence in such contempt. I’m not convinced that most of them do.

I told him to come see me if he needed anything at all. He asked what he should do for the first day, and I suggested my algebra assessment test.

“But I don’t want to give them a test they haven’t had time to prepare for.”

“Tell them the only way they can get a bad grade is if they don’t try, and that you’ll be able to tell if they aren’t trying.”

“Oh, that’s a good idea. So this gets me through the first 20 minutes, then we can grade it, then what?”

“It will take them 45 minutes, then you can grade it, then you can go over class rules, which start with no one goes to the bathroom for a week in your classroom. Again, suggestion, I promise. But a strong suggestion.”

“This assessment will take them 45 minutes?”

“Your geometry class. The Discovery Geometry kids probably will need an hour, but some of them will just stop after that point.”

The next day, he reported with considerable astonishment that the geometry kids took 45 minutes; the Discovery Geometry kids took longer. I had street cred now.

He came by and asked for advice and curriculum frequently. Time and again, I was proven correct in suggesting he was being too ambitious in setting instructional rigor, ensuring he had a backup plan in case he needed to slow things down. He tells me this has helped him not only gauge student ability, but keep his classes successful—thus ensuring he keeps the students’ trust. He’s not a great classroom manager yet–the most disruptive class is still giving him trouble—but he’s male, which helps, and the classes are now well in hand.

He’s not eligible for induction, but it turns out we have another program to help intern teachers. Our school rep for that program reached out to him to see if he wanted a mentor and damned if he didn’t say “Hey, I already have one.” So now I’m getting paid to help him, too. I’m hoping I can combine all the observations for this and my induction mentee in one day.

Veteran teachers rarely reach out to help “the new guy” (or girl). At my last school, in just my third year of teaching, I was the go-to resource for two new math teachers whose induction mentors couldn’t be bothered. They both mentioned often how much they appreciated my help. One of them is now a department head (See? Told you he was a rock star) and he makes a point to give new teachers the support I provided him.

Key information:

  1. Copier information
  2. Referral slips
  3. Tech guy contact
  4. Principal’s secretary
  5. First day activity
  6. What to do if you don’t have logins to attendance system, grading book, and email. (First rule: Don’t let anyone make this your problem.)

In parenting, Jean Illsley Clark has defined assertive, supportive and conditional care. This paradigm works well with any kind of mentoring relationship, too. I could tell that my inductee was worried I would be assertive or conditional—that is, tell her what to do or withdraw my support if she didn’t share my teaching values. My other newbie told me apologetically he didn’t feel ready to teach a geometry subject the way I suggested, that he was more comfortable “just explaining it”. I told him that was fine, that methods like mine need commitment and confidence, that he shouldn’t extend himself until he feels ready.

I work hard to be purely supportive. I’m there to help, not make a teacher into a mini-me. Short of seeing a teacher break the law or endanger student well-being, I would never offer “assertive care”. And if there’s one thing that long-term sub taught me, it’s that “assertive care” doesn’t work without authority to back it up.

The upshot of all this: I’m an experienced teacher. I mean, I knew that. But now it’s official. I don’t want to go into management, have no interest in being a department head, and I’m not into sports. So I guess mentoring new teachers is where I go next. Huh. Not what I would have expected. But it would be fun to do this in a methods or classroom management course.

Note: Yes, it’s been a long time since I’ve written, for a number of reasons. I’ve been doing all sorts of research but couldn’t settle on anything. I’m going to take on undemanding topics for a while to break the block.