New teachers need a lot. There are lots of ways to know that. Start by asking one. I sit down with the newbies in my department each week for a one-on-one supervision session. I ask how they are. They tell me they’re tired.
I like to think that our rookies are well supported, but still: every day, they take in a flood of new information and make more decisions than they had in the month before they started teaching. And many of those decisions will turn out to be wrong.
Nationally, lots of teachers don’t make it to Year Two. That’s especially true for teachers in high-poverty schools. We also know that rookie teachers, wherever they teach, are typically less effective than those with three or more years of experience in the classroom.
So what do new teachers need in order to become effective and preserve their health and sanity? Besides the obvious — decent pay and working conditions, adequate academic preparation for the kind of teaching they’re doing — what kinds of support and guidance do new teachers need in order to become proficient, happy professionals?
Apprenticeship or Scripting?
For curriculum support, there are two standard models, apprenticeship and scripting. The suburbs usually opt for the apprenticeship model. New teachers, budding artisans, learn their craft from an experienced mentor, who shares curriculum and shows them how to use it. That’s how I learned (at age 39) when I started teaching in a large suburban high school.
The success of the apprenticeship model depends entirely on the quality of the materials and mentorship provided by the experienced teacher. That quality varies greatly. If running a consistent program with aligned curriculum and pedagogy matters to you, the apprenticeship model is not the way to get it. And in many cases, particularly in high-need schools with lots of teacher turnover, the model simply isn’t viable — there aren’t enough master teachers available to train the apprentices.
Some districts and charter networks have tried to address the demands on new teachers by providing them with scripted curriculum. The logic is clear enough. Newbies have an awful lot to learn and think about. If you can take curriculum planning off their hands, they’ll have more energy and brain space to devote to getting to know their students and learning how to manage them. Supervisors can then focus on classroom management and school culture, which is the priority for many high-poverty schools.
Our friends at Uncommon have done about as well with scripted curriculum as I can imagine an organization doing. They coach teachers to “spar” with the questions posed in the lesson. They give lots of feedback on lesson delivery. They write their own lessons, so that they’re pitched at the right audience, their own Uncommon students. Still, the problem we were called in to help them with was the problem of internalization. Just because you’re reading from the script doesn’t mean that you’re actually playing the part. An actor who doesn’t understand the character or the play won’t give a very convincing performance. A teacher who is not knowledgeable about and engaged by the lesson content is unlikely to move and educate an audience of captive young people.
A Better Alternative
It’s unrealistic and, frankly, irresponsible to think that students in a class will learn and think more deeply than their teacher. In the apprenticeship model, there’s no guarantee that the apprentice will actual learn what the lessons are about, or even that the mentor really knows. Lots of what passes for curriculum training is in fact activity sharing. Likewise, scripting does guarantee some common practices, activities, and utterances in the classroom. But if the point is to get kids thinking in increasingly sophisticated ways about history and society, there’s no reason to expect even a thoughtful script to train a new teacher to assume that responsibility.
So what’s the alternative to apprenticeship and scripting? It’s what at least some new teachers actually say they want. I recently did a workshop for middle school teachers at an urban network. All the teachers in their first few years were hungry, even desperate for guidance. They had access to scripted curriculum, but didn’t really understand it. They told me explicitly: the thing they needed most was to know what they were supposed to teach. They didn’t want scripts. They wanted to know what their students were supposed to learn and why and how they were supposed to learn it. They wanted what Lee Shulman dubbed “pedagogical content knowledge.”
Jon and I have begun to create 4QM materials that address this need directly. We’re writing MA standards-aligned storyboards and unit guides for core history courses in grades 6-11. If you’re a veteran of our workshops, you know that the storyboard provides the outline of our unit story, the answer to the big Question One of the unit: What happened? Our unit guides contain the specific versions of each of the Four Questions that we’ll expect our students to ask and answer during the course of the unit. The unit guide also previews the unit assessment and identifies key actors, events, and ideas.
Knowing the story and questions for a unit helps a ton. So does knowing the answers. So Jon and I are providing model answers for each of our unit questions. Teachers will still need to spar with the questions themselves, but they’ll see what proficiency looks like when they practice. These unit guides with model answers provide enough guidance for teachers to begin to acquire pedagogical content knowledge.
Finally, we’ve created a playcard for matching learning goals and pedagogical techniques. Every NFL coach consults a laminated playcard on the sidelines during games. Third and long? The coach checks the playcard to see what plays they’ve practiced that would work in this situation. For us, the 4QM Playcard lists techniques for teaching and assessing each of the four questions. Working on a Question Two with a group with a wide range of literacy skills? We’ve outlined the options for teaching students how do interpretation and then for assessing and giving feedback on their performance.
The Power of Appropriate Scaffolding
Our 4QM apparatus scaffolds curriculum for teachers the same way expert teachers scaffold assignments for students. Students don’t learn from copying. They learn from making decisions with guidance, constraint, and feedback. Our materials provide the guidance and constraint for teachers, who ultimately have to make choices about curriculum and pedagogy, informed by the students they teach and the circumstances in which those students learn. We insist on providing training for teachers who will use our unit guides and playcard. Teachers need to internalize the 4QM framework in order to be equipped to make sensible choices about how to use our material. In the end, though, there’s no substitute for supervision and real-time feedback. That’s why we like supervisors to do our training with their teachers.
Dropping new teachers into the deep end doesn’t do them or their students any favors. Neither does handing them a script. Being a new teacher is hard. Since the learning curve is steep, there’s no time to waste: teachers need to start learning right away. They need help, guidance, and support. For content and curriculum for history teachers, we think we’ve got exactly what they need. Give us a call and we can set up a time to show you.