Once upon a time…
There was a sagey old teacher who thought that she knew everything about helping rookie teachers. Today there is a wiser, even older teacher who knows that she does not know everything. She is still learning.
Whether we are administrators, coaches, or veteran teachers, we need to value and respect what new teachers bring to the table. I recognized this included myself.
“Melissa, you talk too much,” my coaching colleague and friend said during a fishbowl exercise. “Remember the adage W.A.I.T., ‘Why Am I Talking’?”
"I know, Fran, I’ll work on it.”
Through carefully planned workshops, including those specifically designed for coaches within the Carolina Teacher Induction Program (CarolinaTIP) at the University of South Carolina’s College of Education, we support one another professionally and personally.
When coaches join CarolinaTIP, we learn to challenge our purpose and channel our passion.
Our brilliant leadership and development team provides insights and materials and gives coaches an opportunity to read and study, to try and fail, and to practice and reflect. Every meeting pushes us to hone our own coaching skills. The results have been life-changing.
I believe new teachers have extraordinary professional and personal skills, even in their early years of teaching. A carefully trained coach can help them uncover and find their own abilities and talents to thrive as an educator and sustain our profession.
Their growth doesn’t come from what I can provide them, but what I can facilitate within them.
As a past mentor teacher, cooperating teacher, and university supervisor, I felt that I could help overwhelmed, new, and confused teachers with tried-and-true ideas, structured planning, behavior management strategies, and active participation in their classrooms. I presumed that I had the experience and tools to be a fixer or an equalizer. (A fixer corrects problems, and an equalizer makes things fair and right, if you haven’t watched television lately.) I could help clean out closets, organize reading resources, and create small groups and learning centers to ease their load. But I soon realized I was not really helping, but enabling. Since enabling only provides surface solutions that don’t get to the depth of the challenges, a teacher’s confidence is compromised. Enabling doesn’t instill confidence, a key goal of coaching support.
As soon as I realized it wasn’t about me, my lens turned to the practices and hearts of the teachers assigned to me to support. I realized that my advice was not THE answer. Flipping the tables was illuminating.
Intense training from the CarolinaTIP team began to ignite in me a different point of view, including an appreciation for a new generation of teachers’ contemporary ideas as well as their creative and confident mindsets. Considering that each teacher is in a different place requires that I find the needs of each teacher and target support with personal yet professional tactics of careful questioning and responses. Being responsive to what they need is paramount. Different teachers have different needs.
Morgan Lee, a lead CarolinaTIP coach, mentor, and trainer, suggests that we reframe questions from “why” to “what.” Since questioning and listening are cornerstones of the CarolinaTIP coaching model, Morgan’s idea helped me shift my questioning from why questions to what questions. Why questions like “Why would you do that?” are evaluative and make us defensive, leading to back stories and resistance. When someone asks why, they expect there is a right or wrong answer. The CarolinaTIP coaching model does not want our teachers to be in that space. You can’t find out what a teacher needs with a why question. What questions—as opposed to “What else could you try?”—continue to work into the future.
Reframing questions from why to what helps us lean into questions such as…
- “What is important here?”
- “What is meaningful about the work that you do?”
- “What is the purpose that drives you?”
- “What is it about your work that makes you sing?”
- “What made you choose that course of action?”
- “What’s on your mind?” (My favorite)
These kinds of questions value the teacher’s personal experiences and perspectives.
Becoming more open-minded about listening to responses helped me enhance my toolbox of coaching skills, which includes paraphrasing, summarizing, and mirroring. Paraphrasing affirms a teacher’s words and helps check for understanding. I can mirror their exact words, ensuring that I heard them and that I am really listening. Summarizing says, “Here’s what you said.” Hearing their own amazing and illuminating responses, the teacher finds it easy to rethink and reflect on the situation.
The program’s retention data (98.7 percent professional retention from 2017–2021) speaks for itself. In addition, ongoing feedback from the teachers encourages and inspires me to continue to hone my communication and listening skills. In an anonymous fall 2021 survey, one of the teachers I support said, “Above all else, she helps you to realize that you CAN do this really hard thing. And I think that is really what makes Melissa special.”
As a coach of new teachers, I am like a chiropractor helping my teachers “get straight to feel better,” relieving stress and thinking holistically. Or like a choirmaster “helping teachers hit the high notes.” Or like an athletic coach working with a team: preparing, supporting, honing potential, providing space for practice, and pushing teachers to perform at their best.
Today I am a coach for new teachers in our exciting, yet tenuous profession, helping novice teachers navigate and celebrate the challenges and joys of teaching early in their career. I strive to be a coach who listens, asks questions about what is on the teachers’ minds, and reminds them of their skills and talents. The change in me can be the change in you, a way of being a new and improved coach.
I am proud to carry and pass the torch. We each need a torch; otherwise, we don’t know where we are going. More torches give more light. We use our own torches to light others’ torches. These are the torches held by a new generation of teachers who need our support to change the world, one child at a time.
How might you light the fires of passion for teaching in others? How can your torch serve as a light for the profession? How can we simultaneously support and grow early career teachers while honoring all they bring to the profession?
Coaching through the adaptive and responsive CarolinaTIP coaching model has shifted my paradigm from mentoring to coaching, filling new teachers with confidence, capacity, and hope. These educators are positioned to stay, improve, and honor our noble profession.
. . . and they all lived happily ever after.
This story is published as part of a recent storytelling retreat hosted by CarolinaCrED housed in the University of South Carolina’s College of Education. The Center for Teaching Quality, a CarolinaCrED partner, facilitated the retreat and provided editorial and publication support. Learn more about this work and read additional stories by following @CarolinaCrED and @teachingquality.