Build Them, Don’t Buy Them: Cultivating Excellence in Novice Teachers

As school leaders, one of our primary responsibilities is making sure we have well-trained, talented teachers in our classrooms. The challenge of finding quality teachers, especially for school leaders in areas that don’t have large numbers of teachers within driving distance, is significant. Judaic teachers and experienced general studies teachers are scarce and tend to be expensive, with better-funded, selective private schools or Jewish day schools in larger communities more readily able to snatch them up. Focusing on creating teacher excellence, rather than just identifying it, is an important way to meet this challenge and improve our schools at the same time.

Growing Teachers

Growing or building teachers is cost-effective, leads to more committed teachers and contributes to a culture of pedagogical growth and development for the entire staff. I have successfully attracted teachers who have content knowledge but not pedagogical background or significant classroom experience, and I have worked with them to improve their craft. Especially on the high school level, helping teachers improve their pedagogy is more feasible than trying to cultivate deep content knowledge. Additionally, internal school resources, in the form of mentors and administration, are usually more successful at supporting growth in teaching practice than in knowledge of content.

Resources as Support

The process of “growing” teachers requires “fertilizing” with focused spending and “watering” with administrative time. While newer teachers will command lower salaries than more experienced teachers, the school must budget for professional development and coaching for them. Professional development sessions outside of the school hone teacher skills while also connecting them to a larger collegial network to draw on for ideas and support. Colleagues in other Jewish day schools, both in Judaic and general studies, have similar challenges and understand nuances specific to our day school setting. For a few years, we sent one of our newer science teachers to a training geared towards STEM teachers in Jewish day schools. We also had an English teacher in a program that facilitated infusing Israel education across the curriculum. Both received excellent professional development while also expanding their network of like-minded educators in day school settings.

The second ingredient for new-teacher growth is administrative time. Time spent with new teachers improving their pedagogy helps them feel valued and connected. This is part of cultivating a team culture among the teachers and creating a feeling of forward momentum in curriculum and pedagogy schoolwide, both of which have been shown to improve teacher morale and commitment to their schools. Teachers appreciate when they are part of a growth-oriented group and are empowered to be part of school improvement.

Creating a new teacher cohort, even in smaller schools, is an effective way to give new teachers what they need to succeed. Each year at our school, an administrator leads group sessions for the cohort of new teachers focusing on different aspects of pedagogy. These sessions are an opportunity for newer teachers to speak to each other about similar challenges and experiences. The administrator also visits classrooms of veteran teachers with the cohort, and the group debriefs together. Having a more senior teacher mentor each of the new teachers is another way to foster their growth while demonstrating their value to the school.

Observation and Feedback Cycle

The instrument that leverages the most growth is a good observation and feedback cycle for their classroom practice. I have long been a believer in the Kim Marshall model (“The Truth About Teacher Evaluation”) of frequent, short, unannounced visits followed by debriefing and discussion soon after the visit. When I am in the classroom, I capture objective data and observations usually focused on a specific growth area. I record data such as how many times each student speaks, how many students are on task at different intervals, all questions asked by a teacher, etc. When meeting with the teacher, I try to get curious about what I’ve seen, and ask the teacher to look at the data I’ve collected and give me his or her impressions. 

Marshall advocates a 10-10-10 model with a 10-minute observation, a 10-minute debrief and a 10-minute write-up. I tend to observe for slightly more than 10 minutes especially with newer teachers, but I diverge significantly with his program when it comes to the debrief. The post-observation discussion is critical for the teacher growth and it needs to have more time budgeted for richer discussion.

What to Look for

New teachers need two types of guidance: pedagogical and practical. When the area of need is pedagogical, it is important to have the process be iterative. Teachers should articulate improvements they want to try in their class. The administrator should then see this next step in action (“Invite me to your class when you…,” “Send me your proposed lesson plan on…,” “Let’s meet and discuss once you’ve…”). Feedback is given on this effort, and then the process repeats. Such a feedback cycle can really move the needle on what is happening in the classroom and is worth the time investment.

At times, the needed change is more practical and stylistic than it is pedagogical. Teachers and students are not always able to identify exactly what is wrong, but there is usually a vague sense that something is not working. Teenagers tend to couch such feelings in complaints such as “he is boring,” “she is stiff,” “the teacher doesn’t like me,” and “the teacher is mean.” I have learned not to disregard such comments, especially when they are from students who rarely complain. An experienced administrator should be able to identify what is amiss by visiting the classroom and contemplating how students are experiencing the class.

I recently worked with a talented young teacher who seemed to connect well with students, but a number of students complained that they did not like her. When I sat in her class, I noticed that she would begin to speak just a moment before students were done speaking. In her attempt to preserve order, she was cutting them off almost imperceptibly, perhaps causing students to feel they were not being heard. Once I pointed this out to her, she adjusted, and the complaints disappeared. In another case, an experienced middle school teacher had transitioned to high school and was using some classroom management practices that were out of place with these older students. By helping to identify these practices and brainstorming better ways to accomplish the same goals, I was able to guide her to more age-appropriate practices in her classroom.

Schools frequently put significant financial resources and time into searching for excellent teachers who have proven track records rather than focusing on providing novice teachers with support and professional development to create excellence. However, attracting inexperienced teachers with great potential and working with them to improve their pedagogy is extremely rewarding. Such teachers are self-reflective about their practice and especially committed to the school.

I recently introduced a candidate for an administrative position in our school to a teacher who had begun her career with us and is now an excellent teacher. She told the candidate she would never want to work anywhere else. This is the power of growing teachers.

Maury Grebenau
Deepening Talent
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning