Paula Rutherford
Issue XIII

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 Learning from New Teachers 

This newsletter provides advice, insights, and suggestions helpful to mentors and induction program coordinators as they strive to support new teachers. Also included are timely instructional tips mentors can share with new teachers. This month’s issue is written by Bruce Oliver, ASK Group Senior Consultant and author of Just for the ASKing! e-newsletter. This issue features the lessons he has learned from eight superstars in the making.

New teachers inspire me with their enthusiasm, their fresh outlook, and, most importantly, their impact on student learning. They come to the profession with no preconceived notions and believe that they can teach all the children well. As I thought about all I learn from them, I decided that their stories should be told. As you read these brief descriptions, you may begin to think about creating such an accounting of the new teachers with whom you work.

Kindergartners come to their schools having a variety of experiences. Some are already reading while others may never have seen a book. It is the job of the kindergarten teacher to help all students to learn. It is a complicated and challenging job. Angela is a first year kindergarten teacher who clearly understands the needs of each and every one of her students. It is evident as she talks about her students with such specificity that she knows them well and regularly differentiates her instruction to meet each student’s needs. Although she has not had extensive training in differentiation of instruction, her actions and words make her a living embodiment of the true differentiated classroom. I found myself almost speechless as I listened to her describe her students and her classroom in a humble and unassuming way. She was not boastful or arrogant; she was simply outstanding. Meeting Angela solidified in my mind the importance of seeing each student as an individual with specific learning needs.

Andy is a career switcher. He had spent a decade teaching at the college level and decided that he needed a change. He moved to a different part of the country and took on the task of teaching high school physics. Within the first few minutes of meeting Andy, I saw a young man with a magnetic personality, a true zest for life, and an unparalleled sense of humor. As he participated in the workshop, he embraced every new idea, made connections to his curriculum, and eagerly talked to his colleagues about how he could apply what he was learning to make his students be successful. How fortunate his school division was to find such an exciting young teacher! As a result of meeting Andy, I was reminded of the importance of keeping an open mind in order to embrace new ideas that would contribute to student learning.

As a first year Spanish teacher, Kim displayed the typical insecurities and trepidations of many new teachers. However, she possessed an incredible positive attitude, an open mind, and the desire to do well. Kim shared with me that a student was placed in her class to give him the opportunity to socialize with his peers. She was told that he had learning deficiencies, not to worry about his passing her class, and simply to allow him the experience of being around regular education students. Kim felt strongly that she could not let her young student simply show up each day; instead she took a personal interest in him. As she explained, he started learning Spanish, became an active participant in her class, and was doing well. She said that she felt his success motivated her to work harder with all of her students to ensure their success as well. The lesson I learned from Kim was to always believe in each student’s capacity to learn.

Robert had the insight to tie everything he did in his middle school special education class to the senses of seeing, hearing, tasting, and feeling. Every single one of Robert’s lessons included connections to the senses. For example, if a story that the students were reading mentioned scones, Robert had samples for his students to try. If a lesson mentioned Thailand, he showed his students pictures of life in that country or played music indigenous to a particular culture. Thus, his students were completely immersed in every lesson. His unique lesson design was a departure from the typical way of teaching among many of his experienced peers. Robert’s approach to teaching reminded me that teaching could be exciting for students when their teacher made each learning experience a memorable event.

Courtney’s story is a little different but bears telling. She earned her degree in mathematics but did not go into teaching until her two children entered school. She returned to college, took some courses to update her skills, and was hired as a high school math teacher. She was eager to put into practice all she had learned about how to motivate students and how to plan interesting and exciting lessons for them. In her classes, the students often worked in groups applying mathematical principles to solve real-world problems. A visitor to her class would routinely find a student-centered environment, lots of animated conversations, and a high degree of participation. Courtney told me that at the end of her first year, she was proud of the fact that the achievement scores of her classes were the highest in her department. However, she was told that her unconventional teaching methods were “not the way we do things around here.” Teachers in her department told her to put her student’s desks back in rows and to work on making her classroom more orderly. Courtney began to question her decision to become a teacher. I overheard several other first year teachers encouraging her to persevere because she was “doing the right thing for her students.” I hope she took their advice. Listening to Courtney reinforced for me the importance of a teacher being clear about her core values and always using practices that promote real student learning despite criticism from colleagues.

In a third grade team meeting, Stephanie, a first year teacher, skillfully led her fellow teachers in a lively discussion centered on an upcoming science unit. Through her guidance, each of the experienced teachers had brought previous units as well as assessments to the meeting for discussion and analysis. As she facilitated the discussion, she allowed each of her peers to share their thinking. By the end of the session, the group had planned the upcoming unit as well as the formative and summative assessments they would use. The entire session was friendly, goal-oriented and professional. Her fellow teachers followed her lead without hesitation. Watching Stephanie solidified my belief that we should never underestimate the capacity of a first year teacher to demonstrate exceptional leadership ability.

Darren entered the teaching professional believing that teaching was not simply a job but a way to make a difference in the lives of children. He decided that he wanted to work with students who truly needed his support. As he planned his lessons, he linked every decision to something personal in the lives of his students without being patronizing. As he talked about his students, he clarified that he knew his background was different from theirs but, at the same time, he would do everything he could to get to know them well. He intently listened to them as they shared their life stories, sat with them in the cafeteria, and played basketball with them after school. In short order, he won them over. Darren helped me realize what can be accomplished when a teacher immerses himself in his chosen vocation.

My final story is about an exciting young teacher named Melisa. She has an insatiable appetite to learn as much as possible about teaching so that she can impact the learning and lives of her second graders. Her search for the best teaching practices takes her to workshops as well as to the Internet. On a recent Internet search, she found a contest that would provide $1,000 scholarships for each of her students as well as three computers and three color printers for their classroom. She told her students about the contest and they were immediately excited. She and her students prepared and submitted an application. With great excitement, Melisa talked about the day she was notified that she and her students had won the nationwide contest!  Melisa’s actions help us remember that an open mind coupled with a “We can do it” approach can lead to spectacular results.

So what are the key lessons we can learn from first year teachers? First, we should never underestimate the importance of making connections with and believing in our students. Second, the wisdom of new teachers often belies their age or years of experience. Finally, we must recognize that new teachers have a great deal to teach all of us and we should tap into their leadership and ideas about teaching on a regular basis. As we watch new teachers, we are often seeing superstars in the making. Their actions can help those of us with experience seek the best ways to help students learn, keep an open mind about the young people with whom we work, take risks when opportunities arise, and trust our hearts as we make decisions that have the potential to change the lives of young people.



Permission is granted for reprinting and distribution of this newsletter for non-commercial use only. Please include the following citation on all copies:
Oliver, Bruce. “Learning From New Teachers” Mentoring in the 21st Century® Issue XIII. Reproduced with permission of Just ASK Publications & Professional Development (Just ASK). © 2007 Just ASK. All rights reserved. Available at