Hacking Education: 10 Quick Fixes for Every School (2015)

HACK 6. MARIGOLD COMMITTEES

Nurture New Teachers with a Circle of Mentors

If you want to lift yourself up, lift someone else.

— BOOKER T. WASHINGTON

THE PROBLEM: POOR TEACHER RETENTION

IT’S NO SECRET that teacher retention is a huge issue for schools. According to most estimates, about a third of new teachers leave the profession within the first three years, and about half leave within the first five. This creates a vicious cycle of wasted time as schools must look for, interview, hire, and train new teachers every year. And because inexperienced teachers need several years to develop the skills of excellent teaching, schools with significant retention problems have little hope of ever realizing excellence for their students.

Although some school districts have mentoring programs in place for new teachers, the effectiveness of these programs is inconsistent: Many formal mentoring programs require so much paperwork and scheduled observations, they may not have room for the kind of natural relationship-building necessary for true mentoring to occur. In other cases, lack of accountability on the part of the mentor results in little or no interaction between mentor and mentee. And many schools have no plan for mentoring whatsoever: New teachers find supportive role models by luck, or not at all.

This problem is further compounded by the fact that many teachers in their early years are reluctant to ask for help. They know everyone in the building is incredibly busy, so they hold back their requests and questions, not wanting to bother anyone.

Many teachers, including new ones, are fiercely independent and do not like asking for help, even when they desperately need it.

Ego also plays a role: The new teacher, wanting to appear capable and worthy of the position they have just been given, too often feigns perfect calm, even if inside they are kind of a mess. Instead of reaching out for support, some new teachers keep their struggles private, bottling them up every day until the day they start looking for a new career.

If current mentoring programs worked as well as they could, fewer teachers would be leaving the profession. What we need is a different kind of mentoring for new teachers.

THE HACK: ESTABLISH A YEAR-LONG WELCOMING COMMITTEE FOR NEW TEACHERS

Every school has a few teachers who have that “it” factor: They love their work, they love the students, and they never seem to run out of enthusiasm. Their very presence inspires others. Many of these same teachers are also naturally good mentors, but if new teachers don’t happen to be formally assigned to them, or find them in some other way, those new teachers will never benefit from the support and wisdom that could be gained from consistently spending time with these motivating teachers.

If these teachers formed a group that met regularly with all new or less-experienced teachers (or any teacher who needs support) to talk, exchange ideas, solve problems, and share stories, the important mentor-mentee relationships would naturally form. From meeting with these groups, rookie teachers would pick up tips, grow more comfortable in sharing their questions and concerns, and begin to develop mindsets that resemble those of their mentors. In groups like these, new teachers would develop a love of teaching and problems would be addressed early, before they had time to develop into career-ending disasters. We call these groups Marigold Committees.

When gardeners want to protect young, vulnerable plants, especially tomatoes, they will often plant marigolds nearby. The marigold emits chemicals that protect other plants from worms, animals, and disease, thereby nurturing their growth. Similarly, certain teachers can serve the same purpose as marigolds to new teachers, encircling them in positive energy and helping them fend off the negativity that can often poison a beginning teacher. This concept was originally introduced on the Cult of Pedagogy blog in a post entitled “Find Your Marigold: The One Essential Rule for New Teachers.”

Gardeners are advised not to limit this proactive planting to just one or two plants: To achieve best results, marigolds should be planted in clusters all over a garden. If the Marigold teachers in your building form themselves into a committee, their protective, nurturing power will explode.

WHAT YOU CAN DO TOMORROW

It may take several years to gather just the right mix of dedicated teachers for a strong Marigold Committee, but there’s no time like the present to get things started.

·     Start small. If you are an experienced teacher who would like to form your own Marigold Committee, find at least one other like-minded teacher and together, invite at least one new (or newish) teacher to meet with you; this can be going out for a snack after school, having lunch together in one of your classrooms, or even setting up a Voxer group (see Hack 1). Explain that you’d like to talk about how things have been going.

·     Have a Q & A session. In preparation for your get-together, ask the new teacher to jot down a few notes about his or her current needs or questions, and bring the notes when you meet.

·     Recruit a Marigold. If you are an administrator, approach your most positive teacher about starting a Marigold Committee, and brainstorm a list of other teachers who might be interested in serving in this capacity.

A BLUEPRINT FOR FULL IMPLEMENTATION

Step 1: Establish your committee.

After explaining the concept of a Marigold Committee to the staff, offer the opportunity to anyone who would like to serve on it. Although the committee does not have to have a formal leader, if membership is large—more than 5 or 6 people—designating a facilitator or chair would be a smart idea so someone is in charge of planning events and keeping everyone informed.

Should an administrator serve on the committee? Since the Marigold Committee is a new concept, there are no hard-and-fast rules, but the presence of an administrator may alter the collegial feel you’re going for. New teachers are likely to have questions they may not want an administrator to hear, questions like, “If I want to take a sick day, but I’m not actually sick, is it okay to just say so, or do I have to pretend?”

Step 2: Survey new teachers.

Figure out what new teachers need by conducting a survey to learn about their concerns and questions. This survey should ideally be given in written or online form, rather than in person, to allow teachers time to reflect and offer honest responses. Most of your survey should consist of open-ended questions like these:

·                   What are you struggling with right now?

·                   What do you need information about?

·                   What questions do you have about our school? About our administration? About our students? About teaching in general?

Because new teachers don’t necessarily know what they don’t know, also provide some checklist-type or multiple-choice questions to help them consider other areas where they might need help. For example, “Which of these topics would you like to learn more about?” followed by a list of topics like classroom management, curriculum requirements, getting classroom materials, technology, setting up your retirement/financial plan, and the teachers’ union.

Step 3: Strategize.

When survey results come in, meet with other committee members to plan how to address the new teachers’ concerns. What issues are the most common among many of the newcomers? Is there someone on the committee with specialized skills or knowledge who can help someone solve a specific problem right away? Would other topics be most appropriate for whole-group discussion? What resources should the committee gather to support the new teachers? Whatever you do, use the survey to guide your interactions with the newcomers, rather than assuming you know what they need.

Also, consider how often you might want to meet. Will your committee hold monthly gatherings, do something once a week, or just meet once per quarter? Although it’s smart to plan based on everyone’s needs rather than stick to a rigid schedule, scheduling a few gatherings early on will build strong relationships that will last throughout the year.

Step 4: Hold your first gathering.

Keep this light, fun, and informal. New teachers are feeling a lot of anxiety, and if the first gathering is overly formal—more like an interview than a party—it will only increase that anxiety. Remember that although the Marigold Committee exists to share information, its main purpose is to build relationships with new teachers. Here are some suggestions for a first get-together:

·                   Feed everyone. Whether it’s sandwiches at lunch, snacks after school, or a full dinner, make sure there’s food.

·                   Set aside time for each Marigold to share a short reflection about his or her first year of teaching. Because the new teachers don’t know the Marigolds well, they haven’t developed the necessary trust to share what’s really bothering them. That trust can grow quickly if the Marigolds show some vulnerability from the start and share stories that reveal the truth about teaching: Everyone’s first year is hard.

·                   Plan an equal amount of time to let the newcomers talk. Although the Marigolds’ sharing is necessary to build relationships, do not allow it to dominate the first gathering, or newcomers will quickly see the committee as unconcerned about their needs. Give the new teachers an opportunity to ask questions and share their concerns.

·                   Keep things moving. A whole-group discussion may be too awkward at first, especially if people don’t know each other well. To get the conversation going, pair people up to discuss different questions or play some other kind of conversation-starting game to loosen the group up and get them talking.

Step 5: Continue gathering in a variety of ways.

For future gatherings, offer some variety, experimenting with meeting times, lengths, and activities, so you don’t tax anyone’s schedule and you offer different paths for connection. Here are some options to consider:

·                   Create opportunities for one-on-one interactions. Not all personalities will click, and if your gatherings always bring the whole group together, a personality clash may prevent some new teachers from opening up and getting the help they need. Look for ways to create individual connections as well. Committee members might choose individual newcomers to make direct, one-on-one contact with on a regular basis.

·                   Offer brief, informal workshops or presentations given by individual Marigolds on areas of expertise: satisfying IEP requirements, making calls to or meeting with parents, behavior management strategies, or using the school’s grading system.

·                   Short, quick gatherings—like a 15-minute doughnut party before school—can go a long way toward reconnecting the newcomers with their Marigolds and starting conversations that can continue later on.

Step 6: Follow up. Then follow up some more.

Many teachers, including new ones, are fiercely independent and do not like asking for help, even when they desperately need it. So it’s up to the mentors to stay in touch, to go beyond passing in the hall and saying, “If you need anything, just ask.” Instead, ask specific questions that will generate more detailed conversations: “How are things going with classroom management? How late are you staying every day? What are you teaching right now?” If you show a genuine interest and regularly demonstrate availability, the new teachers will feel more comfortable coming to you for help.

Step 7: Reflect.

When the year is coming to a close, ask the newcomers to reflect and share their thoughts on what was most helpful and offer suggestions for improvement or enhancement for the following year’s cohort of new teachers.

OVERCOMING PUSHBACK

Even an idea as simple and positive as this can have some possible obstacles. Here are ways to address them:

There’s no time. The nice thing about this hack is that it doesn’t necessarily require lots of time. Unlike a formal mentoring system that has paperwork and scheduled observations, Marigold Committees are informal, social, and require no paperwork. So if no one wants to take this on due to the potential time commitment, make it efficient: Even if you just hold a single event early in the year, you will plant the seed for better collaboration and mentorship.

If teachers aren’t compensated for mentoring, they won’t do it. Every school has some teachers who take great satisfaction in helping other teachers learn the craft. If no one is willing to form an actual committee, you might want to start by having a few teachers simply identify themselves as Marigolds and introduce themselves at the first faculty meeting.

Mentee teachers will feel inferior or embarrassed. Like teacher visits using a Pineapple Chart (Hack 2), it’s important to be transparent from the start about the intention of Marigold Committees. Remind teachers that the committees are designed to build camaraderie, a sense of belonging, and a strong community of outstanding educators. Marigolds aren’t know-it-alls; they are friends and mentors.

THE HACK IN ACTION

Barbara LaBarre, a chemistry teacher at Binghamton High School in Binghamton, New York, started the first Marigold Committee (and coined the term) as part of her school’s improvement plan for the 2014-2015 school year.

“I had read the ‘Find Your Marigold’ article and loved it so much I printed it out and shared it with my principal when we were writing our school improvement plan,” LaBarre explains. “Our school is large and can be daunting for a young new teacher, so I asked my principal if we could start a ‘Marigold Committee’ to welcome the teachers and help them settle in, learn the ropes and generally feel more comfortable in their new school.”

After recruiting several other interested teachers, the newly formed committee held two luncheons for the new teachers, where the veteran teachers shared tips and resources. “Things they would not normally get in a training,” LaBarre says, “common sense stuff like bring your plan and attendance book out of the building with you during a fire drill, how to get needed furniture and supplies for your room, and what is expected of you in observations.”

After the two luncheons, the mentors remained available to offer support on a more informal basis. To help new teachers identify Marigolds in Binghamton’s large, four-story building, the art teacher on the committee made felt marigold pins, and committee members wore them to the luncheons and some faculty meetings.

“The group has created relationships that may not have developed otherwise,” LaBarre says, noting that new teachers have felt comfortable approaching her seeking help with classroom management and offering to co-sponsor activities for the upcoming school year. And getting together for Marigold gatherings had the unexpected effect of bonding the new teachers with each other. “The new teachers made a little cohort of their own,” she explains, “once they knew who they all were!”

Principal Roxie Oberg says Binghamton plans to expand on the Committee’s work in the future. “I believe it is critical to support our newer teachers, not just for the first year, but all the way through the tenure process and beyond,” she says. “In that way, we will grow mentors who will be able to support the next generation of teachers and continue to develop a collegial, supportive teaching community.”

Supporting new teachers doesn’t require an expensive, complicated program. To help a new teacher grow, you don’t need tons of forms and bullet points for observations. Those things help, but at the start of the emotional, difficult, and often maddening journey of teaching, there is no substitute for relationships. A Marigold Committee could be the thing that keeps your teachers with you, growing and learning and looking forward to another great school year.