In October one year, when most teachers settle into a rhythm, a teacher abruptly quit at my husband’s school. Her resignation letter, which she sent to the entire campus, listed her grievances against the school administration. In particular, she blamed the school administration for not issuing her support, especially as a first year teacher.
Maybe you’ve found yourself in a similar situation. You feel like you’re drowning and no one is helping you. Maybe your team does not work well together, or administration lacks the willingness to discipline students. Perhaps you have no team at all, only a book and some vague curriculum guides that the district sent.
Whatever the case, you need a support system, and it looks like you need to build it yourself.
Even if you have a supportive administration and great team, you can still follow these tips and enhance your network.
Make friends with teachers from other departments
The fancy word for this is interdisciplinary collaboration, which looks great on a resume, but that’s not the point.
Teachers in other departments offer different perspectives than those who teach a similar subject. They have different strategies in their toolboxes, different methods of discipline, and different perspectives on those kids you both teach.
Some of the things they do might work for you. Anything can be adapted, so try them out. I knew a Geometry teacher who had her students make kites to teach them 3D objects. Or this teacher who teaches advanced math through crochet.
How do you strike up a conversation with these other teachers? That’s what staff meetings are for. If there isn’t an upcoming staff meeting (lucky you), then look up the schedule of one of your “difficult” students and go ask one of those teachers what their experience with that student is. The conversation will flow from there.
Making friends with other departments also lets you see how the school is working overall. You will see the struggles that other teachers have that you may not.
For example, I learned one year that Fine Arts is only funded by money from the state, whereas the core subjects have funding from Title I. So money was tight for that department, while I was able to (mostly) get the supplies I needed. It made me appreciate all that the Fine Arts department did with less than I had.
Find teachers in your community
Is your neighbor a teacher? What about people in your church? Yoga class?
Find the teachers in your life and latch on to them. Go out for coffee or lunch. You don’t even have to talk about teaching. Sometimes, it’s nice to have some “adult time” with someone who understands what you’re going through.
Realistically, though, I’ve never seen two teachers get together and not eventually talk about school. Get more than two teachers together, and you have six hours of story swapping that would rival a group of middle aged guys talking about their doctor’s visits.
However you choose to gather, you will quickly realize that 1) you’re not alone in this and 2) you have something valuable to share that other teachers would love to use. Even if you’re the only high school teacher among elementary teachers, you’ll be surprised at how much you can gain and contribute.
If you’re new to your area, or live like a hermit in your off time (I’ve been there), don’t despair. Use sites like Meetup to find groups in your community.
Join a teaching organization
Do a quick Google search and you will find many teacher organizations designed to help you develop into the best teacher that you can be. I’m a member of the National Science Teachers Association and I’ve been a member of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, and I’ve loved/still love every part of it.
These organizations can supply you with useful books and monthly magazine publications that will give you support and ideas. NSTA even has email listservs where teachers of specific subjects can communicate with each other across the nation.
Teacher organizations may also have conferences each year, where you can go meet other teachers and find great ideas. Some of the more effective teaching strategies in my toolkit were gleaned from conference breakout sessions.
If it sounds expensive to you, the price may not be as bad as you think, especially if you’re a teacher in your first 5 years. The benefits you receive definitely outweigh the cost.
Find blogs, books, and other reading materials for guidance
This one lacks the personal touch that the other methods in this list have, but it’s still worth mentioning. You can find a lot of useful ideas in books and on the internet, so if you’re the independent type (or more likely, it’s 3am and lesson plans are due at 7am), this is not a bad route to go.
Make friends with the support staff
If you really want a new perspective about the school, talk to the librarians, the office managers, the hall monitors, or the custodians. They see everything.
They are also incredible resources for the necessities in life.
I cannot tell you how grateful I have been when a librarian has emailed me to ask what books they could order for my class, or squeezed my class in to use computers because my classroom got taken over by testing.
The custodians have supplied me with paper towels (a must for science labs).
The data controllers have nicely guided me through the new process for changing a student’s grade.
Treat the support staff nicely, and they will take care of you when you need it most. No, it won’t help you plan the best lesson ever, but you’ll be glad you took the extra time to be nice when the chips are down and you need immediate help with a lab-created mess, or a fight in your classroom, or a sudden restroom break.
Just don't sink into the gossip trap
I offer a few words of caution as you find new friends on campus: don’t fall prey to the gossip trap. The goal of building your own support group is just that: support. Let each teacher/department take care of their own drama. And keep the stories others tell you about other students, teachers, or administrators in perspective. People are complex individuals.
Don't knock a frank chat with your administration.
Administrators are people too. They may not have noticed that you’re struggling or that the people they put in place to help you aren’t helping at all. The beginning of the school year is busy for everyone.
Even if you think it’s obvious, reach out to your administrator and ask them for help. Tell them how you feel and see what they suggest. They could be a great resource as you refine your craft. Even if what they suggest doesn’t work, you’re showing your willingness to learn and try something new. That wins points in any boss’s book.
If you need help starting the conversation, check out this post. Even if you haven’t received bad observation feedback, the information is helpful for any conversation.
Don't forget to contribute yourself
Support is a two way street. Don’t forget to offer your own tips and tricks to your support system or do something kind for them. Hearing that the art department needed pencils, I dug into my own pencil stash (not paid for with department funds, in case anyone I know reads this) and donated some to them. I’ve taken time to reassure new teachers that they are, in fact, doing a good job.
And don’t forget to follow up if you take someone’s advice. The best thing a teacher can feel is that they’re making a difference somewhere. If you tried something and it worked well, let them know and thank them for helping you.
How have you built your support network? Let me know in the comments below!