Newer than New: How to Help?

Yesterday I met a new physics teacher in our area. He has no background in teaching, beyond the two weeks he has been in class already. He has a science degree and worked in the public sector. He is teaching sections of physics and chemistry on an emergency certification. He is looking for help, suggestions, ideas and advice–whatever he can get.

I am going out to visit his physics class next week.

What do you think is the most important thing to focus on with a new teacher like this, especially with no training? I have never had to work with a teacher with absolutely no training. I can only imagine that there are lots of places where he’ll need support; but right now it’ll have to be like triage, deciding where help is needed most. You can certainly tell he is a bit frazzled, although not much more than you would expect for anyone teaching their first year. From his perspective, what he needs is ideas for what to do in the classroom–activities, lessons, things to get student engaged.

Anyone out there been in his position: What kinds of mentoring and help would you have found most helpful? What kinds of mentoring support would have been frustrating or unhelpful?



9 thoughts on “Newer than New: How to Help?

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  1. I began teaching with no formal training. I had done a LOT of reading about pedagogy over the previous year as I considered a career change and then looked for a job. But I had no in-class experience besides monitoring undergrad labs while I was a grad student.

    I would say the most important thing to do is to talk with other teachers constantly. He seems to be doing that at least with you, but he should also find teachers in his own school he can talk to.

    In class, I would say the most important thing is to not talk too much. I started out thinking I had to tell the kids everything, so they didn’t end up figuring it out for themselves. I made them dependent on me. That was bad. Ask questions, then hold your tongue for as long as you can. Like holding your breath, the more you practice, the longer you can do it. This is especially true when you get a correct answer… one’s impulse it to say “Right!”, but if you hold on and wait, you sometimes find out that “correct” answer accidentally resulted from some incorrect thinking.

    Use whiteboarding to get students to own their work, instead of relying on you to solve problems for them. If you are at a loss for what to do in the class, have them do what you thought you would give them for homework!

  2. Tell him to try to have a clear idea what he wants the students to know (10 years from now, then on a short term basis). Design class around that (test, labs, lecture(?), activities, etc). If you don’t know where you want to go, how do you know if you got there? If he’s not sure, ask for help (Kelly O’Shea or numerous other lists of goals are out there.) Most importantly, DON’T RECREATE THE WHEEL, tweek what others have done, don’t start from scratch.

  3. I think an important aspect to talk with him about is figuring out his classroom management strategy. As a new teacher a couple of years ago, this is where I struggled the most – not that I hadn’t learned some techniques through my formal training, but just taking the time and the thought process to work out how to deal with common situations as they arise in a way that fits his own personality and teaching style.

    Perhaps some basics on lesson planning/design would be helpful as well, if he has no formal training it might be difficult for him to piece together a daily lesson plan or any sort of longer-term planning as well.

    I also agree with Mark, helping to set up a network of other teachers that he can turn to for support will be extremely helpful.

  4. That was me two years ago. Wow. Scary. Lots of all-nighters. Looking 10 years down the road is absolutely important — and probably impossible.

    Stuck with what to do tomorrow? Read Grace’s quick wins. Nothing but emergency parachutes for stressed teachers.

    Got a weekend to think about it?

    1 — I would suggest looking ahead to the next lab (not test). I often went into class underprepared but one thing I had always done was worked through the lab. Just sitting there and following the instructions clarified my thinking and helped me anticipate where students would need support.

    2 — steal someone else’s lesson plans. Doesn’t matter how awful or poorly suited to your teaching style they are; just having them will make it clearer what you want to do (or not do).

    3 — Find out what they know. Give a short conceptual “warmup” or “survey” or whatever based on things they are supposed to have learned in previous classes (questions with short written answers work well, like “what is the difference between voltage and current?”; algebra questions probably won’t help). It will be distressing but it will make everything else make more sense, and might save time lost to backtracking.

    4 — Teach students how to find problems in their textbook that relate to a particular idea. Many students don’t realize that the section numbers in the chapter are repeated in the practice problems. Save yourself some time by having students choose their own problems to work on in class (maybe an easy, medium, and hard one). Or use it to have them create their own assignments (have them choose the ones with answers in the back — you’re looking for a logical problem-solving approach anyway).

    5 — If you can avoid it, don’t give numerical grades for homework. Writing feedback is much faster than agonizing over partial points and then arguing with students about them. Grade for completion if it makes sense (Brian, you explained this in a comment recently better than I could).

    6 — Find a 3 teachers you admire and read their blogs. Do not subscribe to 107 blogs. Also, you can often get your own problems solved without having your own blog. Just hijack someone else’s blog and ask questions in the comments (only slightly kidding — try to make sure it’s on topic). Don’t worry, you’ll have a chance to pay them back in time. Or pay it forward.

  5. Brian,
    I started exactly like this as well. I think the biggest key is having a mentor (sounds like this may be you). And don’t be afraid to take even the silliest most mundane questions to that mentor, you’ll be amazed by the advice you get.

    Everything else said about is also excellent feedback as well. Getting active in the online physics teaching community is really like strapping Saturn V rocket onto your professional development, IMO.

  6. It’s hard to chime in late when so much good advice has been given. From the “newbie” teachers I’ve known in the past, the most important point was what John just said: a mentor. In some cases, this was a person. In other cases, it was a community. (Brian, I don’t know if you knew that we had monthly high school teacher collaboratives. One particular teacher found a variety of mentors through that community.) I think the biggest reward they got was recognizing they weren’t alone and finding dynamic feedback, responsive to the needs of the moment.

    The other ideas in this thread are stellar, too.

  7. I nearly started this way, but a few semesters as a TA helped prep me a bit. The best advice I recall getting from my principal in the first year was to teach students at their level. I was (rightfully) told that I was talking over their heads and even the vocabulary I regularly used was beyond some of them. As a new teacher with a physics background, how I understood physics wasn’t actually the best way to approach teaching it.

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