The Freshman Transition Network

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Part 6 – Creating a Freshman Transition Program – Which Teachers?

One of the most important decisions that must be made when creating a Freshman Transition Program is deciding which teachers will be a part of the program. After all, the single greatest factor in any educational endeavor or reform effort is the teacher in the classroom. Without the teacher, the plan is just a plan. The teacher is the one on the front line making the magic happen.

As Jim Collins says in his book Good to Great, you have to have the “right people on the bus.” In many schools, though, teachers of freshmen fit into one of three categories. Either they:
1. Are the new kid on the block who gets stuck with freshmen,
2. Have ticked off the person in charge of scheduling, or
3. Are crazy and just happen to like 9th graders.

With all the data out there showing the importance of 9th Grade Transition, it is imperative that we plan a little more purposefully. We need the right teachers teaching these freshmen if our efforts have any hope of succeeding.

My plan for sharing insight into how to choose teachers is to share some common pitfalls into which many schools and administrators often fall. By learning what not to do, hopefully we can also find out what to do. Keep in mind that these ideas most directly relate to placing teachers into a team atmosphere. (See Part 5 of this series of posts) However, for the most part they would apply to any type of Freshman Transition Program.

Common Pitfall #1: Assuming that all great teachers would make great freshman team teachers.
Just because a teacher is an excellent instructor does not mean that the teacher is an excellent team member. That’s ok - one of the beauties of teaching is that it gives very creative people the opportunity to make magic happen within 4 walls. However, if that person is not able to reach consensus with others, then please do not place that person on a team. It's ok to be the "king of your kingdom" as long as you are not also a part of a team that requires you to reach consensus and work with others. A teacher who is unwilling to change or bend to work with others can and will destroy a team. There are many other areas within your school where that awesome teacher could be used.

Common Pitfall #2: Not placing great teachers on freshman teams.
While not all great teachers make great freshman team teachers, all freshman team teachers should be great teachers. This is no place to stick a weak link. It might be a good spot for a new teacher who could use the mentoring, but that new teacher should be one who shows great potential for excellence. The ninth grade problem is too big and too important to solve with anything less than top-notch educators. If your school has a culture in which the best teachers don't have to teach the weakest students, then you have a problem. That culture cannot be allowed to continue. However, telling someone that they must be a part of this new program is a great way to kill the program. Look for the best you have in your building who are interested in being part of this endeavor. Then make sure that you hire with your Freshman Transition Program in mind. It might take a while, but over time you can get the right people into these important spots.

Common Pitfall #3: Assuming that your current freshman teachers should become the teachers in your Freshman Transition Program when it starts.
Just because a teacher is currently teaching 9th grade doesn’t mean he or she must be a part of your Freshman Transition Program. There are many reasons – not strong enough, can’t reach consensus with others, doesn’t believe in the mission – why you don’t want to simply assume that because someone teaches 9th grade they should be a part of your new efforts. Seek out some individuals that you really want to be a part of the program and ask them to consider teaching 9th grade. When you share the overall mission with the faculty, ask if anyone is interested. If you are smart and let your teachers create your program (more on this in a later post) some of your more creative individuals might see this as a chance to be a part of something new, exciting, and important. You never know who will get if you try to cast a wide net.

Common Pitfall #4: Not being willing to switch teachers over time.
This applies to switching who is a part of the program as well as switching who is on what team. No program can afford to be static. There will probably never be two years in a row where you have all the same teachers. Some will retire and some will move on to different positions. Be aware that from time to time things need to be shifted around to even out personalities and strengths or to make sure that your teams stay balanced. Occasionally you might have a team teacher who is doing a good job, but could be better used somewhere else in the school. Don’t be afraid to change things up when needed.

Common Pitfall #5: Being too one-sided.
I have heard people say that only experienced teachers should be a part of a Freshman Transition Program. I have heard people say that it’s better to have newer teachers on freshman teams because they can relate to the kids. Your teams need balance. When team teachers meet together, the new ones need to be able to learn from the experienced teachers. At the same time, the new, fresh, energetic, and idealistic teacher often has a lot to share with the experienced veteran.

Common Pitfall #6: Forgetting what is most important.
Don’t forget – the 9th grade problem is at its core a problem of believing. While you better have teachers that are great with the X’s and O’s of content, you also need teachers who understand that they need to invest class time helping kids learn how to believe and how to think about life.

It is impossible to underestimate how important it is to have the right teachers in your program. Take time – get it right. Who gets chosen will make or break one of the most important initiatives your school has.

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