MLRN's Recent "Mentorings"
What's Wrong With Kristine

By: Gay Fawcett - Published by MLRN in the February 1996 "Mentorings"

Mentors, Entry Year Teachers, and the Process of Change
Kristine was close to tears. "I don't know what's wrong with me," she said. "I must be crazy! I should be so happy. I have a new job; I have a new apartment; I'm planning a wedding. But sometimes I feel so helpless I just want to cry, and I don't even know why."

Kristine is a first year teacher facing changes that are common for new teachers--changes that are not small! Her very identity is changing. She is no longer a college student; she is a professional. Changing her lifestyle has been rather difficult. As a college student, she stayed out late and scheduled her classes after 10:00 a.m. so that she could sleep in. Now she has to be at school by 7:45 in the morning, and she constantly worries that she will oversleep. She has changed the way she dresses. She misses those jeans and baggy sweatshirts, but such attire is not appropriate for a teacher. She is living on her own for the first time and struggling to furnish her apartment. She looked forward to that paycheck, but now she realizes how difficult it can be to manage her money. Her wedding will take place over the Christmas break. Sometimes her fiancee is annoyed because she has so many papers to grade and lessons to write in the evenings that it seems she has little time or energy left for him.

What's wrong with Kristine? Nothing! If she weren't feeling stressed there would be cause for alarm! Kristine's situation is not unusual for new teachers. There will be few times in their lives that they will be required to face so many changes simultaneously. Anderson (1993) suggested that in order to make transitions less confusing, people need some sense of what to expect and what direction to take. New teachers need to know that they aren't "crazy"--that what is happening to them is shared by all people facing change situations. Mentors must understand change so that they can help new teachers deal with this "trapeze-like process of letting go and grabbing on" (Deal, 1990, p. 9).

Fullan (1985) defined change as a "process whereby individuals alter their ways of thinking and doing. It is a process of developing new skills and, above all, of finding meaning and satisfaction in new ways of doing things" (p. 396). Although a number of theorists have proposed differing models explaining change (i.e., Bridges, 1980; Hall & Loucks, 1978; Kelley & Conner, 1979), a close examination of the models reveals the following common principles:
(a) Change is a predictable series of stages
(b) Change is a process
(c) Change is individualized
(d) Anxiety and uncertainty are a part of change; and
(e) People involved in change need personal and technical support.

New Teachers and Stages of Change - The Emotional Cycles of Change
Kelly and Conner (1979) proposed that significant emotional shifts occur in people undergoing change and that these shifts develop in accordance with a predictable sequence of events. They developed a model (see Figure 1) to explain the emotional cycles through which individuals progress when they have voluntarily become involved in a significant change activity. The model can inform new teachers of the feelings and attitudes they will face as they become acclimated to their new profession.

During the initial stage that Kelley and Conner (1979) termed "uniformed optimism," there is a certainty of success that is fueled by a lack of experience and information. This might be exemplified early in the new teacher's year by the belief that she or he can successfully reach all children or that there will be no discipline problems.

As the year progresses, however, unanticipated problems arise, and "informed pessimism" sets in. At that point, the new teacher might be heard to make desperate statements that sound more like pleas: "I've tried everything. No matter what I do, Beth doesn't respond." This can be a dangerous stage when new teachers leave the profession. Others may "check-out" by withdrawing from involvement in the problem situation: " I'll put my efforts into the ones I can reach." Another common response may be defensiveness: "How can I do my job when the parents won't help at home?"

Help is especially needed as the new teacher begins to doubt his or her competence, so the mentor should watch carefully for this stage. He or she can share stories of similar feelings, listen with empathy, and offer concrete suggestions for dealing with difficult issues. Most importantly, the mentor can help by assuring the new teacher that this is a normal stage in change.

Once the problem of informed pessimism has been confronted, the new teacher usually perceives the problems differently and pessimism declines. Classroom problems may not have disappeared, but he or she begins to feel a sense of realistic hope based on solid reality testing. During this stage, known as "hopeful realism," the new teacher realizes there will be some good times and some bad times in teaching. It is important that the mentor help the new teacher keep the bad times in perspective during this stage so that she or he can move into the stage of "informed optimism." During this stage optimism grows as a result of overcoming problems and uncertainty. There is a growing sense of confidence in self and teaching.

A new teacher who has received support from a mentor and who understands this change process can finish the first year in a stage Kelley and Conner (1979) called "rewarding completion." This last stage is characterized by the new teacher feeling rewarded and satisfied that overall it was a successful first year.

Mentors who know about the stage theory of change can predict where the new teacher is headed and be ready with the proper support. They can also share this information with the new teacher. While awareness may not eliminate the process of moving through the stages, knowing that it is normal and that things will get better can be a source of strength for the new teacher.

Change is a Process
Every theory of change has stressed that change is a process which occurs over time. "One of the most persistent tendencies of those who do not appreciate the complexities of change is to equate change with handing over a new program, which is an event" (Hord, Rutherford, Huling-Austin, & Hall, 1987, p. 5). One of the most important roles of mentors is to offer advice. Mentors, however, must recognize that handing over advice is an event. Mentors who recognize that change is a process and not an event will avoid blaming the new teacher who has been given advice but on the surface appears not to have taken it. Such mentors will be aware of situations where they can support the new teacher as he or she experiments, modifies, reflects, and uses the event (advice) to change.

Change Is Individualized
"Change is about people, not just policies," (Williams, 1993, p. 19). Any situation that involves people also involves a multitude of contextual variables. Every change theory recognizes that these variables will lead to individual implementations of the change. Bridges (1980) suggested that individuals develop a style of responding to change that will be typical in most situations. Mentors are usually veteran teachers who have worked with several student teachers and/or new teachers. They must recognize that each new teacher with whom they work will respond differently to the changes taking place in their lives, and that one style of response is not better than another. Some new teachers will adjust rapidly; others will struggle more. That does not mean those who struggle are necessarily less capable but, rather, that this is their individualized style of responding to change.

Anxiety and Uncertainty Are a Part of Change
All change theories recognize that anxiety and uncertainty accompany change. "Almost inevitably we feel cheated at such times, as though someone were trying to trick us" (Bridges, 1980, p. 101). Some change theorists attribute this feeling to loss. "We suffer bereavement not just from the death of loved ones, but from the discrediting of the assumptions by which we live and make sense of our world and our work" (Evans, 1993, p. 20). Wasley (cited in Staff, 1991) speculated that compounding this anxiety in our society is the fact that "Americans are raised in a culture of completion, but change is really a continuous process of evolution" (p. 3).

New teachers will be frightened at times. Sometimes they will seem unable to make decisions. Some will bravely hide their uncertainty and anxiety, but mentors must know that it is an inevitable part of change and be prepared to subtly support the new teacher in his or her show of bravado. Some new teachers will break down in tears. This can be a time of embarrassment for both mentor and new teacher, but knowing that anxiety and uncertainty are expected in change will help to reassure both.

People Involved in Change Need Personal and Technical Support
All change theories emphasize that individuals undergoing change need personal and technical support. Evans (1993) suggested that "Perhaps the most obvious requirement for change is technical support" (p. 21). Wagner (1993), on the other hand, stressed personal support: "Change involves the heart as well as the head" (p. 27). The type of support necessary is probably, in fact, specific to the context. Mentors need to be sensitive to these contexts and offer the appropriate support. New teachers need the technical support of materials, suggestions for time management, and help with discipline problems. Mentors, however, must realize that technical support is not enough. When the new teacher is feeling anxious and uncertain; when informed pessimism sets in; when too many simultaneous changes threaten to overwhelm, the mentor must be available to offer personal support. An open acknowledgement of feelings and a sincere offer of support is crucial for new teachers.

In the last few years formal mentor-new teacher programs have sprung up in schools across the country. Most of these programs include staff development designed to help mentors work effectively with new teachers. A review of various programs (Barkley & Dougherty, 1990; Gordon, 1990; Kline, personal communication, February 12, 1992; Sweeny, 1994; Weingart, personal communication, February 12, 1992) indicates that the following topics are common in mentor training programs:
(a) stress reduction
(b) discipline
(c) observation and peer coaching
(d) socialization of new teachers
(e) classroom management, and
(f) adult as learner.

These topics are certainly important, but a critical topic is missing from the list: change theory. Because new teachers are in a time of great change in their lives, an understanding of the principles of change theory can help mentors put the other important topics into a meaningful context. Staff development for mentors needs to include a thorough discussion of the principles of change and the implications for working with new teachers.

What's wrong with Kristine? Nothing! She is undergoing the natural process of "letting go and grabbing on" (Deal, 1990, p. 9). Kristine needs a mentor who knows that (a) change is a predictable series of stages; (b) change is a process; (c) change is individualized; (d) anxiety and uncertainty are a part of change; and (e) people involved in change need personal and technical support. Such a mentor can help Kristine "find[ing] meaning and satisfaction in new ways of doing things" (Fullan, 1985, p. 396).


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Gay Fawcett is the Director of Curriculum and Instruction at Summit County Schools, Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio