When teacher Jennifer Sullivan wanted to know why her students weren’t asking for help during difficult assignments, she asked them directly. Some told her, “I want to be independent and try it on my own. I don’t need help.” Others simply didn’t realize they were struggling.
Those in their first three years of teaching might see something of themselves in Sullivan’s students. Asking for help can be challenging in the early years of a teaching career—often a stressful and taxing adjustment period. The truth is that more than a third of teachers leave in their first five years, but those who receive strong support (including access to a mentor) fare much better, and are more likely to pursue a long term career in the classroom.
The irony is that teachers are by nature “helpers,” happy to assist students but more reluctant to ask for help themselves. But teachers don’t ask their colleagues for help for many of the same reasons their students refrain from asking them—it’s embarrassing or awkward; it can make them look untrained or, worse, incompetent; and they simply might not know what resources are available to them. For new teachers, it coincides with a period where they are trying to appear positive and helpful, not a burden to others.
In a recent survey of working professionals, executive coach and leadership expert Rebecca Zucker actually tied the propensity for not seeking help to feeling overwhelmed at work. In her study, those who didn't ask for help scored 23% higher on such feelings—meaning they felt substantially more overwhelmed than peers who did request help—according to a new piece in the Harvard Business Review.
While Zucker surveyed a broad range of professions, it should come as no surprise to those in education, at a time when some surveys find up to three quarters of teachers are experiencing job-related stress—more than twice the average for other working adults.
Of course, simply asking (and even receiving) help won’t alleviate all that stress. The best resources and mentors cannot fix systemic issues like long work days, funding issues, and lack of time for planning and teaching. But they can help new teachers as they seek solutions to common classroom problems their veteran colleagues handle adeptly.
Here are five strategies for becoming more adept at asking—and receiving—valuable help as a new teacher.
1. Reflect on Limiting Beliefs
A good place to start is by asking yourself a question: What do I need help with, and what is standing in the way of me asking for it? It could mean reflecting on attitudes of perfectionism or confronting imposter syndrome. Perhaps you are simply trying to seem like a model teacher in advance of your next classroom observation. Whatever the case, identifying the cause can ultimately help you release it.
“Ask yourself ‘What am I afraid will happen if I ask for help?’” Zucker writes. “Once you’ve answered this question, then probe deeper by asking, ‘And what would be the dire consequence of that?’”
2. Acknowledge the Expertise Around You
Master teachers have experience navigating a wide range of challenging scenarios. For new teachers, simply recognizing that every school building has experts—from the tech whiz to the creative lesson planner to the time management guru—can open up a wealth of options as they face their own growing pains. For new teachers, the challenge becomes identifying these experts. Start by finding helpful colleagues, and slowly expand your network.
Fortunately, many schools feature formal mentoring programs, pairing new teachers with veteran colleagues. Research shows such programs are some of the best ways to retain new teachers, improve job satisfaction, and even raise student achievement. But not all schools embrace structured mentorships. Barring that, new teachers might seek out a peer in a similar department or grade level and ask if they’d be willing to spend some time imparting their knowledge, suggests educator Susan Jerrell, founder of the teacher resource site Time Out for Teachers.
Many experienced educators “are happy to take on an informal mentoring role,” Jerrell has written, “and they’ll have a wealth of insight into not only classroom management techniques but also curriculum, administration, and the culture of the school.”
3. Consider Low-Stakes Asks
Not all asks will be burdensome for colleagues. To confirm that, Zucker suggests starting with smaller asks to start. It can be as simple as asking to brainstorm with another teacher for five minutes and sharing some solutions you’ve already thought through.
New teachers can also ask experienced colleagues if they can observe a lesson. It’s a relatively low lift for most teachers, but it’s a very effective one because newcomers can take advantage of the existing knowledge contained in the school. Simply “make time to email different teachers in your building that you admire and let them know you want to stop by their classrooms to see them in action,” says Andrea Marshbank, a high school ELA teacher. “Most teachers will be glad to work with you and to talk afterward about your thoughts and observations. We get better at teaching when we talk productively about our practice.”
4. Ask Yourself: Am I Oversubscribed?
Teachers experience job stress for a variety of reasons, but one of the biggest is feeling like there’s too much to do and not enough time in which to do it. Studies show that teachers often take on extra work in the face of staff shortages and growing learning and mental health challenges among their students, and this burden tends to fall on new teachers to a greater degree.
Given that, new teachers might reflect on whether an excessive workload is preventing them from asking for help.
5. Take Stock of Your Progress
One of the most helpful exercises might be taking stock of how you respond to others asking for help, Zucker says. “Do you think they are less smart or competent? Or do you view their request for help as something that’s totally normal and something you’d be happy to do (independent of whether you can actually help them)?”
Then ask yourself some key questions around the times you asked for help yourself, Zucker says, as well as the times you didn’t but could have used it. What held you back, and what might you try differently next time?
Finally, Zucker suggests creating a daily or weekly goal around roughly how many times you plan on asking for help, and either creating a dedicated spreadsheet to track those requests or letting a friend or colleague know as a way to keep yourself accountable. The goal is not to meet a quota as much as demonstrate steady, measurable progress.
To gauge your stress levels, try tracking them daily on a scale from one to 10. “If your score is at an eight or higher, determine what is making your score that high, and then ask for help with whatever will bring your stress level down to at least a six or seven, if not lower,” she says. “Practicing asking for help in your personal life can also help build this muscle.”
“Reflection is where a lot of learning happens,” she adds. “By unlearning old, unproductive patterns that prevent you from reaching out for assistance when you really need it and relearning new ways of operating, you will feel more supported and less overwhelmed at work.”