Making the Grade

Tips for passing probation and surpassing expectations

Melissa Johnson feels right at home in her fourth-grade classroom at George W. Bush Elementary School. She’s gotten much-needed support from colleagues — and positive feedback from administrators, who invited her last March to return for a second year, she says with a big smile.

Nonetheless, being a new teacher on probation can be “a little nerve-wracking,” admits the Stockton Teachers Association (STA) member. She’s sometimes unsure of what to do, and there’s constant pressure from working under a microscope. But she’s developed strong classroom management skills that connect her to students, and has earned their respect with a program that rewards good behavior, based on the rules of baseball.

Johnson is one of thousands of new teachers required by state law to complete a two-year probationary period before earning permanent status. Many of these educators put their lives on hold — postponing wedding dates and delaying having children, purchasing homes or taking vacations until they achieve permanent status.

Probationary teachers lack the protections their colleagues with permanent status enjoy. Probationary employees may be let go — or “non-re-elected” — without due process or explanation during their first or second year. And if they change districts, teachers begin a two-year probation period all over again. The state doesn’t keep track of how many teachers pass probation.

Non-re-election should not be confused with layoffs due to budget cuts. Such confusion occurred in Montebello Unified School District recently and resulted in a lawsuit.

The probationary period also differs from temporary status and being hired as a long-term substitute, both of which lack job protections.

Over the years, school management organizations have supported efforts in the state Legislature to increase the probationary period, a move CTA opposes.

CTA President Eric Heins says extending the probationary period is the wrong solution to support good teaching and learning. “As a state, we should be supporting teacher quality and attracting and retaining the best and brightest teachers for California students.” He notes that 46 other states provide some due process rights to teachers on day 1, and this legislation “will aggravate the teacher shortage in California and will make it harder for new teachers to speak out for students.”

Legislation has been introduced to extend the teacher probation period in California. CTA opposes extending the probation period, because it would make it more difficult to recruit and retain teachers. It would also keep teachers at a lower salary scale for longer and delay their eligibility for due process.

“As a state, we should be supporting teacher quality and attracting and retaining the best and brightest teachers for California students.” — CTA PRESIDENT ERIC HEINS

At some schools probationary teachers are supported, mentored and appreciated; at other sites support is lacking, and they can be assigned the most difficult students and classes as the “new person” despite their lack of expertise, say CTA members.

“Being a probationary teacher is challenging and at times overwhelming,” observes Chandra McPeters, Johnson’s mentor, who was active with the district’s BTSA (Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment) program for many years. “New teachers must not only learn to navigate the district’s policies and procedures, but also master curriculum, establish classroom management strategies, stay organized and manage their time wisely. Some are taking classes and have family commitments.”

In the following pages, McPeters and others share strategies to help new teachers pass probation and surpass expectations. Their stellar advice may even help permanent employees shine brighter.

Chandra McPeters
Reading specialist and mentor at George W. Bush Elementary School
Stockton Teachers Association

Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Reach out to others, including your grade-level team members and veteran teachers on campus. Don’t worry about being perceived as lacking knowledge, skills or background. You are at the beginning of your professional journey, and it’s OK not to have all the answers.

Take advantage of professional development (PD) opportunities. Be strategic so that your PD is specific to your credential and the needs of your students. As part of your PD, visit other teachers who are willing to let you observe.

Develop a classroom management system. Set clear expectations. Model the behavior you expect in the classroom. Rather than calling these behaviors “rules,” refer to them as classroom “norms” so students think of courtesy, staying in their seats, etc. as normal behavior.

Be a team player, but don’t volunteer for everything. Agree to commitments you can handle, but don’t overextend yourself. Say as graciously as possible, “I’d love to, but with my schedule I don’t think I will be able to honor that commitment,” if it is too much to handle.

Collaborate with administrators about the evaluation process. During the pre-observation meeting that takes place before you are officially observed in class, ask your administrator what standards they would like to see taught during the lesson and what skills they expect to see in your teaching. Discuss your strategies and lesson plans. An administrator’s expectations may differ from what you think they are.

Lena Hunt
Third-grade teacher who just finished probation at Shasta Meadows Elementary School in Redding Enterprise Elementary Teachers Association

Share your ideas with others. Even if you are new, share what you know so your colleagues can value and appreciate you. I believe new teachers have a lot to offer.

See your students as people. Take time to build relationships with them. With so much pressure on academics, rules and regulations, don’t lose sight of what is best for students. Try to normalize the evaluation process.

There can be stress in knowing you are going to be evaluated, but try to see it as just another day in the classroom. If you normalize the experience, it’s easier.

Sherry Tuggle
17-year educator now on probation after switching to a new district, who teaches second grade at Shasta Meadows Elementary School in Redding Enterprise Elementary Teachers Association

  • Communicate with students, parents, administrators and your support teams at school. If you don’t get out there and have conversations that are easy, you will struggle with the ones that are difficult.
  • Show empathy. Let others know how much you care about your students.
  • Don’t react defensively. Assume that most of your colleagues and administrators are there to support you. Don’t assume you are being attacked if someone makes a suggestion.
  • Connect with staff. Go to the lunchroom. Attend after-school functions and Christmas parties. Get to know your colleagues.

Melissa Johnson, second-year probationary teacher at George W. Bush Elementary School and Stockton Teachers Association member, created a behavior chart based on baseball called “Batter Up.” If students get strike one, they receive a warning. If there is a strike two, they lose recess. If there’s a strike three, “You’re out” and their parents are contacted. Students are rewarded for base hits, or doing what they are supposed to do. At the end of the day, if they have gotten all base hits, they receive a home run. If students get four home runs, they can join the Home Run Club and enjoy lunch with their teacher on Fridays.

Alexandria Tucker
English teacher for four years; just completed probation at Liberty High in Brentwood; served as a BTSA teacher during her second probationary year Liberty Education Association.

Be ready for random drop-ins. That way surprise “mini-observations” won’t throw you off balance. Strive to always have a lesson plan on paper or on your board, so you are seen as someone who is prepared and confident about what you are doing now and what you will do next.

If they say “change it,” listen. If you are specifically told to do something differently, do not take it as a suggestion, but as a requirement.

Don’t get too comfortable during your second year. During your first year, evaluators are looking to see whether you can handle the classroom environment. You have some leeway, and they know you are adjusting. In the second year, they are looking more closely at your pedagogy and procedures. Ultimately, it is the second year that determines permanent status.

Remember, they hired you for a reason. It’s easy to feel stressed because everything you do is being scrutinized. But keep in mind they saw something in you that made them trust you enough to educate their students. Remind yourself: You were hired because they believe in you.

Jeanna Ruble
Fourth-grade teacher at Raisin City Elementary School in her fourth year of teaching, hired as an intern Raisin City Teachers Association

Be organized. I like to use a color-coded system to help with small groups for math and reading. Find an organizational system that works for you.

Simplify when possible. You don’t have to grade every paper. I try to look at what standards and specific questions are really important, and prioritize student work rather than grading every single thing.

Reflect on your lessons and classroom management. There may be flaws and mistakes, but learn from them, recover, and take it step by step. Don’t beat yourself up.

Encourage communication with parents. Let them know they are welcome in your class. At the beginning of the year, call to say something positive, such as “Your child completed all his assignments” or “Your child went above and beyond in being a good citizen.” Foster a collaborative environment so you are not just contacting parents when something is wrong.