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Virginia Journal of Education


Hang In There

Some advice for new teachers, and for those who want to help them.


by Geoff Baker and Eric Hirsch, with Jan Miles and Karen Hendricks

Did you think it would be this hard? You got the job and have managed to stay a step ahead of the kids without having a treasure trove of lessons and units to draw upon. You survived parent-teacher conferences, your first observation from the principal and a few faculty meetings that gave new meaning to “professional learning community.” But now, as the holidays are approaching, you are feeling tired and getting sick. You’re wondering if you’ve picked the right career and if all those tuition payments to your alma mater were worth it.
 
The first few years of a teacher’s professional life are unique. Content knowledge and instructional skills are quickly tested in the face-to-face interactions that new teachers have with students. Collaboration with other teachers also challenges new teachers’ sense of their expertise and ability to describe what and how they teach, based on what they are learning about student needs. Often schools ask new teachers to become involved in numerous responsibilities, perhaps with the intention of helping them become active in the school community or perhaps simply because needs are so great. Unlike other jobs, expectations for new teachers are the same, or even higher, than those for experienced teachers. Of course, these expectations often create great excitement and anticipation for a new teacher. They are often the first to step into new responsibilities during the initial weeks of a contract.

And while 8 out of 10 new teachers report feeling at least “somewhat prepared” for their first-year teaching, according to a Public Agenda survey published in June by the National Comprehensive Center for Teacher Quality, many report being underprepared for working in today’s diverse classrooms. New teachers indicate the need for more support in working with special-needs children and dealing with racial and ethnic diversity. It’s also likely that they have not had many experiences with the reciprocal relationship of teaching and learning that defines the essence of what all teachers want and expect from their colleagues.
 
The realities of the first teaching environment often have a stronger influence on instructional practices than what new teachers learned through their teacher preparation program (if they had one at all). Experts have sought to describe how teachers become teachers – what happens to turn them from students of teaching into self-aware practitioners who develop from professional reflection and study. High quality induction is essential. Whether or not a division or a school has a formal induction program, all teachers new to a school or the profession will experience a period of socialization and enculturation; they will work through phases of identity and instructional development.


The Short Term: Getting Through the Disillusionment Phase

After supporting thousands of new teachers for over 20 years in Santa Cruz, California and across the country, a number of developmental phases have been noted by the New Teacher Center (see pullbox).While not every new teacher goes through this exact sequence, these phases are very useful in helping everyone involved--administrators, other support personnel and teacher education faculty—in the process of supporting new teachers.

As the holidays approach, first-year teachers are often at their lowest point, awash in classroom management challenges and struggling just to keep up. There are many things you can do to help mentor a first-year teacher in your building through the Disillusionment phase and begin to Rejuvenate, including:

The gift of time: Offer to take on a duty or supervision assignment or even teach a lesson to give a new teacher time to catch up.

Observation of a second-year teacher: Help plan a half-day observation for one or two new teachers to observe the practice of an effective and motivated second-year teacher. Their recent experience will be reassuring that there is a great second year to look forward to.

Share a success: Focus on the positives going well with new teachers. Provide a safe place to share and identify what is causing success.

Holidays coaching: The holidays can be a difficult time for families. Help set the context for holiday expectations and suggest local winter events that can help provide some relief.

Set a short-term goal: Help a first-year teacher set a goal that he or she can accomplish and then coach/support them to achieve it.

Provide inspiration: Give a first-year teacher an inspirational essay or book such as Why I Teach by Sonia Nieto or The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer.

Your school or division could create an opportunity similar to the Silicon Valley New Teacher Project called “De-stressing through the Arts.” A late afternoon seminar for new teachers with food and music has local artists donate their time to offer mini-courses such as painting, sculpting, poetry, collage, dance/movement, yoga, etc. Teachers choose two mini-sessions and enjoy the company of other new teachers in a relaxed atmosphere.

The Long Term: High Quality Induction Programs

The previous tips may help new teachers get through the winter doldrums, but to retain teachers—particularly in critical shortage areas such as special education, math and science—Virginia needs strong induction program that reach all new educators.

While school divisions in Virginia, like in most states, are required to provide new teachers (and experienced teachers new to the division) with mentoring, the quality of support appears to vary widely across schools and divisions. State guidelines help school boards establish program objectives, design and evaluations, but leave many of the decisions about mentor selection and training up to local discretion and capacity. While 10 program requirements were established for the state’s initiative, Beginning Teacher Mentor Programs in Hard-to-Staff Schools, they only apply to divisions that qualify for funding.

High quality induction calls for schools and divisions to guarantee professional support for new teachers. This support must be based on new teachers’ assessed instructional needs and student learning realities, and aligned with other school and district initiatives. One-on-one mentoring provided by a qualified and purposefully chosen veteran teacher is the fulcrum that provides balance among instructional practices that foster student achievement, becoming an active colleague within the school community, and developing into an effective professional over time within the school division. The following practices contribute to a high-quality induction program:

• One-on-one mentoring
• Rigorous mentor selection based on qualities of an effective mentor
• Ongoing professional development and support for mentors
• Sanctioned time for mentor-teacher interactions
• Intensive and specific guidance moving teaching practice forward
• Professional teaching standards and data-driven conversations
• Ongoing beginning teacher professional development
• Multi-year mentoring
• Clear roles and responsibilities for administrators involved in the lives of new teachers
• Communication and collaboration with all stakeholders – administration, school boards, association leadership, and other professional partners.

Teaching is a career-long developmental process. It requires an essential cycle of student learning assessments, assessment-guided instruction aligned with content standards, ongoing assessments of instructional outcomes, ongoing reflection on what is being learned about students and one’s professional practice in service to student learning, and new instruction influenced by the previous steps.

There are several examples of programs with these characteristics in Virginia. For example, the Fairfax County Public Schools Great Beginnings program supports new teachers in their first three years. New educators are assigned a mentor who is supported by a Lead Mentor in the building and a Mentor Trainer. New educators are mentored, meet in cohorts after school monthly, and have access to coaches (and in some schools, Mentor Resource Teachers).

The Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Teacher Leadership offers New Teacher Center Mentor Trainings for first- and second-year mentors. The seven and four days of trainings, respectively, build on 20 years of experience and are sequenced to provide mentors and coaches with the knowledge, skills and understanding they need to be effective.

Principal Support

New teachers can also be ushered through the Survival and Disillusionment phases by principals who provide regular support with meetings that have timely topics, including classroom management, parent conference tips, grading, referral to varied student support services, and completing end-of-year records, along with time to debrief on what’s working and what needs support.

In addition, school and division leaders should consider reducing additional duties (at least temporarily) to provide necessary relief to beginning teachers who are trying to balance complex commitments and expectations with the reduction in energy and enthusiasm that often comes as the year goes on. Funneling parent volunteers and paraprofessionals to first-year teacher classrooms may help provide the time to meet with a mentor or catch back up.

Some principals may need additional professional development to gain the skill set to work with first-year teachers; to move from a compliance to a coaching mindset.

It’s important to think about supporting new principals as well, who go through phases in their first year not unlike those experienced by teachers. A recent survey in North Carolina found less than one-third of new principals were assigned a mentor, and many of them never met or planned with their mentor. EduLead, a collaboration of four Virginia school divisions (Chesterfield, Hanover and Henrico counties and the city of Richmond) along with the University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University, is providing help for aspiring, new and established principals. Coaching support includes monthly meetings, weekly phone calls and the ability to share challenges and successes.

Making the Investment

When schools divisions and the state don’t adequately fund or implement high quality induction programs, there is greater likelihood for high teacher turnover, increased perceptions of low or ineffective support for new teachers, uncertainty about commitments to professional development and quality, and disillusionment with one’s own effectiveness. The ultimate impact can be seen in student learning, exacerbated by (1) a revolving door of inexperienced teachers in our schools who are often assigned to the most challenging classrooms, (2) reduced school capacity to create strong instructional programs and create environments in which students can thrive, and (3) a strain on budgets dealing with teacher recruitment and training.
 
A high quality induction program relies on support from a carefully selected, well-trained mentor who is provided sufficient time to work with new teachers. Unfortunately, it is far too easy to offer induction “lite,” given the program costs of providing these quality elements. Providing mentors with no release time and little training may seem like a less costly alternative, but really isn’t when the return on investment of a quality program is considered. Researchers at the New Teacher Center found for every $1 invested in high quality induction, $1.66 is returned in increased retention and teacher effectiveness.

So, if you’re a new teacher, know that Rejuvenation is around the corner and take advantage of the holidays to regroup and reflect on how far you’ve come. And begin to work with veteran colleagues to advocate for the type of induction support all new teachers need and deserve.

Baker, Hirsch, Miles and Hendricks all work with the New Teacher Center at the University of California at Santa Cruz, a national organization committed to improving student learning by supporting the development of an inspired, dedicated and highly qualified teaching force. For more information about the authors and NTC, visit  www.newteachercenter.org.

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Phases of First-Year Teaching

After supporting thousands of new teachers for over 20 years in Santa Cruz, California and across the country, a number of developmental phases have been noted by the New Teacher Center. While not every new teacher goes through this exact sequence, these phases are very useful in helping everyone involved—administrators, other support personnel, and teacher education faculty—in the process of supporting new teachers.

Anticipation: New teachers are anxious and excited as they begin the year. They enter with a tremendous commitment to make a difference and a somewhat idealistic view of how to accomplish their goals.

Survival: Reality hits. New teachers struggle to keep their heads above water and become focused and consumed with the day-to-day routine of teaching. They are working 60 to 70 hour weeks and are getting tired.

Disillusionment: Commitment and competence are questions as new teachers realize things are probably not going as smoothly as they want. New challenges like back-to-school night, parent conferences, formal evaluations, etc. make things even more difficult. Illness often characterizes this phase.

Rejuvenation: Having a winter break provides time to sort through materials and prepare new ones as a break provides a broader perspective and renewed hope.

Reflection: The end is in sight, and new teachers have almost made it; but more importantly, a vision emerges as to what their second year will look like, which brings in a new phase of anticipation.

Adapted from “Phases of First-Year Teaching” by Ellen Moir online at www.newteachercenter.org/article2.php

 


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