I’ve offered up a pep talk to new teachers, but the experience of each new hire is as much a responsibility of the school as it is of the teacher. Assuming that the school handled its recruiting and hiring process well, the odds are already well in favor of success, but there are some key points to keep in mind to make sure things go well. Remember, too, that even experienced teachers who are new to your school will be climbing a learning curve as they adjust to a new culture and new demands.
Who minds the new faculty? Is there someone in the administration whose responsibilities include checking in on new faculty, looking after them not just as new employees but as new members of the school community—or, since many independent schools refer to themselves as families, as members of the school family? This responsibility goes beyond making sure new teachers have chalk, erasers, and email accounts. It’s about making sure that they can breathe. We tell them they are not alone, and so we have to show that we mean it.
I hope every school’s induction or orientation program really inducts and orients. New teachers need to understand the culture of their new school as quickly as possible. Is there a handbook? Does it cover the little things that can be embarrassing not to know as well as the big things like the evaluation and benefit programs? A great handbook gets at everything that someone can remember to write down—including a “walk through the year” (what to expect and plan for from month to month and season to season) and a glossary of those idiosyncratic words, phrases, and usages that serve as the argot of the school. (I immodestly link to one I’ve had something to do with, although the 2011–12 edition is still in the final editing phases.)
The few days that new teachers have together and with school folks before full faculty meetings begin and everyone is off to the races are critical. A re-tour of important places (offices, bathrooms) and opportunities to put faces with names and functions are key, as are serious mini-workshops in the things that matter most at your school—advising, ongoing strategic work, living and working in the community in all its diversity, understanding what those job responsibilities on the contract really mean, standards and grading norms and policies. Give the new folks time with supervisors and/or colleagues to plan the first few weeks of classes, to get a sense of the trajectory of weeks, units, and academic terms as they play out in real life. If there are chances to meet a few parents or students, all the better—try to set up some circumstances so the pre-start-of-school buzz about the new people is warm and positive.
Ideally, in those awkward, scary minutes before the first full faculty meeting is called to order, your new faculty should know a critical mass of friendly faces—people they have chatted with and worked with enough in preceding weeks to regard as allies, and not just two or three of them, either.
In the first weeks of classes the people overseeing new teachers need to be alert, present, and helpful—without hovering. Some brief classroom drop-ins by smiling supervisors can be really helpful—and watch your body language, even if there are things you may need to discuss later. Plan some check-in times in each of the first few weeks—and this means plan, as in, get them (and some walk-around time to stop in on classes) on your calendar. We all know what happens when you don’t.
I haven’t talked about mentoring here, which is a whole other topic. If you assign mentors and have what you think of as a program, make sure your approach is as serious as possible, and put the time on the calendar for whatever kinds of interactions you expect mentors and their charges to have. Make it be a program if you call it that.
A great new teacher program includes regular times through the year to work on things, individually and sometimes as a group. Prepare new teachers for ongoing success with workshops (perhaps over dinner) on comment-writing, parent conferences, and expanding professional knowledge in areas specific to school aims (teaching with technology, social justice education, child and adolescent development, differentiated instruction…). Perhaps you have some second- and third-year teachers who can be especially helpful, as they will have a good sense of stumbling blocks the “old pros” take for granted.
As the year goes on there should be multiple opportunities for new teachers to receive feedback on their performance, but make sure the feedback is based on real observations. Sometimes there will be hard conversations, but do your new teachers the honor of basing what you must talk about on evidence, and give them a chance to explain their own aims and express their own concerns. Many schools claim to be all about “letting kids make mistakes” these days, and we have to have the same kind of patience—even though the stakes seem higher—with new teachers.
In the end most of it boils down to relationships, which are the stock-in-trade of independent schools, in particular. We really mustn’t let new teachers feel alone, or confused, or (certainly) hung out to dry. Even if things do not in the end work out, we owe it to our students as well as to our faculties and communities—I would say we owe it to our values, but that may seem old fashioned—to make new teachers’ experiences as successful as we would have wanted our own to be. This doesn’t mean all smooth sailing, but it means treating them with respect and treating their struggles with concern and with the same confident optimism we offer our students.
Great schools, I think, can even expect to bask in the reflected glory of their new teachers’ successes. And they do this by setting each new teacher up not just to make it through but truly to thrive.
Afterthoughts: I’ve got a presentation that addresses ways for schools to support teachers and another, if you feel that the needs of veteran teachers are neglected here, on their revitalization. Yet a third covers the whole “build a great faculty” subject.
Time spent at the Lausanne Laptop Institute (#LI11) this week got me thinking about a change happening to the role of Academic Technologists in our schools. I am sure to revisit this more in subsequent postings.
It seems to me that the role of the Academic Technologists (a staple position at independent schools over the past ten years) is morphing into the role of Instructional Designer of (increasingly online) course material.
When the role of Academic Technologists first emerged, the job could be summed up easily: help faculty catch up. Schools realized that the students’ facility with technology and digital communications (the natives to the world of technology) often far surpassed that of the faculty (the immigrants). And so, the Academic Technologists were there to help bridge the divide. They ran workshops for faculty on every thing imaginable: powerpoint, email, browsers, databases, etc. They worked one-on-one with faculty. And, they worked hand-in-hand with faculty in classrooms as they used “new” technology for the first time.
Five years ago, more progressive schools began to shift their models so that the Academic Technologist worked within a triumvirate with classroom teachers and librarians. The idea for this construct being that the subject-matter expert (the teacher), the guide for knowledge seeking (the librarian), and the guide through technology (the technologist) could team up to create new and exciting ways for teachers to deliver content to their students.
But, this model has been changing too. As of late, it has become much easier both to use educational technology and to learn it. Five years ago, YouTube did not have videos that taught you everything you needed to know about Powerpoint and Microsoft did not have self-guided courses on Excel (much less did something like Prezi even exist). Today, those resources are readily available, and many faculty are beginning to take advantage of them.
The other shift that is taking place in schools is a greater reliance on and creation of online learning environments both for organization of course materials and for delivery of the course. Schools are using Learning Management Systems (LMS) to a much larger degree to help students and faculty manage the content of courses and to engage students in online work. And, schools are also increasingly using online computer-based instruction and analytics tools (particularly in lower school reading and math) to gauge student successes.
Not surprisingly, it is the Academic Technologists within schools who have been in the position to learn about new online learning environments first, and begin to put them to use (younger teachers have often played this role, too). They built robust course pages first; used blogs, wikis, and podcasts first; and engaged in online learning communities first. And, as the technology has started to bring these previously disparate tools together, they have been the first to design an experience that effectively blends the best of online education with the best of the face-to-face education: they became the first practitioners of blended learning, and the first to design courses given all that is now available. They (the Academic Technologists) have become the Instructional Designers in our schools.
Even as this shift has happened, there is still an eagerness (even insistence) by entrenched faculty members and administrators that see the role of the Academic Technologist as it was ten years ago (much less five years ago): they ask Academic Technologists to come in and “teach” Powerpoint or even Google Docs or something of this vein, rather than using the real talents that they have in designing more robust learning environments for students, in a much more mission-focused way (this not to say that there is not occasionally the need for hands-on instruction of tools, but that this is often not the technologists talents or time when there are so many tutorials readily available).
It seems to me that the schools that make a shift sooner will be able to create better learning environments faster for their students.
As always, I’m interested in any thoughts you all have on this posting… these thoughts are very much a work in progress (again, that I am sure to come back to in subsequent postings).
Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn, authors of the seminal book on online education Disrupting Class, have just published an article in Harvard Magazine on the state of American colleges and the coming changes to the collegiate landscape: “Colleges in Crisis: Disruptive change comes to American higher education.”
Their article, written for the Harvard alumni community, aims to help those unfamiliar with online education to understand the potential positive impact that online education will have for American higher education, and even for an institution as august as Harvard. It seems to me that the article might resonate in a slightly more accessible way for boards and heads at independent schools, and I suggest it highly for those groups.
I think that their article has a number of salient points for independent school heads and boards to consider:
… The business model that has characterized American higher education is at—or even past—its breaking point… Undergraduate tuition has risen dramatically: at a 6.3 percent annual clip for nearly the last three decades—even faster than the much-decried 4.9 percent annual cost increases plaguing the healthcare industry. The full increase in the price of higher education has actually been hidden from many students and families over the years because gifts from alumni, earnings from private university endowments, subsidies from state tax revenues for public universities, and federal subsidies for students have been used to mitigate some costs. But universities are exhausting these mechanisms.
Christensen and Horn point to a business model that is succeeding (instead of just “treading water”), noting that education is seeing the disruptive forces seen by other industries (and predicted three years ago by them in Disrupting Class):
The success of these online competitors and the crisis among many of higher education’s traditional institutions are far from unique. These are familiar steps in a process known as “disruptive innovation” that has occurred in many industries, from accounting and music to communications and computers. It is the process by which products and services that were once so expensive, complicated, inaccessible, and inconvenient that only a small fraction of people could access them, are transformed into simpler, more accessible and convenient forms that are also, ultimately, lower in cost. We are seeing it happen more rapidly than one could have imagined in higher education, as online learning has exploded: roughly 10 percent of students took at least one online course in 2003, 25 percent in 2008, and nearly 30 percent in the fall of 2009.
Christensen and Horn end with a commentary on how an individual university (or, I would add, independent school) could embrace online learning in a way that moves the university from “treading water” to becoming more long-term sustainable and to meet the mission of offering a high quality, accessible education to more:
This stance exposes an even more significant problem that is forcing many American universities outside the top institutions to the brink of collapse. Although some traditional universities have used online learning as a sustaining innovation—in effect disrupting their individual classes—almost none have used it to change their business model in any significant way. Whenever we have seen a disruptive innovation reinvent a sector, change has resulted from the joint action of a new technology and an accompanying new business model. But cost increases and an increasingly broken business model—reliance on ever-rising tuition, more endowment income or government support, and research funding, all wrapped up in expensive physical campuses with large support staffs—continue to plague much of higher education.
Certainly, these are thoughts for our independent school boards and heads to consider… and act upon.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)