We’re seeing some pretty extraordinary shifts in staffing this summer. News stories about “The Great Resignation” are popping up across the media, and schools are finding out about faculty departures far later than they usually do. With the hiring timeline disrupted, it’s time to re-examine if traditional onboarding practices still serve schools well.
In our pulse survey of Academic Leaders two weeks ago, 94% of respondents told us they were planning to hold meetings for new teachers. Traditionally, that means they’ll gather new teachers on campus with a handful of administrators, typically in one of the last days before opening meetings begin. If you’ve got teachers who were hired in April, they’ve likely worked through their curriculum, syllabi, and resources. By the time meetings open, they’re ready to go.
On the other hand, if you’re working with a teacher you just hired at the end of July, you have to pick your priorities--do you want that new teacher in five days of meetings when they’ve just seen the Chemistry textbook you use for the first time? Although the problem may be especially acute this year, it’s not going away: heads across the country tell us that despite their best efforts, their hiring seasons are both longer and less predictable.
To respond to the changing workforce and emerging patterns in employee behaviors, Academic Leaders need to build an on-boarding system that maximizes flexibility and aligns with the school’s priorities. The good news? You already have a system that can do this: your LMS. At One Schoolhouse, we’ve never had the luxury of bringing our teachers together. Instead, we’ve developed a highly intentional course in our LMS to introduce teachers to our practices and pedagogy, which we support with regular face-to-face meetings with our instructional designers and Director of Studies.
At the base of our approach to learning online is the conviction that schools are communities. We don’t think online learning should entirely replace what happens in a classroom, and we believe that offering some courses online allows schools to laser-focus their attention on the experiences that define the institution.
That’s what we believe about onboarding online, too. The time you bring your new faculty together as a group should focus on what’s essential to do in person, like relationship-building, mentorship, and pedagogy. Your LMS can be used to pass along content, like dismissal routines and duty rosters--the kinds of information that can be slow and tedious to review in person, and will be relevant to review later in the school year.
Moving onboarding processes online isn’t a fast process. If you’re looking to make this shift, you’ll want to go through this year’s new faculty orientation with an eye toward what you’ll change for Fall 2022. This summer, however, there are a few small things you can do (and you might already do them!) that can make a difference to the Fall 2021 cohort:
To your new faculty members, your opening meetings are a microcosm of what they can expect in the year to come. Spending the time together on what’s truly meaningful is an important way to convey your schools’ mission, vision, and values.
(I first wrote this ten years ago this summer for my personal blog, several lifetimes ago in the history of schools and our ravaged world. It was later updated for Education Week and has been republished elsewhere. I’ve tweaked it a bit to bring it up to date.)
In a very few weeks school will be starting, and you will be starting a wonderful new career.
You are probably excited, and you are probably scared. A dozen giant questions loom in your consciousness, trading places with one another in the Anxiety Gavotte that troubles the pre-school-year dreams (and waking thoughts, too) even of experienced teachers: Will I know my subject matter well enough? How are my curriculum skills? Will I be able to manage my classroom? Will I get along with my colleagues? Can I have a life and be a teacher, too? Will my school be a good fit for me?
You’re entering the profession at an exciting time, as I’m sure you have been told. Independent schools are reckoning with history. Many were founded to be exclusive and elitist, in direct conflict with the words and principles expressed in their modern missions and values. Schools have recognized that building communities that are truly inclusive, where every member feels as though they belong, must be their essential goal. And then there is the project of decolonizing the curriculum and the imperative to make what we teach and students learn be true and relevant to their lives and world—against a societal backdrop in which there is a visible conflict in which educators are faced with powerful forces working to deny voice suppress truth.
Teaching is a profession of ideals, and working in a mission-driven school lays that out very clearly. It’s probable that some educator founded your school because they believed in something, and the school has evolved in certain ways because of those beliefs. Sometimes the beliefs get lost, sometimes they are transmogrified, and occasionally a school has had to stop and then start all over again in a new direction. But believe me, high-minded beliefs are fundamental to the enterprise.
Technology has also been changing everything, and even methods used by the very best teachers just half a dozen years ago are undergoing some major developments. Thought leaders in our world have called these changes “disruptive,” and many of them are just that. It’s likely that your school, although they may not have said this in so many words, will be looking to you, who may be younger and putatively more adept at thinking about things through a digital lens, to quietly guide and set an example for your more senior colleagues.
Speaking of more senior colleagues, there are a couple of things I want to warn you about, but these are things that can really help you grow as a teacher if you handle them the right way.
All this change, this “disruption,” has been making school unsettling for some experienced teachers. They’ve been asked to assemble whole new toolkits after years of developing their own ways of doing things. They see their schools—their working homes—changing. Some of them are grumpy about this, and sometimes there is cynicism. Don’t stick around for these conversations; you’ll have plenty of other things to do, anyhow. Just walk away—you don’t have to chime in or argue, as you’ll soon figure out who is worth listening to.
But here’s something that you can do to help: When you see a real reason to do so, ask one of the grumps for help or maybe even advice. They won’t necessarily make it easy, but in the end they will most likely offer you what you’re looking for. After all, what’s bothering them is the fear, amid all this change, that what they DO know isn’t going to be valued any more. They may be, on their own, brilliant teachers beloved of generations of alums who still return to your school just to see them.
What they know that is of value, if they’re good enough to have been kept on for a while, is that teaching isn’t about content and it’s not about technology. It’s about kids, about building relationships with them, about believing in them, about finding out what they can do and then providing opportunities for them to do it. And it’s also about seeing them goof up and giving them chances to try again.
In the end the approach may be more traditional—memorize the formula, do grammar exercises 1 through 13, odd—or all about some New Culture of Learning. In any case, know your students, have faith in their capacities, and magical things will happen.
It isn’t going to be easy, you know. You might get lucky and have most everything fall into place quickly, but there are probably going to be things you struggle with—perhaps as much as anything you’ve ever done or even imagined doing.
Here’s the thing: You’re not as alone—all, all alone—as you will feel. Be the master of what you can, but when things get really hard, be forthright in taking your worries and concerns to a simpatico colleague or an administrator that you trust (With whom did you click the best when you were being interviewed? Start there). Ask someone to sit in on and observe your unruly section or to help you organize your assignments and assessments so that you can actually finish your own homework each night. Whatever it is, you owe it to your students and your school to seek the assistance you need, pronto. And of course your school owes it to you to help you. It’s a problem to be solved, and it can be and will be.
I have three last things to offer.
First, you’re a professional now, and with that comes some responsibilities. Think of doctors, who spend their lives learning even as they practice. The best teachers do the same, and you should try to emulate that—if for no other reason than to stay on the right side of all the disruptive change that’s coming along.
Another responsibility involves being a grown-up. You can like your students, and they can adore you—but you’re their teacher, not their best buddy, their secret-sharer, or their guru. If you need to score points off the adulation of kids, you might want to quit teaching and work on becoming an internet celebrity. Otherwise, earn your students’ trust and their respect, which will serve you, and them, a whole lot better in the long run.
Second, parents. Yup, lots of them are hovering these days, and they can be kind of hard to take sometimes.
The deal is, parents are the way they are because they love their kids. I’m afraid that most of us parents screw it up pretty regularly, and I’m sure I’ve made my kids’ teachers’ eyes roll. But in the end the strongest teachers are very good at gently, and sometimes not so gently, reminding parents that we’re all on the same side here. So plan on spending some time figuring out how to help parents and guardians understand the common purpose. And it helps to remember that sometimes teachers are actually wrong—and when that happens to you, own it.
Lastly, before your orientation begins and the whirlwind of opening weeks sucks all the idealistic notions out of your head for a while, go to your school’s website and re-read the mission statement. If there are sections on values, and history, read those, too.
You’re about to become a living exemplar of those beliefs. Whenever you rise to your best in the classroom, at lunch, on the field, in the dorm, or in the faculty room, you are in some way going to embody the mission of your school. Sometimes you may have to squint to see it, and you may have to take a leap of faith every now and then, but don’t forget it—or let others forget it, either.
So: Believe in kids, soften up your crusty colleagues, be patient with parents, be a grown-up, and, to paraphrase a much better man than I, be the mission you wish to see in the world.
Also: Don’t forget to breathe. And have fun, lots of it.
Every year, Peter Gow, author of Admirable Faculties, writes a letter to new teachers, welcoming them to the profession, and sharing some of his insights and reflecting on the issues of the day they are likely to face.
In this companion piece, Peter addresses the Academic Leaders who are welcoming these new teachers to their communities and charges them with creating a real, tangible system for supporting their growth.
Elsewhere 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 markers, erasers, and LMS 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 kind of “teacher’s guide” beyond the statutory and legal handbook on rules and conditions of employment? Does this guide cover all the little things that can be embarrassing not to know? A comprehensive guide 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. (Here’s a link to a downloadable and fully editable template for such a guide, based on one we created at a school where I worked for a long time.)
The few days that new teachers have together and with school folks before full faculty meetings—which may also be some second-year teachers’ first time gathering with all their colleagues—begin and everyone is off to the races are critical. A re-tour of important places (offices, bathrooms, student hangout spots) 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. Give them some time with their mentors. (You do have a mentor program, don’t you?) If there are chances to meet a few parents or students along the way, 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 members should be able to look around the room and recognize a critical mass of friendly faces—people with whom they have chatted and worked with 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, informal classroom drop-ins by supervisors can be really helpful—and watch your body language, even if there are things you may want to discuss later: keep your smiling head up and arms in a natural pose. Be hyper-aware that your own presence can convey unintended messages to everyone in the room. And if it’s truly informal, do not take notes. 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 and each new teacher’s calendar. We all know what happens when you don’t.
I’ve only mentioned mentoring here briefly, 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. If you call it a program, make it be a program.
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 it boils down to relationships, which are the stock-in-trade of independent schools. 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—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.
Don’t despair! One Schoolhouse has a 91% faculty retention rate, but because our enrollment grows and we expand our course offerings every year, we hire and onboard new teachers annually. Here’s what I’ve learned: new teachers thrive when they know what to expect and what to do when they are feeling uncertain.
Mission Alignment. Of course I’m going to lead with this! When we don’t hire mission-committed teachers, they don’t work out. What’s more, when we don’t lead with our values in the onboarding process, we hear things like “it wasn’t what I was expecting” in the exit interview.
Planning. You want new teachers to trust your leadership from the moment they arrive. Preparing ahead helps you be ready so that they feel welcomed and set up for success on their first day.
Inclusive Cultural Practices. Make people feel welcome by meeting their basic needs first. No matter how accomplished someone is academically or professionally, a new teacher is still a new teacher, and your community may feel more or less inclusive to someone just coming in, especially if that person’s identity is different from your own. Remember: Maslow’s before Bloom’s. It applies to teachers too, so take time for basic orientation.
A Whole Trip Around the Sun. Don’t assume that the norms are the same from one community to the next, and don’t assume that your new teachers are “in the fold” after just a day of orientation exercises. Be transparent about expectations for their whole first year. At least once each season, take time to explain the processes at your school, and why the process is both rooted in values and important to outcomes. For example, if collaboration is a core value, describe how it happens and where the new teacher will have opportunities to engage with new colleagues.
Give Examples. Many adults like to see samples so ensure that new teachers have examples on which to model their own course plans. If your school has particular pedagogical expectations (competency-based learning, Harkness, etc…), the new teacher may have undergone some training but still be unsure what it looks like, so be sure to include particular examples that show the pedagogy in living color.
Provide a smooth onboarding process by planning ahead and communicating openly. And be sure to find the moments to celebrate them, whether that’s coffee, tea, or juice on the first day of school, a hand-written note, or a goofy video. Investing in connection and relationship doesn’t just support your new teachers--it reminds you what you love about your school at the most energizing moment of the year.
In July, Academic Leaders start to look ahead towards the new possibilities of the academic year to come. That includes welcoming new faculty to campus and making sure they understand and embrace your school culture and community.
Just one of this year’s differences is that in many ways, we’re welcoming two years of new educators. No matter how successful your 20-21 year was (and let me be clear--for most independent schools, it was successful) it certainly wasn’t business as usual. Teachers who were new in Fall 2020 will need similar support to the educators who are joining you in Fall 2021.
And that raises the question: in a year when we know we’re balancing change and tradition, how do you onboard your new faculty in a way that preserves your school culture? The first answer to the question is with intention. It used to be all too easy to put together a checklist of the nuts and bolts teachers need to know, but in the rapidly changing landscape of schools, we can’t rely on what we used to do. Putting together that list has to start with the “why” instead of the “what.”
For example, when we were paper-based, one of the top items on that list for new teachers was always the copy machine. That’s not because photocopying was a key skill; it’s because making sure your materials and resources are accessible to all students is foundational to effective instruction.
This year, beginning your onboarding process by identifying what’s important to your school’s mission and culture is more important than ever. Clarifying what you believe and why it matters provides you with a mission-aligned framework to identify what you need to pass along to new teachers. Whether you’re talking about a concept (communicating with parents) or a task (dining hall supervision), viewing the responsibility through the lens of values makes new community members understand why it’s meaningful, and makes them more likely to follow through.
In 2021, we’ve been gifted with a moment to re-evaluate our traditions and practices. When Academic Leaders view that list of what new community members used to need to know, they’ll have the clarity to determine which systems and practices should move forward, and which have outlived their usefulness.
The truth is that all Academic Leaders share a goal: to have their school’s mission lived out in the classroom experience. If that’s the intention, then the first interactions new educators have at your school need to focus on what your community holds most dear. If you start with the copy machine, you’ll never make it to the core mission. Start with the mission, and you’ll see your community evolve.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)