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.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)