Who minds the new faculty? Is there someone in the academic administration, not just H.R., whose responsibilities are understood to include regularly checking in on new faculty, looking after them not just as new employees but as new members of the school community. This responsibility goes beyond making sure they have markers, erasers, and email accounts. It’s about making sure that they can breathe. We tell new teachers that 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 guidebook to culture and practice for teachers, something beyond the official handbook spelling out the legal and contractual elements of employment? Does this “other” document cover the little things that can be embarrassing not to know as well as the big things? A great guidebook 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 this template for such a “Teacher’s Guide to Life and Works at _____”; we make it available to schools in editable form so that they can make the actual content their own. Take it, please, and do with it what you can to make your teachers’ lives easier.)
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/guardians or students, all the better—try to set up some circumstances so the pre-start-of-school buzz about your new faculty members is warm and positive.
Ideally, in those awkward, scary minutes before the first full faculty meeting is called to order, your new folks should be able to look around and know a critical mass of friendly faces—people they have chatted with and worked with enough in preceding weeks to regard as allies.
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 want 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. If you call it a program, make it truly be one.
A great support program for new teachers 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/guardian 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 observed evidence (not on phone calls or emails), 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. 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. Especially in this year of turmoil and lingering uncertainty, schools must do everything they can to ease the transition of new faculty members into every part of the lives and work of their communities.
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Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)