There’s a universal truth among educators that the first year as a teacher is indisputably the hardest. We enter our careers with fresh idealism and vigor, often to be harshly confronted with a system that seemingly relies on survival of the fittest.
Teachers transferring to a new school are also vulnerable. In my fourth year teaching, I transferred to a new school district and was hired at my alma mater. I felt confident. I had three years under my belt, and I already knew the culture of the school. A month into the school year, I was huddled in my closet absolutely melting down. I was overwhelmed, doubtful, and drowning, and the only life raft I’d been given was a zip file of lessons from a former teacher.
Later in my career, I sat on a hiring committee. As we discussed a potential candidate, an administrator said, “She’ll never make it. This school will eat her alive.” I’ve never forgotten that. What culture are we creating and perpetuating if we feel we need to hire the most callous, resilient, or seasoned teachers? That comment was a reflection of the gaps in teacher induction programs and how school leaders and coaches aren’t meeting these needs, something that was reinforced when I worked as an instructional coach. Induction programs are created and driven by a prescriptive system rather than a human evaluation of the true needs of our new hires.
Teacher retention and teacher wellness directly impact our school culture, and our student communities and school leaders and administrators have the opportunity to better support new colleagues and create a connected, happier, and more sustainable workplace. Here are four actionable ways that school leaders can positively support new teachers.
Consider new teachers when scheduling for the following year
Even before a new teacher is hired, administrators can provide them with an approachable class and curriculum in order to ease their transition.
Instead of scheduling new hires into whatever classes and spaces are left over, leaving them planning multiple preps without collaborative partners, teaching classes outside their area of expertise, and so on, school leaders can strategically build a more amenable schedule for their new teachers.
Here are some ideas:
- Give new teachers manageable grade levels and courses.
- Room new teachers with or near collaborative colleagues.
- Provide common prep time that aligns with mentor teachers or coaches.
Evaluate ways to minimize extra obligations
We know the importance of healthy mental states for our teachers, and the mental load for a teacher at a new school is particularly heavy. They’re working tirelessly to understand common practices and policies and learn the school and community culture, all while teaching in a new place, and possibly for the first time. Add in induction meetings, evaluations, and formal observations, and you have a recipe for overload.
The predominant need of first-year teachers is a safe place for emotional support and connection, and bringing our new teachers into a supportive community is a powerful way to support their transition and social and emotional well-being. Administrators can play a meaningful role here by replacing formal evaluations and pedagogical development in year one with more personal and time-efficient support.
Monthly lunches: Instead of setting year-one induction meeting requirements, have monthly lunch gatherings with new teachers. These are great opportunities to transmit school culture and information and prepare them for their first parent conferences, back-to-school nights, school spirit weeks, grading norms, and discipline politics, to name a few. Pedagogical development and cycles of improvement will be more effective in year two, when teachers feel more established and connected with their school.
Connected conversations: One of the most powerful things an administrator can do for their new teachers is to assure them that they’re on the same team, and one way to do this is to create opportunities for teachers to reflect on their growth and areas for improvement through casual conversations. Carve out time to connect meaningfully with new teachers. Pop into the classroom during a break, and ask your teachers how they’re doing, what they need; share a treat; or even tell a funny story to laugh about together.
Create a physical space of welcome for new hires
The importance of creating a welcoming physical space for new teachers can’t be overestimated. Time and again, I’ve witnessed new teachers spending their first work week scouring campus for a desk, a chair, keys to the copy room, or even some paper. Preparing a classroom with basic essentials or creating a “home” space for teachers who share a classroom communicates that they belong. Administrators can set aside a small budget for “welcome” items for their new teachers. Some of the best welcome items for new teachers include these:
- A sign on the door or desk with the teacher’s name
- A school sweatshirt (and any other school swag available)
- A “staff yearbook” with pictures and names of the staff
- Basic desk essentials (stapler, tape, markers, extra paper, etc.)
- A welcome note signed by the staff
Cultivate community and belonging
In addition to a welcoming physical space, new teachers need camaraderie and a sense of inclusion in their new community. Teacher gatherings are one of the most impactful drivers of belonging and community for our new teachers. A Harvard Business Review study showed that when employees feel that they’re part of a caring and supportive community, there’s greater employee retention and engagement.
At the school level, administrators can arrange community-building and staff-recognition opportunities to help new teachers connect with their colleagues. Setting aside a small portion of the budget for community-building events or teacher appreciation not only lifts the task from other teachers but also sends a powerful message of appreciation. Here are some ideas for budget-friendly staff events:
- Provide a breakfast gathering for the staff before school.
- Plan a staff movie night in the gym.
- Organize a staff and family day at a park or on campus.
- Set up an after-school staff walk or hike.
- Schedule an extended lunch day with food for the staff.
While building an inclusive system of support for new teachers is multifaceted and can feel overwhelming to administrators, if school leadership dedicates the first year to the emotional and personal needs of their new hires, it will translate directly to their success in the classroom and their career longevity.