by Debra Heyler
It was the summer before the start of the 2016-17 school year, and my principal had yet to fill several teaching positions. Perhaps they were still vacant because Hawaii faces a persistent teacher shortage, or the notion of teaching at a school that services the disciplinary referrals and incarcerated youth appealed to few applicants. In any case, it didn’t look promising that these positions would be filled before school started. A couple weeks before the start of school, however, the principal informed me that she had filled the vacancies, and one of those new teachers was a lawyer. Wow, I thought, a career change! The reason he left the law profession to work as a teacher intrigued me, but Brian’s transition to his new profession also concerned me , especially given the national crisis in teacher retention. The essential questions became, how can our schools provide support to new teachers like Brian so that they find success and stay in the profession. How do we establish a community so that new teachers feel cared for, transition smoothly, and continue to work with kids?
In his first weeks, Brian had a very positive outlook, but as we talked more he shared that one particular class period wore him down because of the larger size and a couple dominating boys pushing the line. I clearly remember those growing pains of being a new teacher at our school, where students transfer in because of discipline issues at their previous schools. I decided to commit to being a part of that class and be that additional support. My current roles as data coach and coordinator for the school’s accreditation took me out of the classroom, so this decision also helped keep me grounded in teaching. Brian mentioned how helpful it was to have another adult present to add to the discussion and to bounce ideas around. In addition, I was able to model and discuss strategies I’ve found effective. In a short period of time, I got to know the students, and these relationships carried outside of the classroom and into the new school year. It was a win-win situation for all of us.
My experience with Brian is an example of how personnel can be distributed to optimize student learning and teacher support. Rather than conform to the traditional paradigm of straight teacher lines, why not have support staff, counselors and non-classroom teachers support teachers in their classrooms? Regular participation in a class and/or co-teaching is especially important in those classes that are struggling. Another consideration is creating mentor-mentee relationships that includes scheduling a common prep time to discuss and another class period for the mentee to observe and/or co-teach with the mentor. In a recent focus group I conducted on the topic of teacher retention, a veteran teacher shared how he coordinated a master schedule that lined up mentor-mentee relationships so that there would be regular interactions, modeling, and coaching. His school historically had a high teacher turnover rate, but many teachers recently chose to stay because of the support they were receiving. Lastly, schools should consider creating a structure in which teachers work in teams; this paradigm would naturally lend itself to mentor-mentee relationships. Currently, our school is in its third year of integrated Project Based Learning (PBL) teams. This model has been wonderful for providing new teachers, like Brian, a team to discuss concerns, questions, and ideas to try out. In fact, at the end of school year Brian gave a “shout out” to his wonderful PBL co-teachers at our faculty meeting.
When I asked Brian what advice he would give administrators to help support new teachers, Brian did not hesitate to list a few considerations:
Provide meeting times for teachers to get together and share practices, classroom management strategies, and ideas. Often meetings have set agendas and so there isn’t time for teachers to freely share ideas. Consider school a learning community for adults. I recall my education professor who had decades of classroom experience share that in teaching it’s “okay” to steal great lesson ideas. We must make time and space for this to happen.
Reduce non-teaching duties so new teachers can spend time concentrating on lesson planning and receiving coaching. There are some responsibilities that come with teaching that cannot be avoided such as special education and mandatory evaluation paperwork; however, they could be exempt from other responsibilities such as club/class advisorships and yard duty.
Find mentors or people who are happy to field questions and guide new teachers. Just as healthy schools have students who can identify an adult they feel comfortable talking to and seeking advice from, teachers should be able to say they have a colleague from whom they can seek advice. Schools will often have designated a “mentor” teacher on campus, but the quality varies. I recall my first teaching assignment at a large high school. I was told I had a mentor teacher, but this teacher never approached me. My education program then provided me a mentor teacher, who helped me through my first semester with observations, cognitive coaching, and continual encouragement. Schools need to carve time for mentorship into the master schedule and allow more teachers to be mentors, thereby making the mentor:mentee ratio manageable and meaningful.
It’s a new school year, and our principal has designated two teachers to be mentors; Brian is one of the mentees. In addition, each teacher is part of a PBL group of teachers who regularly meet. I do my part to check-in casually, and I’ve been giving rides home to one teacher. This has been a great opportunity to discuss teaching strategies, classroom management, and teaching philosophy. I have enjoyed the discourse and appreciate his candid sharing of the positives and trials he faces daily. In thinking about retaining good teachers, all of us need to look at ourselves as part of the solution. Solutions may be on a systemic or individual level, but in whatever form, we need to ask ourselves, how are we contributing to creating a learning community that teachers want to remain a part of for many years?