“Fraternity hazing” is how one article in the Atlantic characterized the experiences of first year teachers. The comparison conjures images of navigating degrading and dangerous rites of passage before being accepted for full membership into the group. Is it apt or is it hyperbolic?
This blog post was co-written by the wickedly smart and super-seasoned educator duo, Tracy Bauer and Jon Altbergs.
Consider that new teachers have to learn how to hold their bladders while simultaneously ignoring thirst and hunger to make it through four classes in a row, often while pushing a cart from classroom to classroom or racing students up and down stairs. They have to figure out how to interact with a diverse range of human beings, from the youngsters in their care to the adults in the building—most of whom hold power over them, from the secretary who holds the key to the supply closet, to the principal who has the authority to exercise the capital punishment of the workplace: non-renewal—to the parents and guardians who may see them as another kid, a potential ally, or an adversary. Tracy’s first year of teaching is still burned into her mind, with memories of driving home with first-year colleagues in which they would take turns crying. Jon became so disheartened by a system that seemed so oblivious to the needs of both students and adults, that he considered leaving the profession entirely. Is it no wonder that studies show that a significant portion of teachers leave the profession during their first five years?
Why are the first several years of teaching so difficult for many educators? One important factor is that, unlike in other professions, job requirements are not differentiated for a novice teacher. New teachers are expected to perform the same duties as veteran teachers of twenty years. In other professions, there is a progression of job requirements that those new to the field grow into. For example, in public accounting, new professionals are often hired as staff auditors and work under a supervisor, who is in charge of the account. Their workload is usually made up of small audits rather than large clients. They may work as many hours as their more experienced colleagues, but they are not solely responsible for a client. As they demonstrate their competence in the profession, they are promoted, but their work is still managed by a senior accountant. This progression develops new employees and provides them with more responsibilities as they learn the job.
In the United States, schools rarely differentiate job responsibilities. The expectation is that new professionals should have the same skills and responsibilities as their veteran colleagues, and so schools too often do not support newer teachers. And, while the institutional model of “teacher training program directly to full-time teacher” does not help, there are ways individual schools can better support novice teachers in this flawed system rather than leaving them to drown in it. Here are some tips for how schools can create safe spaces that induct, rather than haze, their new teachers:
Schools need to provide first year teachers with curriculum. The expectation that novice teachers can manage all the tasks a teacher must manage daily: lesson planning, teaching, calling parents, taking attendance, teaching, meetings (Did we mention teaching?), and develop curriculum is way too much. Additionally, we cannot expect teachers to develop aligned lessons that scaffold towards a culminating assignment in a meaningful way from nothing. (Even veteran teachers are often not well-prepared or equipped to develop curriculum. The skills involved in curriculum development are vastly different than teaching and so to expect any teacher to be a curriculum developer, without proper training, feels like a stretch to us.) We unfairly disadvantage first year teachers when they have nothing to work from. It would be like giving an architect a job to build a house with no blueprint. Now, this is not to say that we must give teachers a script of every lesson but I think we must give them something. Teachers can take the curriculum and be creative in the lesson planning but we fail teachers when we provide them with no guidance about course expectations. We suggest that all teachers are provided at least a curriculum map that outlines the unit topics, end-of-unit assessments, targeted content and skills to be taught, and time frame for each unit.
New teachers need support and lots of it. Think of how much a newborn baby needs to be held; we need to do the same for novice teachers. Instructional leaders can create many layers of organized support for novice teachers including mentorship or coaching programs.
We know that learning how to teach is often in a classroom as opposed to the coursework before you are hired. Learning how to teach is on-the-ground training so instructional leaders need to be coaches instead of supervisors in this respect. New teachers need coaching on how to manage their class, how to plan lessons effectively, and how to pace time during lesson implementation, among other elements of effective practice. These important aspects of pedagogy can be coached through various practices including modeling, co-teaching, instructional planning and class visits with debrief sessions. Below are more detailed explanations of the various coaching practices you and your mentor teachers or coaches (see above) can use to support new teachers’ blossoming instructional practices.
It is time we call out all the structures and practices that really do haze novice teachers. In secondary schools, rookies are often assigned the toughest schedules (you, know, teaching four different classes, so four different lesson plans), traveling to four different classrooms throughout the day, no technology available, or being assigned the classes with the most students. New teachers in K-8, too, face a slew of challenges their more veteran colleagues do not. If instructional leaders want to establish equity among staff and truly aid novice teachers’ development, they will stop making the veteran teachers lives easier at the expense of novice teachers. If we continue to haze novice teachers in a way that curtails their development and makes them want to quit teaching after 3-5 years, then shame on us.
First and foremost, scheduling and space are key when it comes to supporting novice teachers. Beyond scheduling planning time for mentoring and coaching of a new teacher, it will also be wise to think about the new teacher’s schedule as a whole. Here are the big no no’s you will want to avoid when planning a novice teacher’s schedule:
Novice teachers need to know that everything will be alright after all. The journey of the first few years of teaching is similar to a roller coaster ride - you have terrific days and you have awful days. It is important to remind novice teachers that “this too shall pass” and they will continue to learn and improve their methods as they learn the art of teaching. The idea here is to create a space in which the school is empathetic to this roller coaster ride but does not sacrifice accountability to the students and their learning.
Ultimately, if novice teachers are not supported effectively, it is our students who lose. The vicious cycle of novice teachers leaving the profession after the first few years only serves to bring in more novice teachers, who, in turn, might leave, and the cycle goes on. We know that student learning is impacted by the teachers in the classroom and so we need to grow and develop our pedagogues so that the children have positive experiences and are also able to grow and develop successfully. Although, these suggestions can be thought of as band-aids for the root causes of an unsupported profession as is, we can always iterate and improve the schools we are in, even if the system is broken.
"Creativity follows mastery." These are the words of Benjamin Bloom, who believed that learners are capable of incredible things if they have access to powerful learning environments. This is why we’ve chosen the name “Bloom” for our knowledge-sharing initiative. Bloom is all about our stake in helping to build the capacity of practitioners and leaders who work with our most marginalized youth to reimagine, recreate, redesign our models for learning--within schools and beyond. For us, this is fundamentally a matter of social justice. Reach out if you’d like to submit a guest post, or sign up for our monthly newsletter: Bloom@reDesignu.org.
Tracy Bauer has worked in education for over thirteen years. Currently, she is an instructional coach with reDesign, working in high-needs schools across the city. She has taught English, drama, and reading and is raising two lovely children of her own. She frequents many bookstores in NYC, including her favorite, The Strand, and she loves chatting with her local librarians in Brooklyn.