New Teachers: Getting Them And Keeping Them
by Jan Fisher
"Coming out of college I was enthusiastic and probably filled with too much idealism---I couldnít wait to make a difference. After my first year I was thinking about leaving." These words are from a new teacher and were quoted in the book The First Year of Teaching (Kane, 1991). Not many new teachers are quoted in books as this one was, but almost all experience similar feelings when they enter the classroom for the first time. They donít get over them, either. The attrition rate for new teachers nation-wide is horrendous. 30% will leave during the first two years; 40%-50% will leave during the first seven years. And, hereís the really bad news: it is the most competent teachers who choose to leave! Why is this happening, and, more importantly, what can be done to stop it?
You have only to scroll through Teachers.Net for a few minutes to see the frustration of our new teachers. They are often exhausted and discouraged. They are isolated from colleagues. Unlike any other profession, they are expected to assume the full responsibilities of teacher on the first day of their first year. No residencies, no junior partners, no apprentices. Just jump right in and teach like the 30-year veteran "Teacher of the Year" who works next door.
We have tried to blame the colleges of education for the problem; itís easier and more comfortable than examining our own institutions. But studies have shown that the problems are grounded in the culture of the profession and the conditions of the school as a workplace. The major ones are:
Difficult work assignments. Not only do novices begin with the same responsibilities as veterans, but they are given the most difficult and least rewarding assignments. Donít they always get the left-over rooms and furniture? And, hasnít that room been picked clean of any valuable supplies left by the vacating/retiring teacher? Combination classes, disciplinary problems, and the staff social committee are theirs. So are lunch duty and the child of the parent who has been a consistent trouble-maker since kindergarten---and this is fifth grade! Many new teachers are "rovers" meaning they donít even have a classroom of their own but move from room to room every hour. Why donít the veteran teachers want these assignments? Too challenging! So, we give them to our novices?
Unclear expectations. The myriad of formal rules and procedures and informal routines and customs are unclear to the beginning teacher. We canít even figure them out ourselves! Testing and standards and acronyms (RSP, GATE, SP, BT, PAR, BTSA,) are enough to send us spiraling into space. Think about how the new teacher feels. And, did anyone remember to tell that first year teacher that only Sarah sits in THAT chair in the lounge and that Harry has parked in THAT parking space for 25 years? In one study, the most common complaint from new teachers was "I never knew what was expected of me."
Inadequate resources. Is there anyone out there who has not participated in the summer raid on the recently resigned teachers? I know I have. Carl Glickman said, "Most new teachers start out with leftovers." How true. Ever see a beginning teacher with desks and chairs that match?
Isolation. Teacher isolation is especially traumatic for new teachers. Veteran teachers often donít assist for fear of interfering. Novices donít ask for help for fear of seeming incompetent. They stay in their rooms, alone, trying to survive the day (or the hour!) And, the worst thing is they adopt survival strategies, as opposed to effective teaching strategies, that stay with them for 30 years!
Role conflict. In many cases there is a conflict between being teachers and young adults. It is their first job, they are away from home for the first time, they need a new car and apartment and doctor. They need to open a bank account and buy a "professional wardrobe" in August even though they donít get paid until October. Often they are newly married and the spouse is just learning that the mate really doesnít finish work at 2:00 PM and have summers free. Problems arise and the new teachers donít have adequate time to give to either the professional or the personal role.
Reality shock. Veenman, in his work on new teachers, says, "reality shock is the collapse of missionary ideals formed during teacher training by the harsh and rude reality of classroom life." The new teachers want to change the world. They canít even make it through the roll. Reality shock is caused by the beginning teachersí realizations about the world of teaching and their lack of preparation for many of the demands and difficulties of that world. One teacher said, "I wanted to make literature come alive. I wanted to instill a love of the written word. I wanted to discuss F. Scott Fitzgerald. They wanted to throw spitballs and whisper dirty words in the back of the classroom." (Kane, 1991). Yes, indeed, that is reality shock!
It used to be said, somewhat jokingly, that the main goal of a first year teacher is to become a second year teacher. These days, the main goal of a first year teacher is to find another profession. Can we turn this around? There is hope.
The good news is we know what works!
Beginning teacher support programs. Many schools, districts, and states have begun new teacher induction programs. In California, we have Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment (BTSA). Much research, money and planning has gone into it. But, as with anything, the road to implementation can be rocky. Still, it shows great promise and the commitment to the program at both the state and district levels is strong. BTSA pairs a veteran teacher(called support provider) with a new teacher for the purpose of training, support and assessment. The two are paired for the entire two years of induction. The support provider works closely with the beginning teacher on a day to day (hour by hour) basis. They plan together; develop and investigate questions relating to the teaching-learning process; and engage in formative assessment activities. The support provider acts as a coach to the new teacher. The relationship is built on trust, collegiality and confidentiality. In most cases, it works exactly as it was designed. But the world is not a perfect place. Sometimes a support provider cannot be found at the same school as the beginning teacher and is at another site. This limits access. Some support providers get more assistance and support from their districts and are able to do a better job than others. Some support providers are overwhelmed with their own teaching responsibilities and cannot spend the amount of time that is required to fully support a beginning teacher. But, the possibilities are there and we continually work to make the program better. BTSA and programs like it are the answer, but we must work to increase the effectiveness of every project in California.
Informal support programs. Many schools or just groups of teachers have taken the responsibility of providing assistance to their new teachers. Veteran teachers pair up with new teachers and give them the support they need to be successful. This includes orienting the new teacher to the culture of the school and district, providing psychological/emotional support (especially at first), assisting in the acquisition and refinement of teaching skills, and coaching them in the process of developing a philosophy of education.
New teacher support groups. Bringing new teachers together at the school or district level to collaborate and problem solve is a wonderful assist to them, especially when it is in combination with the one-to-one support given by a mentor/support provider. These networks reduce the isolation of teaching and provide an opportunity to give the new teachers information that will help them understand, and become an integral part of, the culture of their schools and districts.
Appropriate placement of new teachers. Although the understanding of this concept is greater than the application, many efforts are being made to place new teachers in less challenging situations. Administrators, for the most part, understand the necessity of this and are taking the leadership to make it happen. We need to give new teachers some released time to plan and observe veteran teachers. They must have classes which have few discipline or learning problems, and they have to be excluded from extra-curricular activities at least during the first year.
Coaching. To gain skill and confidence in teaching, the beginning teacher needs ongoing coaching and feedback. The more the better. They need to learn to be reflective and this skill is modeled for them by the coach. The best new teachers I know are the ones who have had the most coaching by someone who is experienced in analyzing instruction and conducting reflective conversations. "Feedback is the breakfast of champions," according to Ken Blanchard. And, good teachers are champions!
Technology. Linking a veteran teacher with a beginning teacher through technology has enormous potential. If all every new teacher had was the e-mail address of an experienced teacher who would respond quickly and effectively to concerns and issues we would have done a great service to the field. We have given all our new teachers the address of Teachers.net. They use it; I see their posts. They can have a question in by 7:00 AM and a response by recess. And, often, they get multiple responses which gives them options from which to choose. T-net connects teachers to the world and to their profession. They desperately need that. It allows them to be collegial and reflective and to share problems with insurance of confidentiality.
With new teachers we must focus on two aspects during induction: (1) retention in the profession and (2) increased competency. These cannot be provided by principals, district-level administrators or state department officials. Only veteran teachers can give the support and assistance to new teachers that is so needed. It is an awesome responsibility, no doubt about it. It is also one we must not only accept, but embrace.