Guest post by Abbey Duggins
During an informal conversation with a veteran teacher who was grappling with a problem of practice in her language arts class, I asked her why she didn’t take her problem to her learning community for support. She responded, “We don’t have time. We pretty much know what we need to do from here on out is help the new teachers understand the standards. The sixth-grade team has been very, Help, we’re clueless. Tell us what to do.”
This conversation brought to light an issue that many schools experience: Our most proficient teachers shoulder the daunting responsibility of supporting their less experienced colleagues and oftentimes receive little support themselves. When teachers take on the role of mentor, it is typically in addition to their full teaching load, which can come at the expense of their own professional development. How can we create a system of support for our newest colleagues so that the responsibility seems less like a burden to one, and more like a shared, sustainable structure through which all can grow?
At Saulda County Schools, we have developed a comprehensive support system for our beginning teachers. Here are four lessons we have learned in this process:
Take a team approach to welcome new teachers
The first days of the first year of teaching are daunting, and mentors cannot drive the welcome wagon alone! Our district office team presents new teachers a welcome packet with aletter, school supplies, and professional texts during a luncheon. We enact a strategic plan to pair mentors with first-year teachers and make introductions prior to the start of school. The mentees then have at least a couple go-to people for big questions like school norms, as well as small aspects, like having someone to sit with at first faculty meeting.
Establish an on-going support structure
To maintain support throughout the school year, our district office administrative team facilitates monthly face-to-face meetings for new teachers. Mentors and other teacher leaders are called on to offer support that aligns with individual strengths or areas of interest. Some examples include:
- Mock parent-teacher conferences with mentors playing the role of parents
- Best practice sharing from school-level teacher of the year winners
- Panel discussions about important topics from content-area experts, such as special education teachers or guidance counselors
Between face-to-face meetings, mentors and school-level administrative staff offer tailored support, such as arranging coverage so mentees can conduct peer observations or scheduling teacher leaders to model instructional strategies. This differentiated support shows our newest colleagues that educators at every level are invested in their success. In addition, they receive support from district office staff virtually through a Google Classroom that houses timely articles, resources, and surveys.
Collect and Use Feedback
It is important to frequently check-in with new teachers and then use that feedback to change support structures and content. During a mid-year mentor check-in survey, consider asking teachers to respond anonymously to these two prompts:
- I love that my mentor…
- I wish that my mentor…
When we posed these prompts, we got rich responses, such as:
I love that my mentor…
- gives me the space to figure things out but is there when I need her. She doesn’t hover and I appreciate that.
- checks in with me daily and has made an effort to get to know me outside of the classroom and school.
I wish that my mentor would…
- continue helping me with advice and guidance as she implements certain strategies.
- schedule a time I could observe other teachers in some content areas that I feel I could still improve on.
Sharing this feedback with mentors is an effective way for them to reflect about their performance and learn more effective ways to support their mentees.
Teaching is tough, and first year teachers need motivation to make it through the year. We participate in the 25 Wonderfuls project, inspired by Rebecca Leigh’s the 50 Wonderfuls Project, which asks supportive friends and mentors of the beginning teachers to share 25 Wonderful things about them. In January, we organize an Induction Teacher Celebration where we play Networking BINGO and listen to TED-style talks from attendees. The celebration concludes with a video of students expressing their appreciation for their first-year teacher, which was filmed secretly with the help of their mentors.
Developing a comprehensive system of support for new teachers can be daunting. It is critical to walk the fine line between empowering teacher leaders and overburdening them. A system-wide plan to support new teachers, in which educators at every level are invested, can result in productive ways for all involved to both support colleagues and grow professionally themselves.How does your district support new teachers?
Abbey Duggins, PhD, was recently named Director of Curriculum and Instruction for Saluda County Schools, where she has worked for the last 15 years as an English teacher, literacy coach, and assistant principal. She is the 2017 South Carolina Assistant Principal of the Year. Follow her on Twitter @asduggins.