What New Teachers Really Need

There’s a lot of talk these days about the teacher shortage. In our great state, we set a record for emergency certifications as our districts began the school year with over 800 teaching positions empty. I’m from a large, suburban school district that educates around 23,000 students. A colleague there told me they had to dissolve the physics course at one of the high schools two weeks into the school year because they could not find anybody to teach it. This serves to illustrate that this crisis is being felt all over the state and is not just confined to urban and rural districts. It has left many of us asking how we can recruit and retain good teachers in our state.

Should we offer student loan forgiveness for new teachers committing years to the profession? That’s an idea. Should we quit making it so damn hard for out-of-state teachers to get their credentials and years of service recognized? Yep. Should we raise teacher pay? I think we all know the answer to that one.

None of us entered the profession expecting to make millions; but making enough to support a modest lifestyle is not an unreasonable demand. Raising teacher pay will probably go a long way to help alleviate the teacher shortage. We can advance that cause by voting for legislators who will support that endeavor, and by choosing from among ourselves the best advocates to articulate the need for it.

But…

I think the exodus of new teachers is less about being underpaid and more about being overwhelmed.

It’s a tough time to be a teacher. We’re fighting the false rhetoric that public schools are failing. We’re expected to educate more students with fewer teachers and less money. We have students showing up on the lowest levels of Maslow’s hierarchy, and we’re expected to close the gap with their peers all while shackled to the increasingly unfair mandates of high-stakes testing. And yet…there are still people choosing to become teachers. We need to do everything in our power to encourage and champion the teachers who are choosing right now to enter the education field. These are the brave souls willing to join the battle when the fight isn’t fair and we’re on the losing end more often than not. If we want to keep them, we’ll have to help them know their faith was not poorly placed.

I grew up in the United Methodist Church, and my husband is a United Methodist Minister (yes, I’m a pastor’s wife who drinks, swears, and occasionally smokes a cigar—so what?). When new members join, there is a brief ceremony in which the pastor asks if they will uphold the church through prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. The pastor then asks the congregation to remember their own vows of membership, and to commit to the love and care of these new members. (The words are really beautiful, and I had them here originally. I’m a little rusty with citation and copyright, so I removed them. But you can check them out in the United Methodist Hymnal on page 48.) The point is, the church places responsibility on new members and existing ones when welcoming people into the church. While an individual vows to uphold the church, the church vows to uphold the individual.

What would the profession of teaching look like if we took a similar vow? What if we accepted the responsibility of nurturing new teachers in addition to upholding our professional duties? Are we doing “all in our power” to invest in new teachers so they feel encouraged to stay in the profession?

Are you willing to take that new teacher to lunch or coffee, or invite her to sit at your table during her first faculty meeting? Being the new teacher isn’t much different from being the new student—we all just want to make friends. Speaking of friends, friend new teachers on Facebook. Follow their twitter account. Invite them to join in Facebook groups or twitter chats you participate in that are related to their field.

Can you drop by that new teacher’s room on occasion and compliment her bulletin boards/behavior charts/reading nook/homework calendar/or anything else? A compliment from a veteran teacher means the world to a new one, even one as seemingly frivolous as how the desks are arranged. If he coaches a school team or directs the band or choir, can you show up to a game or a concert? An added bonus: you’ll probably also bring joy to a few of your students who just love to see their teachers at their activities.

Do you have some perusal materials you picked up at a conference? Two copies of that workbook? The fail-proof substitute lesson plan? New teachers have so little when they first start out. Share the wealth. That includes important information like who has the key to the supply closet and that every Thursday they serve homemade cinnamon rolls in the breakfast line. (Note: sharing the wealth does NOT mean passing off all your unwanted, outdated material to a new teacher just to clear space in your shelves—share only the best stuff!)

Are you willing to volunteer some time and maybe even money to helping your new colleague in his endeavors? Will you buy a few raffle tickets from the new baseball coach? Or show up to the pancake breakfast the new cheer sponsor organized? If money is tight, can you donate some of your time? When the new drama teacher is drowning in obligations during musical season, can you help paint sets, or pull out your old sewing machine to make a few [dozen] hot-box-girl outfits? (1000 bonus points to any readers who know that reference!) These are things we should do for our colleagues whether new or old, but they’re especially important for the ones who haven’t had a chance to make those connections with the faculty or the community yet.

Can you commit to staying positive? New teachers have enough obstacles to overcome. They’re navigating new territory that can be scary and even lonely. What they DON’T need is a veteran teacher complaining about students/parents/administrators/that we have to buy our own coffee, or any pessimistic views about the future of our education system. They need to hear your success stories. They need to know the first few (or five) years are tough, and that’s okay. They need you to confirm their hope that things get better.

I’m not saying I have done all or even any of these things. It might even sound condescending to some of you that a teacher with only eight years experience is preaching about what new teachers need. But I feel as though these needs are still very fresh to me as I am just passing out of the “new teacher” phase and into the adolescence of my career.

I am particularly guilty of being the “glass-is-half-full” teacher. That’s a story for another post. The point is, I see now what, or rather who, was responsible for helping me and sometimes carrying me through those first precarious years in the profession. Had it not been for the mentoring from master educators (including my own mother), I’m not sure where I’d be today. Certainly not teaching.

Many of you are already doing these things. Many of you are already invested in mentoring the next generation of great teachers. You’re probably wondering why any veteran teachers would need to be reminded to do these things because it comes so naturally to you. I thank you from the bottom of my heart. Please rest assured it made a difference to me, or to somebody like me in their first fragile years as an educator.

I can honestly say my perspective on teaching has changed. I see my passion shifting from just mentoring students to mentoring teachers as well. I am ready now to re-commit myself not only to my obligations as a teacher, but to the promise of encouraging and upholding my brothers and sisters teaching alongside me. Are you willing to do the same?

Because what new teachers really need…is YOU!

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7 thoughts on “What New Teachers Really Need

  1. Love the correlation to the UMC membership decree (vows? pledge?) and how we can use that in teaching. I’ve never thought of it that way but it makes so much sense. My first year we had mentor teachers that were supposed to check in with us throughout the year…I saw mine maybe twice. But, other teachers on my team stepped up with helpful comments, suggestions and acted as a sounding board. It was such a gift to have my first year. Love the blog posts so far!

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    1. Thanks, Lauren! And I agree. I would not have made it past my first year if it had not been for A LOT of help and encouragement from many teachers. I want to see all new teachers get that kind of support!

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