Orientation, Enculturation and Retention of Newcomers to Your School

Those of us in school leadership roles know that the single greatest factor that contributes to excellent teaching and learning in the classroom is the quality of a school’s faculty. Education today requires teachers to deliver an innovative, student-centered curriculum that promotes curiosity, wonder and joy while meeting the needs of an ever-increasing range of diverse learners. We in the Jewish day school world devote a great deal of time, effort and financial resources to attract and hire outstanding teachers who will do all of that and more. In addition to seeking educators who are excellent pedagogues, we are looking for those who can fit and reflect the values and overall mission of our school.

Below are some recommended practices that schools can use to orient, enculturate and ultimately retain new teachers so that they grow as educators, understand how their work in the classroom aligns with the mission, vision and core values of their school, and deepen the talent within our schools.

Who, what, where, why and how

We use the term “newcomers” to include both novice and experienced new teachers. Novice teachers are in their first years of their career and are being inducted to a new school as well to the profession in general. Experienced new teachers are teachers who have previously taught at another school. While the background and experience of these two groups might be different, a well-defined and articulated orientation and enculturation program can meet the needs of all newcomers to a school.

Before designing the program, first identify what newcomers need to know. What are the animating ideas (as Jon Levisohn wrote in “A New Theory of Vision” in the Autumn 2014 HaYidion) that guide your school’s practice around teaching, learning, the ideal community, Judaism, the Transcendent, specific subject areas and human flourishing? More mundane, practical information, like who to ask for supplies, need to be shared. Just as we identify enduring understandings and essential questions prior to planning our assessments and lessons, we must also identify what we want our newcomers to learn when teaching them about what drives our school.

As an example of a successful program that accomplishes these goals, we will focus in part on the program in place at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy (JBHA), the oldest pluralistic, community secondary Jewish day school in North America. Located approximately 10 miles west of Philadelphia, the school serves over 350 students in grades 6–12 from communities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware. JBHA employs over 50 teachers and typically hires between four and ten newcomers each year.

Prior to 2016, the newcomer program at JBHA consisted solely of a one-day orientation program in late August. Department chairs were largely responsible for explaining and enforcing school policies and procedures without any emphasis on how those policies aligned with the mission, vision and core values of JBHA. In June 2016, for a variety of reasons, a third of newcomers decided not to return the following year. The leadership decided that it was important to transform newcomer enculturation at JBHA.

JBHA senior administrators spent much of that summer immersed in this project. We did exit interviews with all newcomers (those staying and also those who were leaving) to hear about their experiences and how we could have better supported them. We found that newcomers largely felt ignored, unsure of school culture and unclear of their place in the school. We also spoke to local independent schools in Philadelphia to find out about their programs. The results of our research led to the development of a two-year newcomer orientation and enculturation program. Our program continues to evolve to address the needs and desires of newcomers while accomplishing many of the goals stated above.

Some examples below come from research looking at schools known to be vision-guided. When a teacher is new to a school, it is an opportunity for school leaders to articulate the animating ideas explicitly. In studying how the newcomer learns about the animating ideas of a school, one is able to see the implementation of vision-guided education. Below is a composite of ideas from JBHA and research at two other day schools. Many of our examples align with the work of Sarah Birkeland and Sharon Feiman-Nemser on school-based induction.

The hiring process: screen for what you can’t teach.

The hiring process is the first step in enculturation, as it is an opportunity for both the school leaders and the candidate to evaluate for fit. School leaders must identify which elements of their animating ideas a candidate must possess prior to coming to the school and which elements can be taught. For example, one school had a commitment to teaching using constructivist methodologies and to acting with mentschlichkeit. While they felt comfortable teaching someone how to adopt constructivism, they identified that they couldn’t teach someone how to be a mentsch and so they screened for it during the hiring process. Identify which characteristics you must screen for and which can be taught later on.

Make good use of the summer prior to a newcomer’s official start.

This is the perfect time for newcomers to meet with their supervisors (department chair, division director, principal) and fellow colleagues. Newcomers should learn about the classes they will teach and the curriculum for each one. Introduce newcomers to others in their department or division, especially if they are expected to team teach a class or teach multiple classes of the same grade/level. Take time over the summer to discuss the school calendar for August, September, and October. Don’t forget to discuss the little things that veteran teachers take for granted, such as, Where is the faculty bathroom? Can faculty buy lunch in the cafeteria? Where can I made a private phone call? The start of the school year can be a blur, so the more enculturation that occurs in the summer, the more secure the newcomer will feel come September.

Orientation Programs

When planning new teacher orientation, it is crucial to plan not only what you want your newcomers to know, but how you will teach it. In what ways can you model for these newcomers elements of your school culture, expected behavior and even teaching methodology? The aforementioned school with a dedication to constructivist pedagogy conducted the entire three-day new teacher orientation using constructivist methodologies. Another school started their orientation for newcomers with a tour led by the head of school. As the head walked us around, he explained the reason behind each item in the classroom. A first grade class has round tables with shared school supplies to teach them how to be part of a community. As children get older, they progressed to long tables and then to small desks that can be grouped together differently. Students never occupy stand-alone desks, the message being that learning happens in community. Newcomers walked away from the tour of the school understanding that every aspect of the school had a lot of thought that went into it. Later in the year, newcomers were able to reflect on aspects of their class as also having been deliberately decided with much thought.

Establish sacrosanct time in newcomers’ schedules to meet with their supervisors and each other.

At JBHA, all newcomers have a once-a-cycle meeting with the middle and upper school directors. Key administrators from various departments (Admissions, Athletics, Learning Support, School Counselors, Development) are invited to attend these meetings to explain their role in the school and, more importantly, how they can support newcomers in the first two years. Not only do these meetings introduce newcomers to important people at JBHA, but they provide newcomers with a sense of how various departments work to support each other and deliver the mission of the school. As time allows in each meeting, newcomers are asked to share successes and challenges they are facing in the classroom. Establishing this safe forum in which newcomers can ask questions, learn who key players are in the school and hear from each other creates a cohort on which they can rely for years to come.

Establish and maintain a mentor-mentee program.

Each newcomer to JBHA is assigned a fellow teacher from a different department to serve as a mentor, providing yet another layer of support. Newcomers often have questions that they might not want to ask a supervisor who will evaluate them. Mentors and newcomers should be encouraged to meet regularly and keep the discussions private. (The only exception would be if the mentor hears something concerning about the health and well-being of a student or teacher that must be shared with an administrator.) Creating the matches for mentor-mentee relationships will differ greatly between novice teachers and experienced new teachers. While novice teachers need to be advised on the profession and the school, the focus for most experienced new teachers will be on the culture of the school.

Introduction to Judaism

Like many day schools, JBHA employs a number of non-Jewish teachers and teachers who are Jewish but wish to know more about their religion. One important piece of feedback that we received at JBHA from newcomers several years ago is that they wanted to better understand the rhythm of the Jewish calendar and specifics about holidays. Why are we off so many days in September and October? What is Rosh Hodesh, and why is it important to mark? What is that lemon-looking object that students are holding as they walk around school? To answer these questions and many more that come up, we hold a Judaism 101 program, a series of meetings to explain to newcomers (or frankly any staff member) the school’s approach to Shabbat and holidays, and teach about their rituals and practice. Our program has helped newcomers “celebrate the richness of Judaism’s language, culture and history,” a key part of JBHA’s mission statement, and feel more connected to Jewish practice.

A program such as this requires a tremendous amount of work. However, we all know that our schools are only as good as what happens in each and every classroom, which depends upon the quality of teachers, both their pedagogic skills and their ability to reflect the ideals of the school. By putting in the hard work with our newcomers, we not only enhance their practice, but we build a school culture where we are continuously talking about the values that are most important. This is how we not only deepen our talent, but retain our staff by creating a sense of shared vision.

Darin Katz, Rachel Lerner
Deepening Talent
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning