Research on Supporting New Teachers
The most important determinant of a teacher’s success in her profession, not just in her first year but throughout her career, is the strength of a school’s plan of support for new teachers. Here are composite portraits of four typical first-year experiences, based on research I’ve done with graduates of the Legacy Heritage Jewish Educators Program at Stern College over the past 10 years. The program is an undergraduate major at Stern, in which students major in Judaic studies with a concentration in Jewish education. They take classes in psychology and pedagogy, and participate in a robust program of fieldwork and student teaching.
Four students, four different models of mentoring:
Sara began her teaching career in a middle school where she had done her student teaching. She did not have a mentor in her first year—none was provided by the school—though she did have one for her second year of teaching. Sara frequently felt overwhelmed when planning her lessons and turned to her fellow teachers for guidance. She often felt that the school expected the same things from her as they did from the more experienced teachers and that she wasn’t given the opportunity to grow into her role as a teacher.
Rivka also taught in a middle school and was assigned a mentor. Her mentor taught during the same times as Rivka, which meant that she was not free to visit Rivka’s class while Rivka was teaching. While Rivka and her mentor planned weekly meetings in the beginning of the year, they soon stopped meeting on a consistent basis. Rivka tried to figure out things on her own.
Rachel was an assistant teacher at an elementary school during her first full year of teaching and was mentored by her head teacher. She taught parashah every week and received feedback. She participated in all mentor meetings and felt that she was continuing to grow and hone her teaching skills.
Leah was given a reduced teaching schedule during her first year of teaching high school. She met weekly with her mentor, who frequently came to observe her classes. She had the opportunity to observe her mentor while teaching, as well as other teachers in the school.
These four stories represent a spectrum of options that currently exist in day schools for new teachers. Since the beginning of the program, I have seen an increase in the schools that have mentor programs. While this indicates that schools are making progress, there are two caveats: not all mentoring programs are created equal, and mentoring alone is not enough. Research shows that mentoring is but one part of a well-rounded induction system that can increase the retention and effectiveness of teachers.
Why are induction programs so important?
The Alliance for Excellent Education reports the following statistics. After one year of teaching, 92% of teachers who had a mentor were still teaching as compared to 84% of teachers without a mentor. After five years, 86% of teachers mentored their first year were still teaching, as opposed to 71% of teachers who were not. The numbers matter, since a major issue facing day schools today is finding teachers. Every teacher who leaves the field requires vital resources in the form of money and time to replace. And, depending upon the school’s location, there may be few if any candidates to step in.
But even more important than the numbers of teachers who leave the field is the quality of the teachers who remain. Sharon Feiman-Nemser, in “What New Teachers Need to Learn,” notes:
If we leave beginning teachers to sink or swim on their own, they may become overwhelmed and leave the field. Alternatively, they may stay, clinging to practices and attitudes that help them survive but do not serve the education needs of students. A high-quality induction program should increase the probability that new teachers learn desirable lessons from their early teaching experiences.
If we want teachers to remain in the field, if we want teachers to retain the best practices they learned in preservice programs, they must be nurtured and supported during their first years of teaching.
What does a well-rounded induction program look like?
In “The Impact of Induction and Mentoring Programs for Beginning Teachers,” Carol Ingersoll outlines various elements that can comprise teacher induction, including classes, workshops, orientations, seminars and mentoring. Induction should begin in the summer with an orientation to the school culture and by providing relevant course materials to the new teacher. During the year, induction continues with ongoing mentoring and seminars that provide support for the new teacher within the school, and connections to extended networks of new teachers teaching the same material in other schools.
Ingersoll found that new teachers listed the following as the most beneficial to them during their crucial first year: a mentor in the same subject area, common preparation time with same subject teachers and participation in extended networks. In another article (“Beginning Teacher Induction, What the Data Tells Us”), Ingersoll concludes that new teachers who received at least two items from the induction list were much better at:
- Keeping students on task
- Developing workable lesson plans
- Using effective student questioning practices
- Adjusting classroom activities to meet student interests
- Maintaining positive classroom atmosphere
- Demonstrating successful classroom management
What can schools do?
Perhaps the most important thing a school can do is to realize that new teachers are in fact new and need to be nurtured and encouraged, the same way students do. Support can be in putting together an induction package that includes but is not limited to mentoring. Support can be in the academic realm, letting them know in advance what subjects they will be teaching and what the overall goals for the subject are. Support can be for the culture of the school from the mundane (how you get supplies) to the complex (what is expected in the way of parent/teacher communications). Support can be for learning about the students and their needs before the first day of school.
This may sound obvious but is not the norm in every school. Schools should implement a robust plan for onboarding new teachers. Beginning teachers as well should include the school’s induction plan and teacher support among the most important factors they look for as they apply for their first position.