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A Retreat for New Teachers Offers Support, Mentorship

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With 12 percent of all U.S. public school educators in their first or second year of teaching, support for new teachers has never been more necessary. That's why Boston public school teacher Ali Stewart decided to create the New Teachers Retreat—an annual professional development program catered to those in their first five years of teaching.

Recent research has shown that anywhere from 17 percent to 46 percent of new teachers leave their jobs within five years. But despite the fact that retention and student achievement rates increase significantly when new teachers receive mentorship and professional development, educators say that resources for support are scarce in many districts. Instead, new recruits often have to tackle unruly classrooms and unfamiliar lesson plans on their own—or turn to online communities and email chains for support.

Stewart, a high school English teacher now entering her fifth year of teaching, recognized the need to provide new teachers with both professional development and strong support systems. Working with a team of five other East Coast teachers and specialists, she founded the New Teachers Retreat in 2016 with the goal of helping teachers develop long-term careers.

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This year, 16 new educators from across the country applied and were accepted to the inaugural New Teachers Retreat. The weekend-long program was funded by participant fees—$350 per person to cover lodging, food, and instruction—and held at Keene State College in New Hampshire. Over the course of three days, the teachers earned continuing education units and graduate credit while participating in instructional sessions led by the leadership team and a group of outside instructors.

The program was shaped by the personal experiences of the founding board members—most of whom are within their first 10 years of teaching—as well as from participants' responses to the online application form. "A lot of what [applicants] said they wanted really jived with our own experiences and what we felt was necessary," Stewart said in an interview with Education Week Teacher. "It was really a two-way process."

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The sessions covered common challenges faced by new teachers—classroom management, project-based assessment, and parent engagement—as well as self-care practices and strategies for work-life balance. Participants began each day with yoga and meditation lessons, and bonded through extracurricular activities like bowling, nature walks, and a cooking demonstration.

Stewart noted that throughout the weekend, teachers discussed spending late nights, early mornings, and countless hours preparing for their school days. "You can't run at your first-year level for your whole career—otherwise, you'd have a really short career," Stewart said. "We spent a lot of time talking about how to be mindful and intentional, and how to take care of yourself so that you can take care of others."

Carla Fahie, a second-year elementary school teacher from Boston who participated in the retreat, told Education Week Teacher that she appreciated the opportunity to share common challenges with and learn from other new teachers. "I came back feeling like I have somewhere to go and not worry—a judgment-free zone," Fahie said.

In her first year as a K-8 STEM teacher, Fahie struggled to create classroom management strategies for multiple grade levels while planning lessons without a district-provided curriculum.

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"Even though I had a good teacher prep program, there are some things that you're never prepared for until you're in the classroom," Fahie said. "Having a place to draw from for lesson-planning, classroom management—those big areas that the district always focuses on—was phenomenal."

One of the main goals of the New Teachers Retreat was to create a strong network of support for participants—and in a post-retreat survey, 100 percent of the teachers strongly agreed that they felt as though they could reach out to their mentors. In the future, Stewart hopes to maintain the close connections between mentors and new teachers, while increasing the number of participants and encouraging alumni to take on leadership positions.

"We want to be really mindful in our growth, so that we don't lose sight of the teachers that we're serving," Stewart said.

Photos provided by Ali Stewart

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