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Creating a Culture of Support for New Teachers

Karen Engels

Teaching is the most stimulating, complex, and fulfilling profession in the world.  Yet no job is more demanding. New teachers quickly discover that no matter how efficiently you work, there is never enough time to accomplish all that you intend. Your e-mail inbox quickly fills with deadlines, requests, and exhortations. Your students produce more work in a day than you could thoughtfully respond to in a week. You congratulate yourself on preparing one gloriously engaging lesson, only to realize that you have 24 lessons left to prepare.

We know that in order for novice teachers to thrive, districts must establish supportive environments.  Over the last decade, there has been renewed attention to the importance of structuring meaningful collaboration and teamwork in our schools. Today, it's increasingly common to see classroom teachers, coaches, and interventionists analyzing student work together and planning instructional supports to meet the needs of every child. This kind of collaboration can engender nonjudgmental contexts for new teachers to learn from more experienced colleagues.

And yet, during the same decade in which collaboration has increased, a parallel cultural phenomenon has grown alongside. This is the Culture of Fear. In too many districts, professional learning communities have not provided teachers with a safe environment to improve their pracice, but have instead dedicated an inordinate amount of teacher time to an all-consuming focus on test scores. Rather than empowering teachers to wrestle with important challenges in their practice, countless meetings are spent reviewing spreadsheets with angry red font. At each of these data meetings, teaching colleagues find themselves anxious and queasy, wondering "Are my scores as good as hers? How do I measure up?" 

Instead of generating trust and camaraderie, an overemphasis on standardized test data has fostered a chronic fear of failure, not just among children, but among adults as well. This is a cultural shift that undermines our collective efforts to retain new teachers. As educators, we know that students need to be in a caring collaborative culture where they have a daily opportunity to experience feelings of success. We must establish the same culture for educators. If districts want to nurture new teachers, and support all teachers, they must begin by evaluating the existing culture of collaboration. These questions might include:

  • Have teachers designed the purpose of their collaboration with collagues?  Are they invested in the outcomes?
  • Does teamwork provide care, support, and encouragement for teachers with different levels of experience?
  • Does the professional culture invite teachers to be open, honest, and direct about the challenges they are confronting?

It's in our power to provide the kind of culture new teachers deserve. But we need the collective will.

Karen Engels is a 3rd and 4th grade teacher at a public school in Cambridge, Mass. Her article "What's Love Got to Do With It?" appeared on Education Week Teacher in August 2016. 






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