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Moving Beyond a Sink-or-Swim Mentality for New Teachers

Rachel Thompson

Based on anecdotes from colleagues and my own experience, schools absolutely could do more to support their first year teachers. To be frank, I felt a sort of sink-or-swim mentality in my first year—certainly, some of this is the nature of the profession, but I also see a few areas in which schools could improve systematically.

Teaching is a unique profession in that a teacher with zero years experience has the exact same number of responsibilities as a teacher with 30 years experience. In most professions, newcomers receive extensive training and a gradual addition of responsibility throughout their career. Teachers, however, are expected to do everything a veteran teacher does on their first day of work. In my opinion, it just doesn't make any sense. I believe that this is a significant reason that teaching has such a high turnover rate.

An obvious solution would be to give beginning teachers more time during the school day to plan, grade, and correspond with parents, perhaps in the form of an extra conference period or relief from duty assignments. I realize, of course, that this model would come with a sizeable price tag for districts, but also believe it would be a valuable investment for recruiting and retaining quality teachers.

Some schools do provide support for new teachers in the form of mentorship. Schools sometimes assign a veteran teacher to mentor a first-year teacher, which is good in theory, but can feel forced to many first year teachers and can become an obligation to both parties. Mentorship is certainly key to a successful first year, but a more effective model would be to allow new teachers to go through in-service and the first few weeks of school to form organic relationships with veteran teachers, then choose their own mentor whom they trust and look up to. I unofficially chose my own mentor, and her counsel, encouragement, and trustworthiness has been integral to my survival as a beginning teacher.

Finally, I think the most important thing a school can do for its new teachers is to encourage them and to focus on their potential rather than their shortcomings. We all know that positive teacher-student relationships are crucial to student success, but often forget about how important administrator-teacher relationships are. This form of support requires no procedural changes or budget increases; only a little extra mindfulness and empathy on the part of administrators for their new teachers.

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