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September 26, 2019
Vol. 15
No. 2

First Year, Worst Year: A Case for New Teacher Networks

On the first morning of my first real job, my fellow new teachers and I gathered in the vice principal's office on a hot August afternoon. Anticipating the year ahead, the vice principal said, "The first thing you'll want to do is to find a picture of your loved ones. Maybe it's your boyfriend or your girlfriend or your mom or dad. Put that picture in a frame on your desk. Because that's the last time you're going to see that person until winter break."
We were horrified, but she was right. Despite my excitement, my can-do attitude, four years of college, student teaching, and a semester as a substitute, my first year of teaching was, hands down, the worst year of my life.
The two teachers I shared rooms with only allowed me one quarter of one chalkboard for my lessons, no one in my department volunteered when the principal asked for my mandatory mentor, and the department chair said, "Good luck," as she handed me a textbook and a half-page course outline when I asked her for the curriculum map.
Then, the students arrived. The empty halls suddenly filled with people talking, laughing, pushing, and shoving. A staff member who confused me for a student asked for my hall pass. It only took a few weeks of classes before I felt underwater.
My life was simple: plan, teach, grade, sleep; plan, teach, grade, sleep. I was surrounded by hundreds of people at school and had a strong personal network of friends and family at home, but I felt isolated. I was drowning. I needed help.
My story is similar to so many teachers' experiences within their first three years in the classroom. Whether they're coming from a university's teacher-preparation program or an alternative program, the first year is almost always the worst year. But it doesn't have to be.

The Path to Support

I survived, in part, because of the community I was able to create with my fellow new teachers and because of the support I received through professional learning experiences. (Also, I took an extra prep in exchange for my own classroom in the basement.)
After my first year, I determined that no other teacher should have to go through what I went through. I knew I couldn't pave their way with Skittles or rainbows, but I could offer support and encouragement by sharing what was finally working for me.
It's the culmination of experiences like mine that led the Center for Professional Education of Teachers (CPET), which I direct, to initiate the New Teacher Network at Teachers College (NTN@TC). NTN@TC is a university-based alumni network recognizing that preservice preparation only provides a foundation for the experiential learning to come. For teachers to persevere through the challenges, they need a community of peers, ongoing professional development, and on-demand support.

A Community of Peers

A community of new teachers is a powerful source of motivation for young professionals; it provides deep and meaningful support as they are developing their teacher identity. In a community of peers, teachers are able to cultivate relationships quickly, bond over shared experiences that need minimal explanation, and collaborate in nonevaluative spaces.
I found three things helpful in building relationships:
  1. Name Names: Learn the names of every staff member in your building, with special attention to support and building staff. Ask about their weekends, their kids, and say thank you when their role makes your job easier. It won't take long before you're getting the inside scoop, the extra furniture, or that coveted ream of colored cardstock paper in the supply room.
  2. Make the First Move: It's easy to become isolated and find places to hide out when not in classes. Be on the lookout for other teachers or staff members who share your values, philosophies, or work ethic. When you find others who seem like kindred spirits, make the first move. Invite them to lunch, become grading buddies, try parallel planning (lesson planning individual classes at the same time). It may not take long before your coworkers become your squad.
  3. Acknowledge Admin: Stop by your administration's offices at least once a week. Administrators have a lot of responsibilities and pressures that no one else sees. They may be stuck in meetings or chained to their email for hours on end, making it difficult to spend any meaningful time with new teachers. This often makes observations awkward or uncomfortable. Deliberately connecting with your administration will build trust over time.

Professional Development

Just as you can't read a book about riding a bike and then expect to be an expert cyclist, teachers can't complete a teaching-preparation program and expect to know everything about teaching. In education, we learn by doing—and that's why in-service professional learning is so important. By providing new teachers with access to workshops, conferences, and professional networks outside of their classroom, schools can ensure that their teachers receive direct support throughout the year, exposure to new ideas, and a time and space to process their experiences. Schools and districts can create these opportunities for new teachers by offering strategic professional development directly targeted to the needs of new teachers.
Professional development opportunities come in many shapes and sizes:
  • Professional Organizations: Participating in professional organizations or their annual conferences is a good way to learn new ideas and practices. Most national organizations also have local chapters or smaller committees that welcome engagement from teachers at all levels. For example, in NTN@TC, Teachers College alumni reconnect in person for workshops, happy hours, or co-planning about once a month throughout the school year for both professional learning and social networking.
  • Workshops and Summer Institutes: Many schools will support teachers who want to participate in summer institutes, weekend workshops, or a workshop series during the school year. At CPET, we offer <LINK URL="https://cpet.tc.columbia.edu/events.html" LINKTARGET="_blank">six to eight workshops per year</LINK>, as well as annual conferences and summer institutes for learning.
  • Online Learning Whether it's participating in universities' online courses for teachers, listening to education podcasts like <LINK URL="https://www.wnyc.org/blogs/schoolbook" LINKTARGET="_blank">WNYC's Schoolbook</LINK>, or simply joining the conversations on Twitter—reading and writing with others online provides opportunities for teachers to connect and learn from one another without ever leaving your phone. CPET hosts our <LINK URL="https://cpet.tc.columbia.edu/centered-teaching-podcast.html" LINKTARGET="_blank">own</LINK> podcast and <LINK URL="https://cpet.tc.columbia.edu/events.html" LINKTARGET="_blank">online courses</LINK> with practical tips for new teachers.

On-Demand Support

Most districts recognize the need to support new teachers with mentoring from an experienced teacher or coach. Mandatory mentoring has become a common practice across the country, but it often falls flat if assigned mentors are short on time or if mentors are participating merely for extra money.
Formal networks, like NTN@TC or Teach for America, may provide online coaching support, video conference conversations, weekly virtual classroom visits and check-ins, and curated resources like newsletters, podcasts, or social media blasts. But don't underestimate the power of the informal network. Grass roots school-based groups can be created anywhere, by anyone! New teachers can meet for lunch for a "chat and chew," form an educators' book club, or initiate a professional inquiry team. For example, teachers who enrolled in my course "Keep the Kids Talking" often watched course videos at lunch with other colleagues and discussed instructional talks, co-planned lessons, and implemented the strategies together. They were eventually invited to share their learning with the entire school community.
I still keep a picture of my loved ones on my desk during the school year. But I've learned that teaching can be challenging without being chaotic. It can be hard work without being horrible. With the right support frameworks for new teachers, we can mitigate the struggle of those earliest years.

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