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September 1, 2019
Vol. 77
No. 1

How Principals Can Support New Teachers

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Five powerful ways to help new teachers thrive and enhance school culture.

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LeadershipClassroom ManagementInstructional StrategiesProfessional LearningSchool Culture
Teachers are one of the most precious commodities in a school. Principals know that hiring and retaining the best of the best is of the utmost importance. However, the demands that are put on new teachers, in particular, can make this an especially difficult endeavor. Being new in any profession is daunting, but being new in teaching comes with its own set of pressures. Meanwhile, principals are being pulled in a multitude of directions, which may result in the nurturing of new teachers slipping down the priority list. Despite these difficulties, many new teachers bring energy, enthusiasm, and ideas to their buildings and classrooms. Their potential impact on the schools they join should not be underestimated.
Good principals know that one goal when hiring a new teacher is to have the school become more like the new teacher, rather than to make new teacher become like the school. We need these fresh-minded educators to bring to the school what the school does not currently have, whether it be an infusion of technology expertise or a simple boost of excitement and energy. But without the right supports, it can be difficult for new teachers to find their place.
According to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics, 10 percent of teachers leave teaching after their first year. If they entered the classroom by way of alternate certification, that number is much higher (Brown, 2015). Researchers now estimate that 44 percent will leave within the first five years of teaching (Ingersoll et al., 2018).
There are many reasons for this exodus, including classroom management challenges, lack of administrative support, family or life changes, work-related stress, and feelings of isolation. What role, then, can principals play in diminishing some of these factors? What actions can they take to increase the likelihood of new teacher success and satisfaction? Lastly, and most important, what can principals do to retain these educators?
Here are some suggestions based on our experiences working with both teachers and school leaders.

1. Be in Classrooms

We asked numerous groups of administrators when new teachers would like them to informally visit their classrooms. The number one answer from principals was "never." The number two answer was "four to six weeks after the new teacher settles in." In actuality, when asked, new teachers say they want principals in their room immediately.
We must assume that all teachers choose education because they want to have a positive impact on young lives. They want to make a difference and be good at teaching. But it is difficult for new educators to know if they are being effective. New teachers might start to ask themselves, "Am I doing the right thing?" "Am I any good at teaching?"
If we are in new teachers' classrooms on the first day or two of the school year—and consistently after that—it will be much easier to build trust with them and provide ongoing guidance and support. This could be in the form of a quick, informal conversation or a positive note or email. Make sure your new teachers are off to a strong start. Positively reinforce what's going well and help fill in any areas of need as soon as practical. If we wait until four to six weeks after new teachers start, they may fall into bad habits, unaware of what they are doing wrong. Also, if the administrator takes a caring approach, new teachers will welcome their assistance. Rather than offering unsolicited suggestions, ask a new teacher how you can best support them. It is so much easier to help create appropriate expectations than it is to correct behaviors. And the longer bad habits exist, the more they start to feel normal.

2. Intentionally Assign Mentors

It is very common for schools to assign mentors to new teachers. The process for doing this, however, may be one of convenience rather than intentionality. At times, colleague mentors are assigned based on whether they teach at the same grade level or teach the same subject. The connection may be due more to having a common planning period than to who can provide the best support and assistance. In some schools, mentors are connected because of gender, age, or even room location. In other schools and districts, there is a stipend for mentors, so seniority or other contractual obligations dictate the choice.
When principals assign a mentor, they are telling the new teacher that this is who we want you to be like. The new staff member may, in turn, feel obligated to go to their mentor over other peers or even the administration. If these mentors are well-skilled, they can provide a solid foundation for the new staff member that can be very beneficial. But this isn't likely to happen if the quality of the mentor is not the basis of selection, so we need to ensure we aren't making these connections through arbitrary processes. Maybe we ask for volunteers and choose from the educators who come forth, based on their expertise and readiness; or even better, we recruit the most appropriate colleagues to serve in these critical roles.
Once a mentor is chosen, the administration needs to provide support by making sure the pair has a regularly scheduled time to meet and interact. Additionally, the administrator could find a substitute teacher or personally cover one of their classes so that the new teacher and mentor have the chance to be in each other's classrooms. If the correct mentor was chosen, the principal should want the new teacher learning and borrowing ideas and practices from their assigned colleague. Again, it is important that such observations begin early in the year and continue on an as-needed basis.
The right mentor can be a blessing to a teacher and serve as a guide and role model. This brings us to our next point.

3. Reduce Isolation

We all need a friend. We might desire a dozen friends, but we really need at least one or two whom we can rely on. A principal should do everything in his or her power to ensure new staff members make social connections—especially with as many positive and effective colleagues as possible.
This is important because the club that pushes negativity always has room for at least one more member. In many schools, a particular group of naysayers may come to mind, and there is a good chance they are excellent at recruitment. We need to make sure we diminish the chance of a new staff member joining a negative-influence group by working to get them a gold card in a more productive collection of peers. Ask positive teachers and support staff to check in on your new teachers. See if they can help them and even sit next to them at faculty meetings.
Administrators obviously have an important role in reducing isolation, but they are limited in their impact because they are not viewed by new teachers as a peer. Thus we need other colleagues to provide new teachers with emotional support. The leader should be aware of this dynamic and work to increase the chances of positive connections in the school.

4. Assist with Classroom Management

This area should never be underestimated. If any teacher, whether in the classroom for 16 days or 16 years, seriously struggles in classroom management, there is almost zero chance that they will enjoy their job. And, as the year moves along, this lack of enjoyment can turn into dread.
It is essential to understand that every teacher in a school is managing his classroom the best way he knows how. If a teacher could get his students to behave better, he would.
Being in classrooms on a regular basis and connecting a new staff member with the right mentor and peers are critical steps toward building a strong classroom management foundation. However, we must ensure our new staff members have the skill sets they need to hone their classroom management skills when there is no one around to help. We must make sure their toolboxes are full and that they are effectively engaging students so that misbehavior is minimized. Additionally, we have to help them know what to do when things are not going well.
In our book Your First Year (2016), we discuss making midflight corrections when our students get a little (or a lot) off course. Two concepts we touch upon are tweaks and resets. Tweaks are a continual part of any effective teacher's practice. That means that we are regularly altering what we do in subtle ways to improve behavior and minimize misbehavior. Tweaks do not need to be communicated to students; they are simply instances when a teacher changes her own behavior in order to influence the behavior of her students.
An example of a tweak is a teacher deciding to use proximity to more closely monitor a student who is disengaged. Another tweak could be a teacher whose 3rd period class came in boisterously deciding to greet her 4th period students at the door and remind them of the bell ringer on the whiteboard in order to get them more quickly focused. When tweaking, the teacher reflects upon what is happening and changes something in order to improve behavior on a regular basis.
The principal or mentor can assist with this practice by sharing examples of tweaks they've seen successfully achieved in classrooms. They can ask what specific classroom management concerns the new teacher has and brainstorm tweaks that could improve the situation. The principal or mentor could also connect the new teacher to an experienced teacher who has a high level of skill in reflection and adjustments.
A more significant alteration a teacher can use is a reset. This is implemented when a teacher feels like his class has become dysfunctional and he needs a fresh start or to make dramatic alterations to get a handle on student behavior. This does require communication with students since you are expecting conscious changes in their behavior as well as yours.
For example, say a teacher feels like his whole day is out of control. From the moment students enter the class to the moment they leave, it feels like a battle royale to get them to learn. A small tweak here and there will most likely not fix this situation. Instead, the teacher may need to make dramatic changes to his management techniques, behavioral expectations, rules, procedures, and even lesson plans. These changes, which will take time to develop, require careful reflection, research, and possibly mentorship.
It is essential that new teachers limit resets to one or two at the most in a school year. Every time we do a reset, we chip away at our credibility. It is also important that we do not place blame on students when introducing changes. Saying to the class, "I did not explain my expectations clearly at the start of the year" can be much more effective than accusing: "Because of your inability to follow the rules…." Negativity will bond students against the teacher rather than allow for a fresh start.
A reset is more likely to be effective if it comes at a natural respite in the schedule, like after fall break, at the start of a new semester, or even on a Monday. If we cannot wait for the half-year mark, a weekend can give us time to reflect and have a calmer approach to the reset the next week.

5. Give Permission to Say No

As school leaders, we need to make sure we give new teachers permission to not do things. They do not need to be at every school event. They do not need to volunteer for every committee. We need to ensure that new teachers have the energy to be effective in the classroom rather than dissipate that energy through more peripheral tasks. This also means we should not add to their burden by giving them noncritical assignments, such as attending a PTA meeting or organizing the fall social.
Remember, one of our goals is to help new teachers sustain their enthusiasm. We must give them the time, support, and space to find success within their classroom walls before we expect them to complete less crucial tasks.

Prioritize the Time

If principals do not make new teachers a priority now, they are potentially going to have to work harder to break bad habits down the line. Sure, a principal's jam-packed schedule can make finding time for new teachers a challenge. But the easiest time to be in classrooms is at the start of the year, before discipline issues begin to pile up. Make a note in your calendar to not let a week go by without dropping into each new teacher's classroom for even two minutes to check in on them, drop them a note, or just listen. You don't have to engage in a lengthy sit-down conversation to make them feel heard, supported, and valued. Time is a precious commodity, and new teachers are busy, too.
New teachers can singlehandedly alter the culture of an organization. Administrators must protect them, support them, and give them confidence to succeed. By assigning them effective mentors, providing tools to manage a classroom, and supporting their self-care, principals can help new teachers start their career on the right track.

Reflect & Discuss

➛ What's one practice mentioned here that you could commit to trying with your new teachers?

➛ How could your staff be more intentional about welcoming—and positively connecting with—new teachers?

➛ How might you shift your schedule or school culture to make new teachers more of a priority?

New Teachers Collection

Featuring 5 of our most popular new teachers titles.

New Teachers Collection
References

Brown, E. (2015, April 30). Study: Far fewer teachers are leaving the profession than previously thought. Washington Post.

Ingersoll, R., Merrill, E., Stuckey, D., & Collins, G. (2018). Seven trends: The transformation of the teaching force—updated October 2018. CPRE Research Reports.

Whitaker, T., Whitaker, M., & Whitaker K. (2016). Your first year. New York: Routledge.

Todd Whitaker has been fortunate to be able to blend his passion with his career. He is a leading presenter in the field of education and a professor of educational leadership at the University of Missouri and professor emeritus at Indiana State University.

He has spent his life pursuing his love of education by researching and studying effective teachers and principals. A leading authority on staff motivation, teacher leadership, and principal effectiveness, Whitaker has written over 50 books including School Culture Rewired: How to Define, Assess, and Transform It, which he coauthored with Steve Gruenert, as well as the national bestseller, What Great Teachers Do Differently. He has previously served as both a teacher and a principal.

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