This post was first published in The Mission on Medium.
(Update: this was originally written half a decade before Covid).
First-year teachers are cheap, but they don’t stay cheap for long. Hiring a new teacher is the opposite of buying a car. Cars depreciate right off the lot, but teachers cost more every year experience. That cost can add up!
That’s why schools need a steady flow of new teachers — especially since turnover rates have more than doubled from around 9% in 2009 to 20% in 2014. If you’re in a busy district, chances are you have more turnover than a French bakery, and you’ll be needing new teachers soon. But, you can get two new teachers for the price of an old one. That’s Buy One Get One Free on steroids.
New teachers are amazing. They’re enthusiastic. They never complain when you “ask” them to coach ten sports or organize the pep rally. They’re grateful to get the toughest schedules — they see it as a challenge. They hang inspirational signs in the hall and tell everyone to “Have a good weekend.” They answer their email twenty-four hours a day. Teachers who have been around the block don’t do this–they talk about “the good old days” before everyone taught to ‘The Test’” and about the times when nobody worried about standardizing or whether Finland was kicking our ass.
Any principal worth his or her salt would do well to hire brand new teachers who cost less and are afraid to complain since they don’t have tenure. They’ll just take the curriculum and go.
If you’re the type of 21st century educational leader who really wants to please a school board you may ask, “What are the best ways to squeeze the most out of my new hires before they become experienced and too expensive? You’ve got to handle this quickly. Otherwise, it’ll be too late.
I remember my first year teaching like it was yesterday. I was so excited I would’ve advised all the classes, started twenty clubs, and I actually invented sports to coach. I was upset there were only twenty-four hours in the day to dedicate to student success. I piled on tens of thousands of dollars of additional student loan debt to teach, and it was so worth it because I was working in a system that would impact lives forever. I didn’t even mind keeping my prior job on weekends so I’d have a place to go xerox things when the school copier broke.
It’s hard to be an education leader…
I give principals and superintendents a lot of credit. Being an education leader today is way harder than being a teacher, because not only do you have to deal with people like me but you must answer to a Board of Education, District Dudes, Curriculum Gods, the state and federal Departments of Education, and the good Lord himself, who quite often takes a break from working on world peace to make sure test scores are where they should be.
That’s a lot of pressure. I want to help.
Here are six ways you can shape school policies to make sure you get the most work out of your teachers this year before they become one of the statistics that run screaming to other careers before their first five years are up. If that happens, you’ll have to pull out your checkbook and find more.
Give them the worst schedules, but give them hope. Let everyone say, “We’ve paid our dues and someday, you’ll get a great schedule too.” Tell them trial by fire helps them become strong, and it’s best to learn by doing. Let them do — a lot. Tell them how much they should appreciate the hands-off room you’re giving them. Then, go away and drink coffee for a year or two and let them develop.
The good teachers will survive, but beware — they’ll become more expensive as they gain experience. Don’t let too many of those slip through the cracks or your budget will be shot!
Take away all the tech they just learned about in their teacher training program. Your new teachers are probably pretty psyched to try everything they just learned about in their teacher prep programs. The real world of school doesn’t actually allow them to use such things.
Make sure your technology stays “broken, blocked and banned” so students learn the basics on paper first. Set the tech bar low by maintaining your Windows XP and spotty wi-fi so your new teachers will become fans of the fundamentals instead of bugging you to unblock YouTube or pay for fancy apps and gadgets. Those are budget killers, and you have tests and mandates to pay for.
Ask them to coach, advise, and sit on every committee. New teachers are the best when it comes to coaching and advising clubs. They want a chance to shine in the fun stuff, too. Award them at least three clubs and two teams so they can add value.
Offer to put a pull-out bed in the faculty room for those nights when they need to catch up on their classwork after events and games. Let them know they’re free to bring in coffee for the coffee pot, too. They’ll appreciate it.
Always keep them guessing. You don’t want your new teachers getting complacent or bored, so always keep them on their toes. Make sure they know how fragile the education ecosystem is — layoff season’s coming, you’re not sure about next year, there could be positions shifting.
Have people around who can say, “You’re so lucky to even have a job,” every so often so the new teachers will be grateful for whatever position you put them in next year. This will encourage them to work extra hard to be the ones that raise the scores, get the medals, and showcase the school in the community.
Indeed, student lives are at stake and the American life as we know it is tied to their performance. There’s no time to relax. Remind them often.
5. Give them a classroom and an old text book in September and then stop by again in June. They’re professionals, trust them to do their jobs. Point them to the school manual in case they have any questions, and make sure they have a working key to the faculty bathroom.
They’ll appreciate the vote of confidence you give them by never showing up again. The key here is “freedom.”
Evaluate them once or twice a year with forms, rubrics, and checkboxes so they know how they’re doing. Stop by when they least expect it — the week before vacation or summer is especially good for enjoying classroom festivities — and check off the boxes, nodding your head vaguely. If they ask “Did I do well?” check off another box before heading to your next meeting.
Wait a few weeks and leave some forms with at least fifteen educational buzzwords guaranteed to help them improve. Don’t be too specific with the feedback or you’ll stifle their creativity. Tell them to keep working hard.
If so, we’ve got some work to do.
Teacher turnover is higher than it’s ever been before — twenty percent across the board, but forty to fifty percent for teachers in their first five years. New teachers are fleeing the field.
This costs the nation an estimated $2.2 billion dollars a year according to a study conducted by Richard Ingersoll at the University of Pennsylvania. When teachers become burned out or quit, districts spend time and money recruiting and onboarding, and students suffer.
The new teacher learning curve has hidden costs as teachers learn to hone their material and maximize efficiency. Having to constantly hire fresh starts the whole training cycle from scratch.
Schools with high turnover rates feel less stable for staff and students alike — it’s harder to bond, collaborate, and create a culture of success when people constantly quit and substitutes must fill the gaps.
According to Ingersoll, teachers leave because they do not feel they have a say in the factors that affect their jobs. He reports teacher autonomy to be one of the main issues in teachers leaving the field. Low pay causes some turnover— but is surprisingly not the driving factor.
Dr. Ingersoll noted out that while business and industry know the cost of employee turnover, many schools do not — they fail to see beyond the initial benefit of being able to hire new teachers at a lower cost.
New teachers often receive the toughest assignments and are culture shocked when they finish programs in colleges with cutting-edge thinking only to find schools are decades behind.
I’ve watched teachers leave education “for a better offer,” “because this isn’t what I imagined it would be at all,” or worse yet, “You could replace me with a robot. I don’t have any control.”
If you’re a current or aspiring educational leader, valuing your new teachers should be your number one priority.
How do we solve this?
In a world full of consultants, theories, articles, and databases, solutions for these problems can be relatively easy and inexpensive. It all boils down to creating a culture of respect and balance where every member of the team is equally valued and has a voice. Then, you can stop the mass teacher exodus and create a school family that sticks together, allow new teachers to become experienced teachers, and make your school a well-oiled machine and center of community pride.
Create a mentor program
Mentoring works. Design a mentor program to onboard new teachers and get them the support they need. New teachers benefit from a quality support system where they can securely ask for help without feeling they will be rated poorly. Pair each new teacher with an experienced teacher on day one, but make sure there are safeguards in place in case that match doesn’t click. For a mentor to be effective, he or she must be able to be honest, approachable, and encouraging. When this relationship exists, both parties grow — the new teacher is free to ask for feedback that will be truly valuable, and the experienced teacher learns from the new teacher as well.
Don’t limit yourself to researching mentor programs in education. Look at successful programs in several industries, pulling the best of the best elements for your organization.
Make sure you define goals, develop quality training materials, get the right people to assist, and meet stakeholders and participants to measure goals and improve the program for the next new group.
Create a true open door policy
Personally greet each new employee, and give them your contact information. Send a note or email a few weeks into the school year. If you’re a leader in a large district this may be a challenge, but you can write short notes on printed cards, or customize emails from a basic template to keep things personal but efficient.
If you’re an educational leader responsible for districts, curriculum, or policy, you may not be someone new teachers see every day, but when you take those extra moments to create a transparent, warm, and friendly climate, the effects ripple out immediately.
You’re the type of leader everyone wants to pull together for, even when things get tough.
Create a PLN
Mentoring programs work wonderfully, but a combination of scheduled down time and self-directed professional development often sparks fires that reignite learning and culture in schools. You can create a true Professional Learning Network both inside and beyond the walls of your school very easily.
- Designate an hour a month for New Teacher time. Put out a coffee pot and some snacks, and let teachers get together to unwind.
- Get new — and experienced teachers — on Twitter. Have a school handle and hashtag for shoutouts, classroom victories, and showcasing great things happening in the school. Encourage teachers to get involved with Twitter chats like New Teacher Chat at 8PM ET on Wednesdays (#ntchat) and #satchat, #edchat, or field-specific chats that occur during the week.
- Post a schedule for regional events like EdCamps and other conferences. Encourage new and experienced teachers to attend these events as school teams, then provide time and space to share out the learning, whether it’s in a faculty meeting, on Google docs or a school YouTube channel. Highlight classrooms that are putting these lessons into action and create a system for teachers to observe each other to see these successes.
I once introduced myself to a woman with whom I’d been working for two years — and never met. Teacher isolation can get bad. New teachers especially need a spirit of teamwork, camaraderie, and esprit de corps. They must to feel a sense of “you matter,” as author and inspirational speakerAngela Maiers says in her TED talk. Get teachers mixing, collaborating, and laughing right from the get go. Time invested in building a culture of collaboration will pay off 100x in the end.
Make sure new teachers get schedules that allow them feel successful, then let them grow into the more difficult classes. Create a welcoming culture where new teachers are valued immediately.
Do not allow “it’s always been done this way,” or “you have to pay your dues,” to be part of your culture. If it has been that way in the past, push the reset button with morale-building events. It’s difficult to rebuild a challenged school culture overnight, but chip at the negative influences little by little and by any means necessary, and you’ll see change over time.
Sometimes, when I meet educators who seems to be negative, I discover they were that positive, enthusiastic teacher out of the gate who was disregarded time and time again until they shrugged their shoulders and said “Why bother?” Again, push the reset button. Have the entire leadership team look for opportunities to reinvigorate and re-engage, showing every single person they are a critical part of the success of the school.
How you will succeed in getting the most out of first-year teachers
If you’re an educational leader you’ve got a difficult job. You’ve got to rally the troops and get them marching in the same direction despite many challenges. The best place to start is with your new teachers.
By taking the extra time to hire the right people, then putting them in places where they can flourish and grow, you will plant the seeds for a positive culture that will far outlast your own career.
Create a positive culture from the bottom up as well as the top down. Create systems and supports where everyone is responsible for contributing to the school and everyone is heard, and even the newest voice is an equal part of the team.
That is how you will get the most out of your first-year teachers, and before long they will be your teacher leaders. You’ll be out of the revolving-door teacher game forever — because everyone will want to stay.