New teachers need help, not hurdles

When I started teaching at Mounds View High School in 1997, I was about as well prepared as a new teacher can be.

I was already eight years out of undergrad, with five years experience in journalism, three years in other schools and a little life experience. I was idealistic, organized, self-confident and willing to work like crazy.

Good thing I wasn’t a total novice — otherwise, I wouldn’t have survived that first year.

Although many of my colleagues were friendly or at least neutral, one was downright hostile. “They hired you to get rid of me,” he told me.

Of course, this was the guy I had to “share” a prep with. And by “share” I mean that he shared nothing, not even a syllabus or text. He had no interest in collaboration. I could sink or swim — he made it clear he did not care.

To make matters worse, this teacher was extremely popular with the senior students. Most dreamed of the day they would be in his class — partly because he encouraged them to “stand up to the man,” partly because he engaged them in interesting discussions, and partly because he showed a lot of videos.

The students were dismayed to see my name on their schedules, which no doubt pleased him. I developed my Civil Liberties course that year on my own, on the fly, in the face of extensive student resistance. It wasn’t great.

This was the “trial by fire” approach to new teacher orientation, and unfortunately it’s still far too common. It’s yet another reason why so many teachers quit before they hit five years.

I recently read a paper on “Deep Learning” by Jal Mehta, a Harvard professor, and Sarah Fine, a graduate student. In the paper, they wrote about why developing new ways of training pre-service teachers — while urgent — isn’t enough to solve our problems in K12 education.

“Efforts to improve teacher training will be largely wasted if the ways in which teachers are trained to teach are not reinforced by the schools in which they work.”

It’s true — no matter how well trained a teacher is, a hostile environment can undermine them. So can an environment with ridiculous expectations; an environment where teacher preps change the day before school starts; or an environment where senior teachers dictate pedagogy, sidelining new teachers’ contributions.

The answer isn’t to get rid of senior teachers. We may be cynical sometimes, but we have valuable perspectives, and research has shown that in general, experienced teachers are more effective than new teachers.

Instead, we need to create an environment that values all teachers and encourages mentoring and open dialog.

Let’s see if we can be more welcoming and supportive toward new teachers, rather than viewing them as a threat or a novice to be tested. They need us, and our students will need them.