Professional Development Opinion

Veteran Teachers: It’s Our Responsibility to Support New Colleagues

By Janine McIlheran — August 08, 2018 5 min read
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This summer, our high school had to make some staffing adjustments for the coming year. Facing a larger-than-average senior class, we were looking for another teacher to take on an additional section of English. Glenn, a social studies teacher with dual certification and a passion for English, stepped up.

In these weeks leading up to the first day of school, my colleagues and I in the English department coordinated to make sure that Glenn, a second-year teacher, had all of the materials he needed.

I delivered the books that he would use to his classroom, and another colleague sent an email to him with the curriculum guide for next year’s senior English course.

These were just two small, helpful acts, but Glenn’s gratitude was heartfelt. He told me that this was the first time since he started teaching that he had received such support. He was grateful not only for the acts themselves, but for the revelation that teaching can be a profession of teamwork rather than loneliness.

I was dismayed, but not very surprised.

Like all new hires at my school, Glenn had gone through the semester-long new teacher-mentoring program. During these sessions, he discussed pedagogy, school policy, and other teaching concerns with his peers and a designated administrator.

While there is great value in new teacher-mentoring programs, they provide only a single layer of support. New teachers like Glenn also need opportunities for collaboration with team teachers, department members, and a department head. A new teacher will keep on encountering “firsts”—year-end exams, student crises, college-visit season—and will need ongoing insights from more experienced colleagues as the dynamic nature of the job unfolds.

But Glenn’s supervisors and peers in the social studies department assumed the introductory program was enough, and that he was content teaching his regular, full-time load—even when some of his classes had 30 or more students. After all, he did so without complaint and seemed to genuinely enjoy working with the students. What they did not know was that by the end of the year, he felt alone, unsupported, and nearly burnt out from the workload.

His colleagues weren’t making assumptions because they were indifferent. On the contrary, they were dedicated, passionate teachers, many with years of service, practicing in an award-winning high school that justly prides itself on innovative curriculum and a thoughtful approach to student life.

But Glenn’s colleagues had their hands full with their own teaching loads. Other teachers handling the same levels and classes as Glenn seldom discussed curriculum or instruction with him. Heads down and shoulders to the wheel, they struggled to find time to share best practices with each other.

Glenn, and new teachers like him, need support not just from above, but from all around; not just in anticipation of expected events, but in adapting to emergent ones; not just through formal channels but in every way a school culture can manage.

Don’t Wait for Administrators

Experienced teachers know that support doesn’t just happen. In schools where planning periods don’t line up or teachers aren’t given extra time to collaborate, the responsibility falls on all of us to support each other. The quality of our teaching and the futures of new teachers depend on our willingness to do this for each other.

We don’t have to wait for administrators to come up with some plan. The initiative of teachers, especially veteran teachers, can drive this process.

Department heads can lobby administrators to have their teachers in rooms next to each other. Several years ago, one of my teachers was assigned to a classroom on a floor apart from the rest of the department. My extended advocacy ensured that the goal of keeping English teachers together had a place among administrators’ priorities—and they moved that teacher’s classroom to the same floor as her departmental colleagues.

This proximity encourages more frequent collaboration. Teachers can share ideas and teaching materials, and support each other while they are standing outside their classrooms before school and even between classes. One morning before school, for example, a colleague and I met briefly in the hallway between our classrooms to collaborate on creating a literature instructional tool.

If proximity isn’t possible, there are other ways teachers can work together. When two other teachers taught the same level of sophomore English as I did, we kept a shared three-week calendar and an instructional plan that contained topics, projects, and homework assignments to be covered in that time period.

Every two weeks, as the end of the calendar approached, we would meet after school to discuss current and future curriculum, dates of upcoming tests and quizzes, and the content of any major projects or assessments. After the meeting, one teacher would design a calendar and send copies to the other two teachers, which we would then distribute to the students in the course. This ensured consistency among the sections of the course and lightened all of our workloads.

A Culture of Communication

Sometimes, teamwork can be less formal. Even going to lunch offers a big opportunity for teacher support. Another junior English teacher and I would talk for a few minutes several times a week at lunch about curriculum or instruction. Even though she and I did not teach the same levels, we were able to talk pedagogy, share ideas for activities, and discuss upcoming projects.

Another teacher, whose students were on a different grade level, would often join in on our conversations. His team partner would eat lunch in her classroom every day. Their classrooms were not near each other and they did not share the same prep hours, so it was not easy for them to get together to discuss relevant topics, curriculum, or pressing instructional issues. The other teacher and I would listen to his reflection on his lessons and offer support and feedback. On the last day of school, he said that talking with us at lunch often was what helped him get through the day.

This kind of informal mentorship allows us to draw from a broader range of experience and perspective. It helps new teachers deepen their model of instruction as they glean principles from other teachers’ related, but not identical, experiences. And it builds an ethos of mutual support that is crucial to retaining teachers in a demanding profession.

Whether it be in the faculty lunchroom, in teacher workrooms, in the hallways before or after school, or through simply leaving the classroom door open after school while grading papers, veteran teachers can make themselves available to newer faculty. Simply showing up is the first step toward supporting new teachers in the persistent way they need.

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