Key Questions for New Teachers and Their Schools
My first year as a teacher began with a three-day new-teacher training that was essentially an Education 101 crash course. It included tips on writing lesson plans, how to use a K-W-L (Know, Want to Know, Learned) chart and “thinking maps,” and the completion of intimidating forms marking my official transition to adulthood—the W-2, a medical release, and even a life insurance policy. Overwhelmed, my head spun with questions: "When will I see my classroom? What happens if I get sick? When do I get paid?" Remembering my initial frustrations, I try to welcome new staff members by meeting their logistical needs first. Of course, once they’ve successfully logged on to the school network and obtained a copier code, there are some bigger issues to address.
As many of you are interviewing for positions, starting new jobs, or changing schools, make a point to ask these key questions.
1. What support can I expect to receive? Schools offer new and veteran educators different types of support. Beginning teachers should receive a mentor, and new staff members who have prior teaching experience should have a “buddy.” These initial allies help new teachers navigate the building, noting resources and procedures. Relationships with a mentor develop over time, and should include regular help and feedback in areas such as classroom management and parent conferences. Curriculum maps or pacing guides for the year provide great instructional support by highlighting essential standards, suggesting potential media and texts, and supplying common assessments. Professional Learning Communities can offer some of the best ongoing support; collaborating with fellow colleagues, collecting and comparing data, and regrouping students for targeted interventions can make all teachers more effective. When you start a new job, know that asking about support doesn’t indicate weakness, but rather a desire to be successful. Furthermore, specific follow-up questions demonstrate an understanding of common practices, so don’t be afraid to ask about curriculum-planning documents or professional-learning community expectations.
2. How would you describe the school’s culture? School culture significantly impacts teacher effectiveness and student achievement, so it’s important to understand the environment you are entering. Also, transitioning to a new workplace is easier if you know the central values of the school. Is collaboration important? If so, make an effort to meet the support staff in the building and brainstorm how you can work together to serve your students. If teachers describe “building relationships” as a key value, then ask them what icebreakers, student inventories, or community contracts they use the first week, and accept that invitation to eat lunch with other staff members.
What about innovation or risk-taking? Knowing these are school values alleviates anxiety when trying out the new resource you saw on Twitter. Asking about the school culture is a strong question when you’re in an interview as well, because it helps you decide if the position would be a good fit. And once you’ve accepted a job, seek out those staff members with positive outlooks. They are more likely to offer productive solutions when you face challenges later, and together you can foster the positive qualities of your school.
3. What are the common expectations for teachers? A staff handbook or new teacher orientation often details many expectations for teachers, especially with regard to lesson planning, dress code, grading, extracurricular duties, and so forth. However, it’s still worthwhile to ask veteran staff members for the “unspoken” expectations, or clarification of those in the handbook. For instance, maybe your detailed lesson plan doesn’t have to be in plain sight as long as your goals and agenda are clearly posted. There are probably certain steps you have to complete before referring a student to the office, such as multiple parent contacts and student conferences. Jeans might be allowed on Fridays, but not athletic pants or shorts.
What are the attitudes and beliefs toward homework? Are staff members ever allowed to leave campus during planning? Spend a little time chatting with your experienced colleagues in order to better navigate your new workplace and avoid potential conflicts. Also, if you’re a beginning teacher, sit down with your administration and ask what their expectations are for your first year. More than likely, the conversation will give you a few focused, achievable goals, and a huge sense of relief.
4. How would you describe the school community? One August, our staff filled a yellow bus and rode around our school district. We explored the winding country roads and a few of the neighborhoods that feed into our school. During the ride, new and veteran staff chatted about where our kids come from, their diverse cultures and varying socioeconomic statuses, as well as the values of our community. These conversations allow teachers to better understand their students’ backgrounds—so important when building relationships, lesson planning, and communicating with families.
It’s also beneficial to ask about general parent expectations. Which forms of communication are most effective? How do parents view grades, projects, and homework? Discuss forms of parent support and which school events are most popular. Again, understanding what’s important to your primary stakeholders—your students and their families—is a key part of establishing trust and becoming an effective teacher and communicator.
5. What are some opportunities for teacher leadership, and how can I contribute? I appreciate interviewees who ask if they can start a Science Olympiad team, assist with Battle of the Books, or join some other endeavor. It shows their personal interests and a desire to invest in the school. Even if your intention is to spend your first year focusing on your own classroom, it’s good to know how teacher voice impacts decisions made in your building. Furthermore, new staff members offer a fresh perspective, and your input could bring about some positive changes to your school. Ultimately, playing a leadership role can make you feel valued, offer engaging challenges, and stimulate professional growth, thereby increasing your overall job satisfaction. Find out about leadership opportunities in your building and look for ways your unique skills and interests can serve your community.
As everyone in education knows, it’s not just the students who feel nervous, excited, and hopeful about the beginning of the school year. Teachers of every experience level feel some anxiety, knowing it’s impossible to have all the answers when standing in front of students. Schools can ease anxieties, though, by promoting honest conversation about expectations, culture, and community during those first few weeks. And it benefits all teachers to remember this life lesson that we work so hard to impress upon our students—sometimes the key to meaningful learning and success is simply asking the right questions.