Looking for More Support, New Teachers Turn to Online Communities

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Every other Wednesday night, the questions and the messages of support and encouragement roll in.

That’s when beginning teachers across the country—and experienced teachers looking to help—are tuning into #ntchat, a biweekly Twitter chat geared to new teachers, in which moderators ask questions and respondents answer, sharing what’s worked (and what hasn’t) in their classroom, offering advice, and soliciting tips.

“It’s not based on pedagogy, that’s not what new teachers are looking for in a [Twitter] chat,” said Lisa Dabbs, the chat’s founder and an adjunct professor at the University of La Verne, near Los Angeles, as well as an educational consultant who specializes in new-teacher support.

Without fail, the most requested topic for a chat is classroom management, she said. New teachers also frequently ask about lesson planning and building relationships.

“I’ve found that the needs are so basic,” Dabbs said. “They’re not asking how to use the latest application; they’re asking what kind of lesson plan to do.”

Dabbs founded the new-teacher Twitter chat in 2010 after noticing that while there was a general #edchat for teachers, there was nothing on Twitter that specifically targeted new teachers, who she said need support. Since then, “the interest in supporting new teachers has grown. I didn’t see that six years ago,” she said.

New-teacher mentoring has gotten more attention in recent years from state policymakers and education officials as a way to retain teachers and improve their practices. While 29 states require some type of support for new teachers, just 15 states require support during teachers’ first and second years, according to a recent report by the New Teacher Center, a nonprofit that provides mentoring services.

Progress has been slow, the report says: Just four states—Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, and Hawaii—meet the center’s main criteria for providing and funding a high-quality system of new-teacher support.

Since the quality and quantity of school or district mentoring can be hit or miss, many beginning teachers are looking for other ways to get support and helpful resources.

The internet has helped fill some of that void. In addition to the #ntchat on Twitter, new teachers can tune in to other education chats on specific subjects. Several message boards are online for new teachers to congregate, including Reddit’s forum for teachers, where new teachers’ requests for advice and reassurances are consistently among the most popular posts. And plenty of private social-media groups have sprung up for new teachers to post messages of despair and encouragement, questions and lessons learned.

Asking for Help

Going online for support taps into the conflict that many new teachers experience, said Roxanna Elden, a former teacher and an author who provides resources for beginning teachers. They want advice, she said, but it can be intimidating to admit that they are struggling or don’t know everything.

“New teachers are sensitive to asking questions,” Elden said. “[There are] questions everyone has, and nobody wants to ask.”

Elden recommends that new teachers develop a “board of advisers” for mentorship—and that not all the members should be virtual. It’s also important for new teachers to be able to observe an effective teacher’s classroom in person and talk to other teachers in their school.

But, she said, online communities do often provide concrete, specific advice that is often not available in schools.

“Sometimes, new teachers are asking [teachers at their school] for a specific type of help, and instead, they’re getting really general pieces of advice,” Elden said. “The common advice at the beginning of the year is, ‘Don’t phrase rules in negative language.’ Not a lot of people step up and say, ‘Here are the six rules you should post on your classroom wall.’ ”

To help new teachers find supportive and nonjudgmental mentors, Dabbs has a also started an online-mentoring group for them to virtually connect with veteran educators. Experienced teachers—about 170 so far—can give their contact information and area of expertise on a Google Doc, and new teachers can privately reach out to the mentors.

“There are many new teachers who don’t receive a mentor, or the mentor they’ve received is not someone they feel connected to,” she said. “What if a new teacher could just reach out to someone in the same state, across the country, or around the world who has the same interests or teaches the same subject?”

No hard data exist on how many mentees have taken advantage of the group, Dabbs said. New teachers can privately contact the mentors, she said, in case they don’t want anyone to know that they are looking for mentorship beyond what has been assigned by their school.

Sometimes, the new teachers just have a specific question to ask the mentors, and it’s a short interaction. Other times, Dabbs said, the initial connection can lead to an ongoing relationship, where the mentor teachers will Skype with their mentees and stay in touch throughout the year.

Of course, there are also more formal online-mentoring programs. The New Teacher Center runs an online program called e-Mentoring for Student Success (eMSS), which connects teachers to virtual mentors. The program has a fee, which is typically paid by school districts, schools of education, or other educational organizations, said Alyson Mike, the vice president of educational technology at the center and the director of eMSS.

Special education teachers, who might be the only ones in their field in their district, are the largest and fastest-growing group in the program, she said, but it also attracts teachers from rural or small districts, too.

While exact data on how many districts are using the program are unavailable, Mike said about 300 teachers on average use the program every year.

“If somebody is not comfortable using technology to engage with others, it’s probably not a good fit,” Mike said. But other new teachers prefer the convenience of the online-mentoring program and like hearing different perspectives from teachers outside their school or district, she said.

The program is one of the few of its kind, Mike said, although some states have their own versions of online mentoring for districts to use.

The structures and support of eMSS distinguish it from informal online mentoring, like Twitter chats or message boards, Mike said.

“Oftentimes [in those virtual communities], you will see a new teacher post a question, and sometimes, it’ll sit there for days, weeks, months, and go unanswered,” she said. “Our goal is to have everything answered within 24 hours.”

Starting Early

Online mentoring can also appeal to preservice teachers. For example, many education students join the new teacher Twitter chat, either independently or at the suggestion of an education professor.

Ben Brown, a preservice teacher at Indiana University, tuned into a chat for the first time in September. He said the moderator’s questions challenged him to think more deeply about his teaching practices, and he got some ideas from other respondents.

He hasn’t participated in other online-support groups yet, he said, but he’s open to the idea. He’s gone to some in-person educational workshops that have been helpful, he added, but felt like they could have been better briefed online, where more people would have access to the information.

“When you’re a teacher and required to be in the classroom, these in-person events are difficult to attend,” Brown said. “Online tools could be more useful for everyone.”

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