Feature                                                      Pages 36-42


Redefining First-Year

Teacher Support  

The authors track a prized university graduate into her first year of teaching, where support structures are sadly lacking and negative pressures prevail 


Monique was the kind of student every college professor remembers fondly. She seemed to excel in all areas. She enrolled in additional course work to earn a double academic major, completed an academic honors program for which she received national recognition, earned accolades for her high grade-point average and competed on the university swim team.

Upon graduation from her teacher education program, she received multiple job offers and chose to work in a small, urban school district with a diverse population of elementary students who had failed to meet annual yearly progress as defined by No Child Left Behind.

Proud and excited to watch our star student blossom into a successful first-year teacher, we recognized a unique opportunity to examine and support her dynamic development in the early stages of her teaching journey.

Kathy Fox

Kathy Fox

Downward Spiral
By all accounts, Monique (she requested we use a pseudonym) was one of the most thoroughly prepared teacher candidates to complete our teacher education program. However, to our dismay, we soon found Monique to be overwhelmed with her new position as a 1st-grade teacher. She was abruptly acculturated into a negative and cynical teaching environment.

She slowly began transforming from a high-achieving preservice teacher to a “flight risk,” unsure if she wanted to remain in her chosen field. We began to fear Monique would become one of the bleak statistics — approximately a third of teachers leave the field within three years, and nearly half do so within five years. If this could happen to one of our best and brightest graduates, what was happening to our more modest students?

Our privileged conversations, observations and frequent interactions with Monique revealed several key elements that we came to see as essential in fostering success and maintaining the positivity she once held about her performance as a teacher. Would she begin to see herself as a positive contributor to her school community and a valued professional, or would she cave to outside suggestions she was not living up to her full potential and opt for a career in which she could more easily feel successful?

Ultimately, we came to realize that Monique’s self-evaluation of her teaching was a determining factor of whether or not she would stay in the field.

As Monique allowed us to participate as observers in the first year and a half of her teaching career journey, we were able to extract meaningful lessons applicable to several stakeholders. We were sometimes surprised by the perceived challenges Monique described as a product of our teacher preparation program, but the experience enabled us to identify tangible areas for improvement for school administrators responsible for helping beginning teachers. Encouraging and supporting them as they form and strengthen a positive identity as a successful teacher is a key to teacher effectiveness and retention.

Nurturing Climates
External factors often interrupted Monique’s positive self-identity that she carried as a beginning teacher. Many times she felt vulnerable to pressures in the social context of the school community, causing her confidence to quickly wane. Although she had identified and held true to what she described as her beliefs about teaching and learning, she did not feel supported in her environment to enact these principles.

In her school, “quiet” learning was promoted over more interactive and social (“loud”) learning. Because she was not assigned a mentor, she sought support based on geographic convenience rather than pedagogical knowledge. She often turned to her instructional assistant, who in this case had classroom experience but no formal teacher training. Interestingly, though, it was she who played a critical role in how Monique viewed her students and herself as a professional.

 Carol McNulty

Carol McNulty

The assistant’s advice often conflicted with Monique’s own ideas of best practices. Even though she previously expressed beliefs in teaching young children through constructive social learning experiences, Monique felt pressure from other teachers and her instructional assistant to structure the first 25 minutes of the children’s day with quiet, independent paper-and-pencil activities, while Monique tended to morning duties and paperwork.

Beginning teachers like Monique need to be connected with teachers and administrators who are going to support their teaching beliefs, including the willingness to try out newly learned teaching strategies. We believe the school climate can be enhanced by the positive ideas beginning teachers bring from their training programs to the professional learning community.

One supportive principal in our region encourages her teachers to share their professional interests and knowledge by asking them to nominate book titles for group studies. Because participation is voluntary, only the interested and more engaged teachers tend to participate. The groups usually include faculty across grade levels and equally represent beginning and experienced teachers.

The book discussion groups meet in classrooms, at restaurants or in participants’ homes with the books purchased by the principal. At any point, three to four different book studies may be happening concurrently. This professional learning option is dynamic and engaging, offering just what a beginning teacher may need to feel invited into the school professional community.

A Sense of Success
Monique experienced pressure to conform to an established culture of complaint and subtle hostility toward parents, even though she had purposefully chosen to work at the school for its diverse ethnic and socioeconomic population. We found it unsettling when we sometimes heard her echo complaints, actually quoting what the instructional assistant and other teachers had told her, about the futility of involving parents in classroom activities.

Her complaints did not seem to coincide with the actual events taking place within her classroom walls, such as involvement of the parents in classroom demonstrations, student support meetings and family literacy nights. Despite the fact she made tremendous efforts to involve family members, these events went largely unrecognized by others and perhaps even Monique herself.

Beginning teachers may find it difficult to share their success stories, falling prey to negative comments and talk about hopelessness. By encouraging networking in nontraditional ways, administrators can give space for teachers to share their stories of success. Class web pages are one way teachers can exhibit their classroom and “invite” others in. This virtual tour approach, using video clips, photos and student testimonials, can inform other teachers as well as parents.

One beginning teacher has his 5th-grade students update the class web page weekly, which is also printed as a more traditional class newsletter. This same teacher used music to reinforce academic skills. He uploaded a video of the class singing these songs on the web page. Parents commented that these videos helped them to learn about instructional methods as well as providing insight in how they could help their child in the home.

Philosophical Allies
Encouraging classroom observations of other teachers is another way to support new teachers and help provide an approachable community of learners. Although she was observed frequently by an administrator as part of her first-year performance evaluation, Monique did not enter classrooms of her fellow teachers during her entire first year.

Although teachers casually mentioned she could “come in anytime” to watch, no structure was in place at the school and thus it simply never occurred. Monique often commented that other teachers seemed so confident, and she wanted to know how others managed all of the responsibilities of teaching.

This can be addressed through an administrator’s periodic accommodation to cover a beginning teacher’s classroom for an hour or so. It would serve as an investment in the advancement of the newcomer’s practical and theoretical knowledge.

The rewards are mutually beneficial to the model and the observer. This practice validates authentic professional development for the new teacher and accentuates a veteran teacher’s value when experience and knowledge are shared.

Accepting Realities
Monique felt overburdened with difficult classroom conditions as a new teacher. She surprised us with how quickly she identified as a victim of the system by being “given” a particularly challenging group of students. The constant flow of students moving in and out of the classroom was seen as particularly demanding rather than a regular routine of teaching in socioeconomically diverse communities.


Hands-on Mentoring of Our First-Year Teachers

Her negative perspective was reinforced by colleagues at her school, particularly her instructional assistant, who assured her the class makeup was unlike others. Monique said to us: “That’s the reason I got dumped on — because these other teachers say they’ve done their time. And I know my class is atypical just from what I have seen from my experiences. It’s just got to be. I highly doubt that in every class I have a nonverbal, autistic student and one that is receiving mental health services and two that have already been identified [as having special needs].”

A shared decision-making model could have helped Monique feel empowered rather than victimized by encouraging her to look at her class from a broader school perspective. One rather simple way for an administrator to begin this approach is to take time to discuss the class, child by child, with the teacher. One supportive principal we know calls it “kid concerns.” He meets twice a year with each teacher, going down the class roll, discussing every child’s progress and needs. No child is absent from the discussion.

This whole-school approach would have reinforced to Monique that, while she had a variety of special needs to address among her 20 students, she was not alone in the effort to meet their needs. Rather, the school community shared in a sense of collective responsibility and vested interest, as well as available resources. Likewise, knowing and embracing the knowledge that classes always will be composed of individual needs, empowers teachers to lead a community of learners, thereby diminishing the idea of a child’s needs as a burden.

Support Systems
The establishment of a place and space to deconstruct professional experiences seems essential in empowering beginning teachers. Ongoing, informal conversations are valuable tools for the analysis of the complex issues of teaching and learning. Monique repeatedly expressed the importance of our conversations with her, keeping her connected to the university and to further networking opportunities.

Will It Phase You
Beth Metcalf of the University of North Carolina Wilmington presents the game she co-developed.

Discussing the predictable stages of teacher development can prove useful to beginning teachers, particularly as they come to understand these as patterns shared by most teachers. One engaging way for administrators to encourage such discussions among teachers and mentors is through a board game called Will It Phase You? (http://people.uncw.edu/wetherillkd/phaseyou/Guide.pdf). The game was created at the Watson School of Education at University of North Carolina Wilmington by experienced teachers as a tool to prepare beginning teachers for the emotional phases through which so many progress, including anticipation, survival, disillusionment, rejuvenation and reflection. As players react to realistic scenarios, they converse about teacher stages in a manageable, nonthreatening way. The game could be played at a beginning-teacher function or as a refresher at a faculty meeting for all staff.

Another way administrators can support beginning-teachers is by implementing what’s known as a critical friends support network. Here, teachers across grade levels and years of experience meet on a regular basis to discuss student achievement, taking turns to share student work samples and other evidence related to classroom instruction, using a critical question to prompt discussion around the samples. The focus turns from personal teaching traits and behaviors to a shared collaboration over student academic progress. The discussion can be less personal and more pro-active toward making meaningful adaptations in the classroom.

Emerging Leaders
One thing that became clear to us during our time with Monique was that high-achieving collegians who become teachers may face particular challenges as their self-identities shift and change with the commission of teaching in all its complexity.

This was revealed in the ways Monique related her status as a struggling teacher. She described how her parents were encouraging her to attend graduate school in an area other than teaching, especially because of her outstanding academic performance as an undergraduate. After graduating, her siblings and many of her peers in other fields were thriving financially. Monique, however, found it difficult to make ends meet. She chose not to relinquish her babysitting and weekend waitressing jobs throughout her first year. Although administrators have little control over salaries, we believe this financial demand prevented Monique from fully embracing her professional role as teacher.

We encourage administrators in the schools that hire our graduates to pay close attention to the discrepancies created when these high-achieving rookie teachers are thrust into situations that accentuate their novice status and undermine their confidence.

This natural phase of development should be addressed explicitly and contextualized with the beginning teacher. Tangible support, in the forms of classroom setup funds, community grants and even facilitated sharing of materials and supplies between teachers, can help a new teacher create a comfortable work environment. Websites, such as DonorsChoose.org, Fundsforteachers.org and fuelyourschool.com, can support a teacher with useful items ranging from whiteboard markers and crayons to laptops and electronic tablets.

Communal Efforts
Successful beginning teachers are not created in isolation. The university training program, the school community and the beginning teacher all determine how one will come to survive or thrive. Our experience with Monique has taught us there is room for improvement for all stakeholders and that even small adjustments have the potential to maintain the “make a difference” attitude.

We are pleased to report that Monique, having survived a few bumps along the way, is continuing her journey as a teacher. Now in her third year, she is teaching a kindergarten class at the same school and recently was invited to give her first professional development workshop on the Common Core curriculum to both veteran and new teachers.

Kathy Fox is associate professor in the elementary, middle level and literacy education department at University of North Carolina Wilmington. E-mail: foxk@uncw.edu. Carol McNulty is associate dean for academic and student affairs at the Watson College of Education at University of North Carolina Wilmington.


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