April 19, 2023
By Julie Rust, St. Andrew’s Episcopal School (MS); Laura Farmer, Colorado Academy (CO); Alison Baran, Park School of Baltimore (MD); and Allison Schultz, Episcopal Academy (PA)
As we glimpse the month of May peeking over the horizon, many schools find themselves in that in-between season: we have nearly finished our recruitment cycle and have just a moment to catch our breath before welcoming all these new hires in earnest over the summer. With retention suffering and hiring becoming increasingly difficult, onboarding new faculty with clear purpose has never been more critically important. How can we leverage and meet the radically diverse strengths and needs that each new community member brings to the table? Creating a space where newcomers feel welcomed, seen, and respected does not happen accidentally, and planning for success is especially important when your school is trying to diversify the make-up of your faculty.
As four school leaders heavily involved in helping new faculty transition into our school communities, we have found April-May as a crucial time to pre-plan alongside the many players involved in connecting new faculty to school communities: HR directors, department chairs, division heads, team leads, mentors, and the list goes on. It is key to plan, not just for the first few days of new faculty orientation, but for a year-long onboarding process: upon hire, before the end of the school year, mid-summer, prior to orientation, during the new faculty orientation, and then throughout the entire first year.
Before your school team dives into planning logistics, however, it is key that you first engage in two bigger-picture conversation prompted by the following questions: (1) How do adults learn best, and how can we infuse our institution’s education philosophy into our faculty onboarding process? (2) What challenges have new faculty encountered in the past throughout their first year at the school, and how can we make changes to make these challenges less likely to recur?
Articulate Beliefs about Learning for Faculty and Students
In our varied work with faculty at our four schools, we all agreed upon the following guiding principles:
But what exactly do these principles mean in the context of onboarding? We believe the logistics of onboarding are best undergirded by the following four-pronged philosophy, also visualized in the image below:
Respect Adult Learners
Logistically, when designing onboarding activities, it is most important to center the participating adult learners. Leaning on principles of andragogy, new faculty orientation sessions should be task oriented and relevant and should incorporate choice when appropriate. It also helps new faculty to understand the “why” behind what they are doing. This “why” could relate to your school’s mission, excellence statements, or strategic plan.
Beyond respecting adult learners, new faculty orientation days should be a model of what good teaching looks like at your school. If your goal is student-centered classrooms, then create sessions where teachers experience what that means to you.
Build Trusting Relationships
While we cannot force relationships, we can plan time and activities that allow relationships to develop, and we can pair newcomers and tenured faculty in intentional ways that allow them to contribute to the success of their classrooms. As newcomers to a community, new faculty will be anxious to feel seen, heard, and valued. Setting new faculty up for success includes thinking critically about the positions, situations, and groupings that allow them to share their strengths with the community.
Create Opportunities for Norm-Referencing
Critically important to onboarding structures is the opportunity for new faculty to norm-reference their experiences and nascent understanding of school policies and culture. To do this well, newcomers need to form relationships with other newcomers so that they can assure themselves that they are not alone in their feelings—whatever they may be. On the flip side, newcomers must also have the ability to check in with trusted and tenured faculty so their concrete questions about curriculum and school policies can be answered.
Explore Tensions in Onboarding from Past Experiences
After your team has identified big-picture guiding principles, you still aren’t quite ready to jump into scheduling. We recommend you take a moment to talk through messy problems with onboarding new faculty that have emerged in the past. Why start with the depressing task of articulating sticky situations? By frontloading our planning with conversations about challenges we have encountered in the past, we are much more likely to make program design choices that will reduce the likelihood of encountering the same issues year after year. We model our own solution-finding expedition into onboarding problems of practice in relation to time, priorities, and relationships below.
Problem of Practice 1: Time
Roger opened his email on his phone and sighed heavily. It was the second new faculty member that week who had reached out saying they would need to miss at least one day of the planned onboarding due to a family vacation or wedding. “Don’t they recognize how important these days are?” he thought. “How can I possibly get everyone on the same page if everyone isn’t there?”
When integrating new members into a school community, the most universal tension we noticed in our own schools was that of time, or the lack thereof. This tension revealed itself in several different ways:
While there is no simple answer to these questions, some possible solutions arose to address these common challenges around allocating time for onboarding, including the following:
Start with the resources you already use.
Use the tools you need teachers to use in their work (LMS, Google sites, calendars, etc.) to communicate important information that doesn’t need to be shared through in-person learning. Set up a new section of your website or LMS for faculty to serve the purpose of a faculty onboarding course and a reference for the future. This allows new faculty to get comfortable with the skills they’ll need once in their role, and it gives back time for topics better suited for in-person learning.
Create flexible learning opportunities.
Use conference scheduling or a “fair” model to give new faculty choices and allow for personal prioritization. Ask community members to host workshops for new faculty on various topics organized conference-style, giving choice and flexibility in learning. Set up a community fair with various departments hosting booths, refreshments, and mingling to serve as a flexible learning space and community-building event. Build in time for new faculty to focus on the things most important to them—perhaps classroom set up or talking with HR—rather than creating tight schedules with limited free time.
Offer opportunities throughout the year.
Rather than limiting new faculty onboarding to August, offer get-togethers, workshops, and events throughout the year. This frees up space and time for ongoing conversations and additional support once new faculty members have had a chance to better understand their roles and responsibilities. When planning ongoing events, communicate clearly whether events are required or optional so that new faculty members can prioritize their time.
Problem of Practice 2: Priorities
Paul sighed, skimming through the upcoming faculty orientation schedule, thought, “Ugh this is packed. Just because I’m a new faculty hire doesn’t mean I’m entirely new to teaching! Why do I have to waste my time sitting in session after session while people talk at me? They would never want me to teach my own students that way; why are they treating faculty this way?”
Closely related to the tension of time, the vignette above illustrates the tension of priorities—what to do with those precious hours that serves both newcomers and the community well. The key to success with this tension is to discover as much as possible about the incoming faculty to differentiate your sessions, while also guarding against non-essential presentations. By focusing only on the information and skills that teachers need for their first weeks, one can drastically reduce the cognitive load placed on teachers as they enter a new community. So, the questions become:
As we attempted to address these questions, emerging solutions looked like the following:
Write and share clear learning outcomes and checklists.
The clarity that comes from creating learning outcomes for the sessions within your onboarding schedule provides the opportunity for everyone in the community to have input and create a shared understanding around what orientation will (and will not) cover. Likewise, checklists communicate clear expectations, allowing for norm-referencing. When shared with newcomers, learning outcomes show respect for adult learners by communicating the why of what they are learning. Lastly, learning outcomes create agency for new faculty and ease of differentiation through choice for the onboarding coordinator. When paired with checklists, learning outcomes give newcomers a sense of purpose and clarity.
Choice can be around how to learn something, when to learn it, where to learn it, or with whom to learn it. Take advantage of what you already have! Most schools had to do orientation online during the summer of 2020—you can use videos from that time to create a video library of information that is accessible to new hires throughout the summer before the school year begins. By using mentors, department chairs, and other leaders, you can create small groups for onboarding sessions that focus on the skills that each newcomer really needs. Finally, don’t forget to switch up the location so that teachers can get a good sense of your entire campus!
We learn from experiences more than we learn from lectures. Create experiences that model what you want to see in your school’s classrooms. By centering the new faculty during orientation, you convey how students should be centered in lessons throughout the year. One method to center new faculty and get them asking questions is to give them a stack of cards with prompting questions that they can then ask of tenured faculty in small groups. This helps newcomers to appreciate that they don’t know what they don’t know, encourages vulnerability, and builds relationships—all while giving choice and ownership to your new faculty.
Problem of Practice 3: Relationships
Ellie shut the office door wearily. Another veteran teacher was complaining about the way a new teacher was trying to disrupt the social studies curriculum. “I get that she has a particular interest in making sure we have diverse perspectives,” the mentor teacher said, “but does she have to be so confrontational and negative about it to her colleagues?! It’s like she doesn’t even want to take a minute to see what we already had in place; she just wants to change everything.”
Many schools offer newcomers a mentor, someone who can bring a new teacher up to speed regarding curriculum and school culture, as well as nuts and bolts. The mentor/mentee relationship is a vital part of the onboarding process and can even function as a predictor of whether a new hire ends up feeling successful at their new school. But consider these questions:
These are meaty questions, ones that demand continual reflection and negotiation, but we recommend building mentor programs and onboarding plans that do the following:
Leverage networks within the school.
In independent schools, we often put a lot of energy into cultivating strong mentor/mentee relationships, but we sometimes fail to help connect faculty to the larger ecosystem of help within a school. Sometimes a new faculty member needs a best friend, but sometimes they just need to know who to go to for a maintenance request or curricular program. We recommend creating a document featuring “when you need help with… go to…” including pictures of key people within the school community. You may find faculty who have been at the school for years would also appreciate such a resource.
Balance systems and fluidity.
Strong onboarding programs strike a balance between systematic ways of supporting new faculty relationship-forging (e.g., pairing everyone with a mentor) with more fluid/spontaneous informal-community-building opportunities (e.g., happy hour invite for all new and veteran faculty). If you have regular gatherings for new faculty throughout their first school year, consider switching off between formal programming (e.g., “learn about global studies”) and informal time to share ideas, vent, and just spend time with members of the school community.
Just because you already chose mentors for new faculty or created a tentative schedule of topics throughout the first year of onboarding doesn’t mean you can’t switch things up as needs arise. If things aren’t working with a particular pairing due to unforeseen differences, don’t hesitate to find a more suitable mentor for the new faculty member. Regularly poll new faculty and mentor faculty throughout the year to get a sense of perceived needs and questions to explore together. Every year will bring distinct challenges and a very different new cohort, and we should be prepared to adjust accordingly.
Planning for a year-long process of onboarding new faculty is just one of the many tasks on our proverbial plates as administrators and teacher-leaders. It is often easy to just revert to past structures and revise past schedules without taking the time to have a big-picture reflection. Time is finite, the tasks countless. However, we argue that carving out the time to brainstorm about your school’s beliefs regarding best practices around onboarding, as well as identifying past problems of practice, will be time well spent. Not only will it increase the impact of your onboarding approaches for new faculty, but it may also make the difference between losing and retaining a valuable new member of your school community.