By Meera Shah, Trey Education
That First Year
I became an independent school teacher via the typical script. I was a bright and eager engineering major right out of college who had no background in education and whose only teaching “experience” was fumbling through a sample lesson during my interview. With the help of a placement firm, I was hired to teach physics and biology, be a class dean, and serve as the head coach of a sport I had only tried for two years in high school. I was 22, uncertain of my role in the classroom and ignorant of the cultural nuances of an independent school. I had no idea how to keep a gradebook, let alone how to connect with adolescents, plan for effective classes, assess learning, or give feedback to students.
Now, More Than Ever
This entry narrative rings true for many starting out in independent schools. The difference today is that the stakes are much. More than ever, we need bright folks to join the profession and contribute to our schools. With fewer young people entering teaching,1 shockingly high numbers of teachers considering (and actually) leaving the field,2, 3, 4 and teacher shortages in every state in our region,5 independent schools must be laser-focused on attracting, nourishing, and retaining new talent. We need to invest in early-career teachers.
We know that teacher turnover creates unstable and less effective learning conditions for students,6 but it also taxes schools. According to the ISM article “Teacher Turnover Rates Are Increasing—Will Your School Survive?,” “losing faculty has a high cost for school administrators in terms of organization and finances. Recruiting and training new teachers involves… more [expenses] than your school may realize or have the budget for. It can also make it difficult for schools to implement key policy changes or adjustments.”7 Independent schools have not been immune to these trends.8 So, here’s the opportunity: Instead of seeing early-career hires as the short-term solution to vacancies, invest in new teachers to increase long-term stability in your school, deepen learning for students, and boost overall retention of faculty.
A critical element in the first years of teaching is training targeted to early-career educators. I’ve been able to provide this kind of support for teachers in my own practice and as a faculty member for SAIS’s Institute for New Teachers (INT), a three-day intensive summer experience to get early-career teachers ready to hit the ground running in the fall.
Institute for New Teachers
Early-career teachers are special, and it’s an honor to be part of a team focused on them. The INT faculty are wise and funny, and all are deeply dedicated to ensuring new teachers are equipped with the skills and dispositions to not just survive their first years but to thrive in a long career. The talent on the team and format of the institute means that each session of the INT is unique, based on the participants, their schools and subjects, and their needs. I value the fact that we focus on learning, reflection, and growth (rather than content delivery about “how to teach”), and that we “walk the talk” of effective instructional techniques throughout. As a coach and guide for new teachers at the institute, I design for four objectives: confidence, context, community, and practicality.
The biggest thing we do at the Institute for New Teachers is actually get teachers teaching! Participants prepare a lesson and teach their cohort while being filmed. Although nerves are often rattled, participants recognize the trade-off. One wrote, “Demo lessons are definitely stress-inducing, but they proved to be incredibly valuable. You all did a masterful job of making a safe space for the demos and encouraging growth.” Other INT participants take the perspectives of students during these lessons, both to provide a simulation for the teacher and to experience “class” as a learner. This kind of student perspective-taking and empathy leads to constructive reflection, feedback, and learning. Teachers then have a chance to experiment, iterate, and gain confidence by revising their lesson for a second go-around the next day. This is a powerful experience for new teachers, who shared reflections such as, “[The demo] was my favorite part of the experience and probably most instructive/constructive. I loved my cohort and loved getting their feedback! … I learned so much about implementing active lessons and thinking about the most efficient way to judge how much the kids are actually learning.” Indeed, there is no substitute for the kind of confidence teachers build during these experiences.
Teachers engage in interactive sessions that dive into everything from child development to instructional strategies, assessment to parent communication, classroom culture to the practical matters of being a teacher. I don’t expect participants to master everything we present in these workshops, but I think it’s critical that we share these concepts and questions early on; new teachers need a framework and context for their work. I think of it like laying down Velcro − participants are building a foundation for future learning and experiences to stick to. Through instruction, dialogue, activities, simulations, and role play, participants get a robust first pass at the key elements of teaching. They don’t become experts in assessment design in these three days, but when they hear a co-teacher talk about formative assessment or share a rubric, the “new” ideas and experiences are ready to stick and be processed more deeply. As a result of this context up front, learning and growth are accelerated in the first year.
Too often, teaching can feel isolating, particularly for those new to a school or the trade. Teachers can enter their classroom, close the door, and end up with little sustaining professional interaction with colleagues. A French, arts, or physical education teacher is often a department of one, and new teachers are in the minority in their schools. At the Institute for New Teachers, we break those barriers and build a culture of learning and teaching as a community, and teachers feel it: “The community built through the cohorts was incredible. I left feeling so excited and inspired for this school year. I learned so much through my personal feedback and the feedback given to others.” Participants connect with colleagues in similar roles, break bread and laugh together, and see the power of collaboration modeled by INT faculty: “I really appreciated that each session was headed by a different member of the team, but that all members were included and felt comfortable jumping in or sharing their opinion.” Further, participants value their peers as supports and guides, often staying in touch after the summer. They appreciate the cohort groupings and for some the most important part is “to get connected with other folks who teach similar subjects.” I’m encouraged when new teachers can let go of their illusions that they need to have all the answers or that are on their own; seeing them go into the field with a sense of community and a desire to grow alongside colleagues gives me confidence they will see the work as sustainable and dynamic – and stay in the profession!
And then, there are all the nuts and bolts teachers need before day one–what to expect at independent schools, how to build solid relationships with students and families, how to cultivate a positive classroom culture, and more. From role-playing a difficult parent conference to getting the inside scoop on their new 403b retirement benefit, early-career teachers are hungry for practical tools to hit the ground running: “Some very practical techniques emerged from our time together… [I] enjoyed the sessions on classroom culture and parent communication in particular.”
Every summer, I remember my first year of teaching (how little I knew, the kind of support I was lucky to have, and what I would have benefitted from), and I reflect on the new teachers I’ve mentored in my career. I think this empathy, along with years of experience, is what fuels the institute and its effectiveness. As one INT participant said, “I’m so grateful to the whole team. Please know you really made a difference. I was feeling really nervous and overwhelmed going into this workshop, but even after just day one, I felt more confident and less pressure to be immediately a perfect teacher.” To me, this is the difference between a teacher who might have struggled and one who will thrive.
Necessary But Not Sufficient
Almost certainly, your school provides a faculty orientation for folks joining your school this August. These days provide important onboarding to your particular community, and that cultural and practical orientation is necessary (but not sufficient) for new teachers. The Institute for New Teachers is an incredibly valuable on-ramp for teachers entering an independent school, providing the confidence, context, community, and practicality that new teachers need and deserve. Focused workshops like the INT are necessary for new teachers before they start the year. But they, too, are not sufficient. Early-career teachers need year-long support7 from coaches, mentors, and supervisors. Even the president of Carney, Sandoe, & Associates makes the urgent case: “This year, like never before, candidates at all levels are looking for schools that will offer a high level of support … it’s very important for schools to think carefully about the depth and range of their support systems for both new and returning teachers.”8
Yes, these are investments. How will you know these investments are paying off? Fewer parent phone calls in October about the new teacher, improved student learning throughout the year, increased performance and retention of new hires, a healthier faculty culture overall, and more traction on the strategic initiatives you are advancing in your school. Or maybe it just looks like what one student wrote candidly on my very first course evaluation: “Ms. Shah, you did a pretty good job. For a first-year teacher.”
1 Amid Scrambles for Teachers, Some Fear Worse Shortages Ahead AP News2 Survey: 48% of teachers considering job change K-12 Dive3Job-Related Stress Threatens the Teacher Supply Rand4 The Teaching Profession in 2021 EdWeek5 Teacher Shortage By Subject & Grade Span Southern Regional Education Board6 Teacher Shortages Take Center Stage Learning Policy Institute7 Teacher Turnover Rates Are Increasing—Will Your School Survive? ISM8 Leadership Attention for Faculty Retention Carney Sandoe & Associates
Meera Shah started her career as a very rookie science instructor but fell in love with the art of teaching and the science of learning and went on to serve several independent schools as a department chair, academic dean, associate head of teaching and learning, and director of studies. She loves to connect the big ideas in school redesign and learner-driven and competency-based pedagogy with the practical realities of running a school. She is passionate about professional growth for teachers at all career stages and the co-founder of Trey Education.
Trey Education offers customized solutions to independent school teachers and administrators, with a focus on instructional coaching and professional learning for early-career teachers and career-changing teachers. We are passionate about partnering with schools and educators who share our vision that schools should be joyful places for deep and transformative learning for both students and educators.