A teacher's first-year is always challenging, but this year adds extra dynamics. While new teachers always face a learning curve, that curve will be steeper in new virtual or hybrid environments – especially since hands-on student teaching was cut short last spring or missed altogether. It is easy to imagine that the challenges of the upcoming school year have the potential to drive new teachers out of the profession before they even get started. That's why it is more important than ever for schools to focus on support for new teachers.
There are two ways districts and schools must step in: first, anticipate where new teachers might struggle and plan support for these needs; and second, ensure that new teachers have opportunities for collaborative learning and high-quality mentoring.
Anticipate Where New Teachers May Struggle and Plan Support
There are several areas where new teachers typically need additional support, although these may look different in a virtual environment.
1. Learning the curriculum
Regardless of how instruction will be delivered – online, in-person, or a hybrid – new teachers need help knowing what they will be teaching. Finding time to train new teachers on school curriculum and teaching strategies is critical, even as districts add new issues or topics to orientation this year. Over the course of the year, new teachers need on-the-job support to learn their content and adjust it to meet the needs of their students, who will likely have learning gaps due to the spring school closures. Schools need to establish structures to ensure that new teachers have formal and informal support to learn and adapt their content, taking into consideration that teachers may be working from home or in the school building at different times than their mentors and peers.
2. Creating an engaging and effective learning environment
The first days and weeks of school are critical for teachers to get to know their students, establish norms and routines, set high expectations for learning, create a collaborative classroom culture, and help students feel comfortable and confident. Many of the traditional ways of creating an effective classroom culture will have to be adjusted to fit a virtual environment or meet social distancing requirements. This spring made clear that there are new norms and expectations to consider in a virtual classroom. The NIET Rubric Companion for Virtual Instruction includes strategies for creating a positive virtual environment, including discussing and modeling digital citizenship, setting up small groups to facilitate social and emotional learning, and utilizing the private chat feature or 1:1 hangouts to check in with individual students.
3. Developing relationships with students and families
One of the biggest lessons learned by teachers and schools during the transition to virtual learning was the importance of frequent, individual communication with students and families. For new teachers, this will be more difficult, as they are new to the school and community and many will "meet" their students and peers for the first time virtually. School leaders need to share the school communication mechanisms and cultural expectations with new teachers, help them plan strategies for communicating with individual students and families, and support them in building partnerships with parents to support students at home.
Creating Opportunities for New Teachers to Engage in Collaborative Learning
To address these anticipated needs, there are structures schools and districts can use to strengthen opportunities for new teachers to engage in collaborative learning and receive individual support, increasing their opportunities to learn and improve.
Teachers had a virtual PLC meeting every week that looked really similar to what we had been doing in-person. The work that I saw our teachers deliver because they had that support was so much more than they could have done on their own.Amy Whittington, Principal, Central Decatur CSD, Iowa
Mentorship programs for beginning teachers have been shown to increase retention and student achievement. This year, more than ever, new teachers need the support of a formal mentor with specific expectations that fit today's context.
New teacher mentors should be provided with scheduled time to observe new teachers in their classrooms – virtual or in-person – and provide actionable feedback for improvement. In a virtual environment, this may look like a mentor teacher joining a new teacher's synchronous online lessons or "office hours," looking at a lesson plan or materials that they have posted online, or analyzing student assignments or discussion board posts. After observing, the mentor and new teacher should meet, virtually or in person, to discuss specific student learning and strategies for improvement. This year's mentorship should also include a focus on assisting new teachers with elements of their job that may have been shortchanged during student teaching in the spring. This includes planning for all students' diverse needs and providing academic feedback. Formal mentorship can provide time and space for these issues to be elevated and discussed with concrete plans for support.
2. New Teacher Cohorts
While virtual learning has made many aspects of teaching more challenging, it may actually make facilitating a new teacher cohort easier. Facilitating cohort meetings virtually would allow new teachers from different schools to meet without travelling to a central location, while still allowing them to easily share data, student work, and digital resources. Using breakout room opportunities would allow like grade level and content area teachers to collaborate and discuss common needs. Facilitation could occur using assigned mentors who set forth problems of practice for joint problem-solving and discussion.
One challenge that new teacher cohorts have been successful in solving is the feeling of isolation and alienation that can occur in the first year of teaching. New teachers are transitioning from having mentors, supervisors, faculty, and peers surrounding them during teacher preparation to suddenly managing and leading a class by themselves. New teacher cohorts paired with formal mentoring softens this transition and increases the likelihood of engagement and retention. This year, it will be even more important to recognize this tendency toward isolation as virtual learning can create an additional barrier to engagement.
3. Collaboration Through PLCs
Many schools use professional learning communities (PLCs) or clusters to support collaborative learning, and PLCs offer a critical support system for new teachers. PLCs can be structured to enable new teachers and experienced teachers to learn from each other, collaboratively identify and solve instructional problems, and support coherence and connections across classrooms. School leaders should deliberately place new teachers in PLCs with strong veteran teachers in their content or grade level. Teacher leaders who plan or facilitate PLCs can be provided with release time to provide additional support and follow-up for new teachers.
In NIET's partner districts, principals have testified to the importance of continuing collaborative learning in a digital environment. When talking about the transition to virtual learning in the spring, Teachers had a virtual PLC meeting every week that looked really similar to what we had been doing in-person. The work that I saw our teachers deliver because they had that support was so much more than they could have done on their own, Amy Whittington, an elementary school principal from Central Decatur Community School District in Iowa, said, "My teachers were able to go from in-person instruction to a full online model in about two weeks. One thing that made this happen was our PLCs. Teachers had a virtual PLC meeting every week that looked really similar to what we had been doing in-person. The work that I saw our teachers deliver because they had that support was so much more than they could have done on their own."
This year will be uniquely challenging for new teachers, and it is critical for district and school leaders to anticipate and plan support. Being clear and intentional about how collaborative learning and mentoring will transition to the virtual space ensures that support for new teachers is not left to chance. At the same time, learning will flow both ways, as new teachers bring fresh ideas and technical skills to the challenges of online learning. This collaboration has the potential to result in some of the most resilient, flexible, and creative teachers yet.