Bridging the Gap
The Halifax new teacher support program
“I feel as if I am just barely keeping my head above water. I’m up every night planning lessons and gathering materials and then my lessons don’t go as planned. The needs of my students are overwhelming. I don’t know how much longer I can do this!”
As a classroom teacher, coach and school board consultant, I have heard many new teachers express these kinds of concerns and have done my best to work with them on a variety of challenges ranging from classroom management and organization to curriculum implementation. Unfortunately, the supports I have given to new teachers through the years have been sporadic and often fragmented due to the many other responsibilities I have had. I often ask myself, “Who didn’t I reach?”
The new teacher gap
In my experience, the level of support offered to new teachers has been inconsistent between schools, impacted particularly by the beliefs of the school staff, and in particular the school administration. These inconsistencies prompted me to investigate what specific supports new teachers need and what other school boards were doing to induct new teachers. I was alarmed to learn that when beginning teachers feel disempowered, stressed and alienated, they “tend to leave the profession at a rate of almost 50% after 5 years and 80% after 10.” Shocking!
And yet, many new teachers do not identify themselves as needing support. New teachers are expected to take the theoretical knowledge from university and put it into effective, pedagogically sound practice; however, without the scaffolds to do this, they may often fall short. There is an enormous amount of pressure and stress on new teachers regarding their performance and their perceived competence. They are worried about receiving recommendations for rehire and want desperately to succeed; therefore they are hesitant to admit their own professional learning needs.
It is important that school systems recognize that new teachers will experience problems during the beginning years of their career, and work to normalize the need for professional support. School boards can promote lifelong learning and provide multiple opportunities for collaboration throughout the year, with in-school professional learning communities serving as the main vehicle for support. As first steps to becoming more systematic in the way we support new teachers, we need to address questions such as:
• Why are so many new teachers continuing to struggle throughout our system?
• Why are we only able to respond to new teachers on an individual basis?
• What can we do to change?
The new teacher support program
“The program allowed me to connect with other new teachers and broaden my understanding across grade levels and content areas. I am given invaluable time to collaborate with peer teachers through informal conversations and [am] learning what resources exist for teachers starting in the profession.”
My research led me to develop a proposal to implement a more cohesive support system for new teachers. I wanted to provide new teachers with comprehensive learning opportunities that would encourage both collaboration and reflective practice. I submitted my proposal to my school board district and, in time, we received appropriate funding and were able to pilot the Halifax Regional School Board’s New Teacher Support Program.
Susan Black states that “beginning teachers need time to improve their skills under the watchful eye of experts and time to reflect, learn from mistakes, and work with colleagues as they acquire good judgment and tacit knowledge about teaching and learning.” Our program needed to include ways for this to happen, and to provide multiple opportunities for not only professional but personal growth.
In designing the program, I tried to incorporate a number of principles my research had identified as important:
• A focus on three major issues facing novices: assessment, classroom management, and diversity. These topics are interwoven in all of the sessions.
• A chance for new teachers to connect with teachers of other grades and gain a wider perspective on the three issues. The grouping of new teachers is flexible and the teachers are often in multi-grade groups (depending on the focus of the session).
• An opportunity to share concerns and frustrations in a supportive community of learners. Regular sessions allow for a comfortable and safe environment and many new teachers are able to connect and work collaboratively throughout the year with their peers.
• A chance to collaborate not only with each other, but with personnel who have expertise in specific curricular areas. At the beginning of each year, the new teachers are given a list of program specialists that are available to them for consultation and to assist in accessing information and resources.
• Time to problem-solve in a collaborative environment. The afternoon portion of the sessions often includes a “hands-on” component, working with colleagues to envision and plan for the classroom.
• Appropriate support when implementing new practices back in the classroom. The new teachers are able to request visits from any member of the program department and are encouraged to access support from literacy and/or math coaches and other colleagues.
The resulting New Teacher Support Program is a multi-faceted approach which provides:
• A variety of professional development sessions based on needs specific to new teachers
Sessions are planned and facilitated in consultation with various personnel from our program department. For example, the Safe Schools Consultant co-facilitates a session on classroom climate and school culture, members from our behavioural team come to speak to the new teachers about effective behavioural management, and a program planning team specialist facilitates a session focused on differentiation.
• An independent and individualized professional development day for the new teacher
The new teachers have access to one “on-site” day per year. This day allows them to plan a day focused on their own professional goals. They are required to submit a proposal that will identify the focus for the day, an agenda/schedule and any materials and supports they need to make the day successful. Following the day, they complete a reflection, which includes thinking about next steps and classroom implications.
• Resources applicable to assessment, classroom management and diversity
The new teachers are provided with names of school board contacts who can address any of these concerns, as well as print resources to encourage further learning (these were often used during full day and after-school sessions).
• An online support system
An online learning forum (Nova Scotia Virtual School – Moodle) makes various print materials and online supports available to new teachers. Information from the sessions is uploaded on a regular basis and the Moodle course also includes a forum for communicating with other teachers from their cohort. Since we are geographically spread out, we are considering introducing videoconferences for interest-based study groups.
• Access to more experienced teachers and coaches for classroom observations and professional support
Early in the year, we request administrators to identify “host” teachers who would be willing to open their classrooms to a new teacher with a similar assignment.
The program has its challenges. It can be costly to start such a program in any district, with the biggest expense being substitute release time. Over the past three years, we have had reductions in our budget line and this year, it is non-existent. We will need to think creatively about how to best support our new teachers in the interim. Each year, we will continue to advocate for the program and my hope is that in time it will become a mandatory and prioritized program.
“I was encouraged to take more risks and I noticed definite shifts in my practice. I began to change how I taught workshops and I became more explicit when working with my students. Each session left me feeling more motivated to try different things in my classroom.”
The New Teacher Support Program strives to provide evidence that the level of support has made a difference to the new teachers’ competence and to student achievement. There are several opportunities throughout the year to assess the level of impact and adjust and refine the program as needed based on the participants’ feedback.
In various surveys, new teachers indicate their level of success in meeting their own personal goals and what they may still be struggling with. They are able to provide anecdotal comments and rate the sessions on a five-point Likert scale. Based on teacher feedback, we provided extended sessions on topics such as assessment and evaluation and behaviour management.
Facilitators of the sessions engage in self-reflection regarding the effectiveness of the sessions and ways to make improvements. Coaches and school board contacts reflect on the support they offer through the year to new teachers and ways to increase participation. School administrators provide valuable information regarding the implementation of effective new teacher practice at the school site and provide suggestions to plan future professional development sessions.
Closing the gap
Providing effective and systematic support for new teachers can have far-reaching, positive implications on new teacher practice and student achievement. Success for all learners in the classroom is impacted directly by the teachers who are in front of them every day. School boards must support new teachers to ensure they become confident and insightful practitioners who are capable of fostering student success.
It is up to school districts to help new teachers learn to develop not only knowledge and skills, but attitudes conducive to lifelong learning. This program and others like it give the teachers voice, assurance, and a sense of agency that will have a positive impact on their teaching. I believe that effective support programs such as the Halifax Regional School Board’s New Teacher Support Program can solve or reduce the problems faced by new teachers, improve the quality of their instruction and their students’ learning, and help school boards retain promising teachers.
First published in Education Canada, January 2013
EN BREF – Les nouveaux enseignants ont besoin d’un soutien spécifique et ciblé, comme en témoignent les taux alarmants d’abandon de la profession au cours des premières années d’exercice. D’après les recherches, ils ont souvent du mal à combler l’écart entre leurs études universitaires et des pratiques efficaces, particulièrement sur les plans de l’évaluation, de la gestion de classe et de la diversité. Les jeunes enseignants devraient pouvoir approfondir leurs connaissances et disposer de temps pour établir des liens entre leurs savoirs et leurs pratiques en classe. Ils ont besoin de mentors d’expérience et de temps pour répondre à différentes questions dans un cadre de collaboration. Un modèle systématique de soutien élaboré et offert par les conseils scolaires individuels peut intégrer efficacement les enseignants à leur profession. Mettant à profit des principes fondés sur la recherche, le Halifax Regional School Board a mis au point un système de soutien cohérent à plusieurs volets pour son personnel enseignant débutant. Ce soutien bénéficiera tant aux nouveaux enseignants qu’à leurs élèves.