What is the
overall experience of new teachers in our
school, what kinds of supports do new teachers
say they need, and what might happen when we try
to give new teachers some of what they say they
In our school
and in the field of teaching generally, there is
a sink-or-swim, survival-of-the-fittest quality
to new teacher induction. The life of a
new teacher is completely overwhelming. We
(Nell and Rebecca) remember struggling to
survive from one period to the next, yearning
for mentorship, and feeling isolated.
We suspected that other new teachers in our
school might feel the same. Supporting new
teachers is essential. The teacher
shortage in American schools is exacerbated by a
staggering attrition rate among new teachers:
in New York City, for example, one out of four
teachers leaves the profession after the first
year (New York Times). Increasingly,
research demonstrates that authentic
professional development leads to marked
improvements in both teacher retention and
student achievement (Darling-Hammond, 1997,
What We Did
In September we conducted a survey of the 12
teachers who were new to the school. We
asked about their backgrounds and expectations,
and we asked them to check and rank what kinds
of supports they wanted. Twelve out of
twelve teachers listed teacher-led information
sessions as one of their top three choices.
Therefore, we implemented regular teacher-led
information sessions; however, attendance was
low. (See chart). In April, we
conducted a second survey, asking about new
teachers’ overall experience, including their
reactions to teacher-led meetings.
*Six meetings in
Our data includes responses to two surveys.
On the April survey, we asked teachers to
characterize their experience in a number of
ways, including writing a metaphor or drawing a
picture. In addition, our data includes
attendance records, our logs, which were written
after new teacher meetings, short reflections we
asked new teachers to write at the end of new
teacher meetings, and informal interviews.
The Heart of What We Learned
Teachers at Hunter are overwhelmed and
struggling to survive on their own.
In the April
survey, we asked new teachers to characterize
their overall experience or one salient aspect
of it. Eight of the twelve new teachers
returned the April survey. Two who did not
return the survey specifically told us that they
were simply too swamped to find time to fill it
out. Most of the responses described the
feeling of being overwhelmed. In addition, some
teachers expressed a feeling of navigating a
journey alone, without adequate guidance:
“At particularly trying times it has felt like I
was swaying on a tight rope while things were
being thrown at me and I was juggling.”
“It’s like having a lawnmower to assemble with
no instruction booklet.”
“It’s like being at the controls of an elaborate
machine that is responsible for the well being
of smaller people.... Unfortunately, the
instruction manual is written in Sanskrit and
there is no one around to decode it for you so
you really better figure it out quick.”
We received two
drawings that captured these feelings in visual
form. When we asked the creator of the
octopus (Picture A) to explain its sinister
expression, she told us that the octopus (a
metaphor for herself as the teacher) had not yet
completely given up, but that she was skeptical
about whether teaching was even a doable task.
We found it interesting that with all those
tentacles, the one task missing was the actual
teaching of classes. Picture B was drawn
by the one new teacher in our study who
described her overall experience as positive.
As you can see, this juggler, though smiling, is
still unable to keep all the balls in the air;
doing so is—as her picture reflects—an
2. New teachers at Hunter want support,
specifically: opportunities to observe other
teachers, to be observed in a non-evaluative way
and to attend teacher-led meetings.
On the September survey, we listed a selection
of supports and asked new teachers to check off
the supports that they thought would be
beneficial to them and to rank their top three.
Professional development workshop
New teacher support groups
Opportunities to attend conferences
Opportunities to observe and be observed by
Teacher-led information sessions
Administration-led information sessions
Twelve out of twelve new teachers picked
teacher-led information sessions as one of their
top three choices. Six teachers selected
this as their number one support. Ten out
of twelve teachers selected Opportunities to
observe other teachers within the first three,
with six putting this as their number one
support. As we stated earlier, we offered
these supports and did not get the results we
3. New Teachers are helped by Teacher-led Meetings,
but cannot attend due to time constraints.
We wondered why
teachers weren’t coming to our meetings.
So we asked them in the April Survey, “Were
these meetings Helpful?” Ten out of twelve
of our new teachers specifically said, “Yes,”
the meetings helped them. Their reasons
“I attended a couple
of Nell and Rebecca’s meetings which were
honestly the only time I felt supported or like
I got to discuss issues which concern me as a
new teacher here at Hunter.
are] very helpful because just being able to
talk and see that others are having very
similar experiences lets me know I’m not the only one.”
conducted by Frances Rust confirms the dramatic
impact that professional conversations among new
teachers can have on their practice and their
sense of professionalism (Rust 1999).
We were bolstered by this research but still had
to ask ourselves (and our new teachers), “Why
didn’t they come?” So again, we looked at
our new teachers’ surveys and we reviewed their
post-meeting reflections. We also
informally interviewed some of them. And
we found one reason over and over again.
And that was TIME. Six out of twelve of our new
teachers specifically said they weren’t
attending the meetings because of time.
“I am concerned that
I won’t be able to make as many lunch meetings
as I would like to due to extra rehearsals with
“[There’s] no time
to do anything. My teaching suffers for
it. I am the limit of what I can do as a
4. Authentic Teacher Growth Takes Time.
There is a
theory that we find useful as an analogy when
thinking about our new teacher’s experiences.
According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, humans
need food, water and safety before they can
strive for knowledge and higher understanding (Gleitman
733). Our teachers were stuck in survival
mode. In survival mode teachers don’t have
the time and space for the kinds of reflection
that we know lead to increased knowledge and
understanding. Linda Darling-Hammond
describes teacher knowledge as the single most
important factor in increasing student
achievement (Darling-Hammond 1997, 2001).
The teacher in our study who compared teaching
to being an overwhelmed octopus with too many
tasks to juggle is leaving the profession.
Perhaps if she had been given more time for
authentic professional development, she might be
better prepared to face the rigorous challenges
required of all teachers.
To retain qualified teachers, schools must
acknowledge the unique challenges new teachers
face and provide time for the kinds of ongoing
support and reflection that we know lead to real
teacher growth and thus to improved student
achievement. We recommend:
Reduced teaching load or substantial release
time for new teachers.
Reduced teaching load or substantial release
time for mentor teachers.
Opportunities for new teachers and mentors to
formulate a professional development plan
tailored to their particular needs.
Questions For Further Research:
We started our
study with the question, “What do new teachers
say they need.” We expected for them to
tell us the different supports that they wanted.
What we found was that the particular nature of
these supports was less relevant to our study
than the fact that our new teachers did not have
the time to engage deeply in any of them.
Our study leaves us with questions about the
extent to which meaningful collaboration and
conversation among teachers can actually take
place within the current structure of most
schools. Currently, few schools allocate
the recourses necessary to ensure that time for
meaningful professional development is
integrated into work in a regular way. It
feels that we are working against the tide.
Though at times we have felt skeptical (not
unlike our new teacher’s octopus) about whether
real progress can be made within the existing
structure, we feel that more research needs to
be conducted examining ways to support new
teachers both within the current structures and
by reforming these very structures.
Linda. The Right to Learn: A Blueprint
For Creating Schools That Work. San
Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997.
“The Right to Learn: Race, Class, and Education
Policy.” Powerpoint Presentation at CUNY
Graduate Center, New York, November, 2001.
Gleitman, Henry. Psychology. New York: W.W.Norton,
“Tentative Pact for City Teachers Increases Pay,
and Workweek.” The New
York Times, June 11, 2002: Late Edition A-1.
Rust, Frances. (1999). Professional Conversations: New Teachers Explore
Teaching Through Conversation, Story and
Narrative. Teaching and Teacher Education,
15(4), 367-380. Also appears in N.Lyons &
V.K. LaBoskey, (eds.) Narrative
Interpretations and Response: Teacher Educators’
Stories, chap 13. New York: Teachers College Press,