|By Rebecca Hollander and Nell Scharff, Hunter College High School, New
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Why We Asked the Question
The current teacher shortage in America’s schools is exacerbated by a staggering attrition rate among new teachers: nearly 30% of new teachers leave within the first five years with numbers rising up to 50% in urban and rural areas.1
Increasingly, research demonstrates a link between effective professional development and teacher retention. When teachers actively participate in setting their own professional development agendas, when time and resources are allocated to support ongoing collaboration and conversation among colleagues, student achievement is increased and teachers are more likely to remain in the profession. 2.3
Teaching is the only profession in which the demands placed on a novice or beginner teacher are the same as those of a thirty-year veteran. Currently, there is a sink-or-swim, survival-of-the-fittest quality to new teacher induction. As the lowest on the totem pole, new teachers are often required to teach the most difficult classes, to teach more sections, and often to teach in six or seven different rooms within one day. The profession as a whole does not nurture its new teachers, by recognizing the particular challenges they faced or by creating opportunities for authentic learning to take place. It is no wonder that in New York City, for example, one out of four teachers leaves the profession after the first year.4
We remember our own experiences as new teachers at Hunter College High School as extremely difficult. I, Nell, began teaching at age 23 with absolutely no training – no education courses, no student teaching. I was completely overwhelmed by going from never having been in front of a class to being suddenly expected to have full responsibility for teaching five classes. The first year was a matter of surviving from one period to the next, and from one day to the next.
I, Rebecca, began teaching at Hunter with a Masters in Education under my belt and having had the opportunity to student teach at Hunter and receive mentorship from my cooperating teacher. But the first year of teaching was still overwhelming, as I was shifting from teaching one class in a sheltered environment to teaching six classes with no mentor or support. The only formal support was administration-led meetings that helped me with school procedures but did not support my teaching. I had to actively seek out other sources of support.
We both remembered feeling isolated as new teachers. We got to know others in our own department, but did not interact much with teachers in other departments or with other new teachers in the school who were going through the same struggles. In light of our own experiences and the crisis in the field, we were curious what the experiences of new teachers at Hunter were as a whole and what we could do to support them. We wondered if it is possible to shift the culture of our school to be more supportive of new teachers and their learning needs?
For the 2001-2002 school year, we served as MetLife Fellows with the Teachers Network Policy Institute within the Teachers Network. Teachers Network is a nonprofit, education organization that connects public school teachers around the country. As fellows within the policy institute, we were asked to conduct an action research study during the year in our schools and formulate policy recommendations. Because of our experience and questions about new teachers, we decided to research what new teachers at Hunter College School say they need. For this study, we defined new teachers as anyone new to the school regardless of prior teaching experience.
We decided to find out from new teachers in our school what specific kinds of support they wanted. Then, we wanted to give them some of what they requested and ask them about the experience.
Hunter College High School (HCHS), part of the City University of New York
(CUNY), is a public school in New York City, but it does not fall under the jurisdiction of the Board of Education. It is a laboratory school serving grades 7-12 and technically part of Hunter College. Children come from all five boroughs in New York City, gain admission to the school based on passing a rigorous entrance exam in sixth-grade; therefore, the academic level of the school is incredibly high. In some ways, teaching at Hunter presents different challenges than in many Board of Education schools. For example, discipline is rarely a serious problem as children come to the school eager and ready to learn. On the other hand, the workload is daunting for both teachers and students. Students have very high expectations for themselves, their teachers, and the curriculum. The culture of the school exerts a pressure on teachers to move rapidly through a challenging curriculum, and to assign large amounts of reading and writing daily. New teachers at HCHS find themselves thrust into an exciting but fast-paced and competitive environment. However, we wondered if the general experience of being overwhelmed as a new teacher is the same.
Before our study, school-wide new teacher support consisted of monthly hour-long administrative-led meetings held after school. A few departments implemented other kinds of support on an ad hoc basis. The English department assigned a more experienced teacher to meet regularly with a new teacher. Other departments invited new teachers to observe more experienced teachers within their department. Social Studies and Science had regular ‘team meetings’ where all teachers of a certain level would meet to share lesson planning. However, none of these programs existed school-wide. It was not uncommon for new teachers to go all year without ever knowing the names of new or experienced teachers in other departments.
At the start of the year, we handed out a survey (Appendix A) to all the first year teachers in the school. The survey asked about their backgrounds and needs as new teachers, including prior teaching experience, teacher education and certification. We also asked about their expectations for the school, what they were looking forward to, and what problems they might anticipate. We asked why they went into teaching and also what questions they had about teaching and the school in general.
One of our questions listed a selection of supports that we felt might be helpful to new teachers. For us, this was an important question since we were looking for ways to implement support. We asked our new teachers to check off and rank the following supports in the order that were important to them:
- Administration-led information sessions for new teachers
- Teacher-led information sessions for new teachers
- New Teacher support groups/network· Opportunities to observe other teachers
- Opportunities to be observed by other teachers
- Opportunities to attend conferences· Procedural handouts
- Social Activities· Professional Development Workshops
From these supports, the teachers ranked three that were most important to them: teacher-led information sessions, opportunities to observe other teachers and opportunities to be observed by other teachers. All the new teachers chose teacher-led information sessions as one of their top three choices. Ten out of twelve of our new teachers chose the opportunity to observe other teachers. Five teachers requested opportunities to be observed by other teachers. Professional development workshops were requested by three new teachers. New teacher support groups, opportunities to attend conferences and procedural handouts were each selected by two new teachers, and administration-led information sessions was selected by one new teacher.
Developing Our Study
Drawing on the data we collected from the survey, we developed a support plan that we implemented and then studied over the course of the year. We decided to send surveys to department chairs about observations and develop new teacher meetings, since the teacher-led information sessions was the type of support most requested by our new teachers.
We asked department chairs to circulate a form throughout their departments asking teachers to volunteer to be observed by our new teachers. The response from the departments was mixed. Five out of seven departments returned the form. Most departments averaged between three to four teachers who were willing to open up their classrooms. All but one of the teachers in our department volunteered, probably due to support of our study. Two departments did not respond even after multiple reminders. When we asked one department chair for the form, he stated, “We’re not doing it. Enough people observe us already,” suggesting that in at least one department observation is seen as negative and probably linked with evaluation. We compiled this list and handed it out to our new teachers. However, as we checked in with our new teachers throughout the year, it was apparent to us that most of them were not observing other teachers. Some of our new teachers did observe members of their own departments, but none of them went outside of their department.
Implementing Teacher-led Information Sessions
To conduct our research of new-teacher meetings and their effect, we had each teacher write reflections analyzing the meeting, kept our own personal logs and recorded attendance.
Since we had decided to offer regular meetings in order to accommodate our new teachers’ request for teacher-led information sessions, we spoke to the Assistant Principal who was already leading monthly after school meetings for the new teachers. He gave us permission to take over one of his meetings in order to formulate a plan for our teacher-led meetings so we could involve our new teachers in the planning process.
At the first meeting in November, we worked with the new teachers to determine what topics they wanted to discuss. We generated a list including school culture, disciplinary rules, school policies, classroom management, parent-teacher conferences, time management, peer pressure, evaluation and grading, classroom observations and teaching in the wake of September 11th. At each meeting, we decided we would either dip into one of these issues or have an open discussion about what was on our new teachers’ minds that day. We also made sure to leave time after our planning process in order to address what was on our new teachers’ minds that day. Parent-Teacher conferences were the following day and our new teachers were filled with questions about policies and procedures as well as doubts about their abilities to converse with parents. This became our first topic of discussion; the rest were to be discussed at subsequent meetings.
Our next meeting was held two weeks later, and we had decided to offer monthly meetings to avoid overburdening our new teachers. Attendance was low. Some of the teachers expressed concern over making the meetings, citing other commitments and lack of time. Since we were trying to accommodate our teachers’ schedules, we moved to bimonthly meetings on different weekdays.
From November to March, we held a total of six meetings. In addition to Parent/Teacher Conferences, we discussed the observation process at the school, strategies for dealing with ninth graders, seventh graders, departmental expectations and school culture as well as their overall experiences of being new teachers.
After each meeting, we asked our new teachers to write a reflection discussing whether the meetings were helpful, and what other types of support they might still need. In their reflections, the new teachers stated that the meetings were helping them both by informing them of important school policies as well as making them feel less isolated. However, we found that most of the new teachers were not regularly attending our meetings. Eleven out of twelve of our new teachers attended at least one of our meetings throughout the year, but only five out of twelve new teachers attended two meetings. Only two teachers attended at least three meetings, and none of the new teachers attended four or more meetings.
To understand why our teachers were not attending our meetings regularly, particularly since they had requested them, we reviewed our data from the year to see how we could better help them.
Reviewing the Data
Our data includes the teacher responses to two surveys of multiple choice and open-ended questions given in September and April. On the April survey, we asked teachers to characterize their experience in different ways, including writing a metaphor that captured their experience or drawing a picture. We also asked the teachers to write short reflections at the end of the new teacher meetings, and we conducted informal interviews to follow-up with the new teachers. Our data also includes attendance records and logs we wrote after new teacher meetings.
To analyze our narrative data and our visual data, we read and reviewed the data repeatedly and sorted it into the following categories: overall experiences of being a new teacher, reasons for attendance or
inattendance at teacher-led meetings, responses/evaluation of teacher-led meetings, whether they observed other teachers, and what other supports they wanted as new teachers. After reviewing the data within a certain category looking for both patterns and exceptions, we then winnowed down the data, looking for a quote or picture or metaphor that when presented, would capture an experience of many of the teachers overall.
We started our study with the one question, “What do new teachers say they need.” From this, we expected the teachers to tell us the different supports that they wanted and then watch them take advantage of the support we decided to offer to them. However, 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.
Specifically, we drew the following four conclusions from our study:
New teachers at Hunter are overwhelmed and struggling to survive on their own.
In the April survey when we asked new teachers to characterize the overall experience or one salient aspect of their year, we gave them the option to answer with a written explanation, a metaphor that captured the experience, or to draw a picture. Eight of the twelve new teachers returned the April survey, and two who did not return the survey specifically told us that they were simply too swamped to even find time to fill it out. Every survey we did receive painted a picture of being overwhelmed and of struggling to manage a seemingly impossible set of tasks.
One new teacher wrote, “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.” Many of the responses captured this same feeling of being overwhelmed, but also indicated that teachers felt they had to navigate the journey alone, without adequate guidance:
- “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.”
The two drawings that we received capture these feelings in visual form. The picture below was drawn by a teacher new to Hunter who actually had two years of prior teaching experience:
When we asked her to explain its sinister expression, she told us that the octopus, as a metaphor for herself as the teacher, had not yet completely given up, but she was skeptical about whether teaching was even a doable task. Interestingly, with all those tentacles, the one task missing was the actual teaching of classes. When we mentioned this to her, she was shocked she had left it out.
The next picture was drawn by the one new teacher in our study who described her overall experience as positive. This juggler, though smiling, is still unable to keep all the balls in the air; doing so is – as her picture reflects – an insurmountable task.
New teachers at Hunter want more support.
Specifically, the new teachers said they wanted opportunities to observe other teachers and to be observed in a non-evaluative way. When we gave the teachers the selection of supports on the September survey and asked them to select their top three choices, twelve out of twelve new teachers picked teacher-led information sessions as one of their top three choices. As we stated earlier, we offered the support the teachers requested, yet once it was given to them the teachers did not end up using the support as we had expected.
New Teachers are helped by teacher-led meetings but do not have time to attend.
We wondered why teachers were not coming to our meetings. At first we thought maybe we were not really helping them. Perhaps the teachers did not find the meetings useful, so we asked them in the April survey, “Were these meetings helpful?”
As we looked over their answers and again at their post-meeting reflections, we found that yes, the meetings were helping them. Ten out of twelve of our new teachers specifically said that the meetings aided them for a variety of reasons. Many teachers expressed a need for a place to discuss with their fellow new teachers.
“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.”
“[The meetings 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.”
“I thought today’s discussion was extremely helpful. It was so comforting to hear that I am not alone in my feelings of frustration with seventh graders.”
It seems from their comments that our meetings were helping them. Research conducted by Frances Rust confirms the dramatic impact that professional conversations among new teachers can have on their practice and their sense of professionalism.5 Rust and Orland find that “authentic conversation” is in fact, “essential in the continuing professional development of teachers.”6
We were bolstered by this research but still had to ask ourselves and our new teachers, “Why did they not attend the meetings?” We wondered if it would be possible for authentic conversation among new teachers to exist within the framework of our school day. We looked again at our new teachers’ surveys, reviewed their post-meeting reflections and informally interviewed some of them. The same reason appeared over and over again – time. Six out of twelve of our new teachers specifically said they were not attending the meetings because of time. Although they felt they were being helped by teacher led-meetings, they said they did not come because they just could not come.
Some of our teachers cited specific reasons for their
inattendance, such as other commitments to students and their teaching.
“I want to take part in the Monday lunches, but will not be able to …I am the moderator for (a student club) and we meet on Mondays.”
“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 choir members.”
“[There’s] no time to do anything. My teaching suffers for it. I am the limit of what I can do as a human being.”
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 Aronoff’s case study explicating Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, humans need food, water and safety before they can strive for knowledge and higher understanding.7 Our teachers were stuck in survival mode. In survival mode teachers do not have the time and space for the kinds of reflection that we know lead to knowledge and understanding. Linda Darling-Hammond describes teacher knowledge as the single most important factor in increasing student achievement. 8
Implications for Policy Changes
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 to engage in meaningful professional development that was suited to her particular needs, she might be better prepared to face the rigorous challenges required of all teachers.
This seems to be happening all too often in the school system, where teachers are not given even time and support to teach and therefore end up leaving the profession soon after they have entered it. One out of four New York City teachers leaves the profession after the first year.9 To retain qualified teachers, schools must acknowledge the unique challenges new teachers face. We can see from our study that offering new teachers the opportunity to meet through information sessions is not enough. Schools must also provide time for this and other kinds of ongoing support and reflection that lead to real teacher growth and improved student achievement.
Schools also need to provide time for mentors like us to facilitate this support system. One finding of our study was that our ability to support new teachers was limited by time constraints as well. Writing and analyzing surveys, speaking with new teachers, and planning and facilitating lunchtime meetings took time – time that found we did not have! As “experienced” teachers, we did not have to spend the same kind of time on planning, organizing and classroom management as our new teachers, but we still needed our planning periods to grade homework, plan lessons, meet with students, parents and colleagues as well as advise extracurricular clubs and activities. In order to accomplish our goals, we met with new teachers during lunches and with each other during planning periods, before school and after school, during weekends and vacations. All of this was in addition to our regular teaching load. Like our new teachers, we felt rushed and overwhelmed.
We recommend that schools consider implementing the following policy changes to better support new teachers:
Reduce the teaching load or give substantial release time for new teachers.
Reduce the teaching load or give substantial release time for mentor teachers.
Create opportunities for new teachers and mentors to formulate a professional development and plans tailored to each person’s particular needs, rather than assume that what works for one teacher works for the whole.
As we plan our program to work with new teachers at Hunter, we are using our experience from this year to formulate a program for next year. Given our sense of the reality of time and budget constraints in our school, we recommended the following for the upcoming year at Hunter to our principal, who is supportive of our efforts:
Teacher-led new teacher meetings should replace administrative-led meetings.
First-year new teachers should be released from having to serve on school-wide committees so they can attend regular new teacher meetings.
A listserv should be developed to facilitate on line discussion among teachers new to Hunter within the last five years.
All teachers new to Hunter within the last 5 years should be eligible for one full day of release time per semester to observe their colleagues teach.
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. The ongoing conversation group described and researched by Frances Rust takes place for three hours on Friday evenings. Many teachers are willing and financially able to spend hours of unpaid, personal time on their own professional growth. However, widespread educational reform is marked not by the exception, but by the general rule. Currently, few schools allocate the recourses necessary to ensure that time for meaningful professional development is integrated into work in a regular way. On the contrary, “there is a persistent perception that teachers are ‘working’ only when they are in front of
So after completion of our study, we are left wondering how effective it truly is to seek to create small spaces of teacher collaboration within a larger structure that will not ever fully support it. 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 or not real progress can even be made within the existing structure, we believe more research needs to be conducted examining ways to support new teachers both within the current structures and by reforming these very structures.
1. Ellen Meyers, Frances Rust, and Matthew Wayne, eds., Ensuring Teacher Quality, (New York: Teachers Network, 2001), 17.
2. Ellen Meyers, Frances Rust, and Matthew Wayne, eds.
3. Linda Darling-Hammond, “The Right to Learn: Race, Class and Education Policy,” PowerPoint presentation at CUNY Graduate Center, New York, November 30, 2001.
4. Steven Greenhouse, “Tentative Pact for City Teachers Increases Pay, and Workweek,” The New York Times, June 11, 2002, Late Edition, A-1.
5. Frances Rust, “Professional Conversations: New Teachers Explore Teaching through Conversation, Story and Narrative,” Teaching and Teacher Education, 15, no. 2 (1999): 367-380.
6. Frances Rust & Lily Orland, “Learning the Discourse of Teaching: Conversation as Professional Development,” from Talking Shop: Authentic Conversation and Teacher Learning, ed. Christopher M. Clark (New York: Teachers College Press, 2001), 89.
7. Aronoff, Psychological Needs and Cultural Systems: A Case Study, (Princeton, NJ: Van
8. Linda Darling-Hammond, The Right to Learn: A Blueprint For Creating Schools That Work, (San Francisco:
9. Steven Greenhouse.
10. Ellen Meyers, Frances Rust, and Matthew Wayne, eds., 17.