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Teachers Network Leadership Institute:
Action Research:
Assessment & Preparation for Assessment: A Precarious Balance: How Can We Help Support New Teachers?

Research Summary

We Wondered

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 need?


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, 2001).

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 total.


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

1.  New 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 insurmountable task. 

Picture A


Picture B

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.  Options included: 

  • Professional development workshop

  • New teacher support groups

  • Opportunities to attend conferences

  • Opportunities to observe and be observed by other teachers

  • Procedural handouts

  • Teacher-led information sessions

  • Social activities

  • 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 had anticipated.

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 were varied: 

“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.”

 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  (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 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.”  

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. 

Policy Recommendations:

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.

Works Cited:

Darling-Hammond, Linda.  The Right to Learn: A Blueprint For Creating Schools That Work.  San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997.

Darling-Hammond, Linda.  “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, 1991.

Greenhouse, Steven. “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, 2002.

New Teacher Induction
Professional Development


Rebecca & Nell

Rebecca Hollander teaches communications theatre at Hunter College High School in Manhattan. In addition, she advices the extra-curricular theatre program. This is her fourth year teaching at Hunter. Originally from Chicago, she spent her formative years in New Jersey and has been living in New York City for the past 12 years. rff

Nell Scharff has been an English teacher at Hunter College High School since 1990. She is currently a doctoral candidate in education at New York University. Her research interests are classroom group dynamics and new teacher development


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