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December 1, 2021
ASCD Blog

How Should Schools Support New Teachers Right Now?

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LeadershipInstructional Strategies
How Should Schools Be Supporting New Teachers Right Now? (thumbnail)
Credit: Syda Productions From Canva
When Tessa Wilson (a pseudonym) watched students enter her classroom this fall in person, her biggest joy was seeing how excited they were to be back in school after a year and a half of remote learning. Wilson was entering the physical classroom for the first time, too. As an early-career English teacher at Academy of American Studies High School in Queens, New York, Wilson had completed her student teaching remotely and her first year of teaching in a hybrid model; year two was the first time she’d be interacting with students in person full-time.
“It’s not that this year is more difficult than another year, but rather it is different,” says Wilson. “We have a ‘new normal’ of masks and social distancing that we are adjusting to. As an educator, I am learning to adapt.”
This fall has been tricky for all teachers, with most schools returning in person but still dealing with pandemic challenges and adapting after extended time away. Schools are also experiencing higher-than-ever staffing and substitute shortages because of challenges exacerbated by COVID-19, creating a domino effect of added stress and scramble. In this landscape, everyone needs extra support—but early-career teachers are one group leaders especially need to pay attention to, according to Roberta Lenger Kang, the director of The Center for the Professional Education of Teachers at Teachers College.
Those in their first few years of teaching, many of whom finished their student teaching and started their careers during a cultural and global catastrophic event, have gone through a “unique cohort experience,” says Kang. In general, she explains, this group of teachers, who don’t remember pre-pandemic classrooms, are adaptable and flexible, used to a certain level of independence, and skilled in incorporating technology tools into lessons.
“You can’t really assess the [pandemic] damage until it’s over,” says Kang. “First-year teachers are experiencing this with their students. Many [of these teachers] are young adults still forming their identities and still wrestling with the impact of finishing school remotely, so there’s a lot of unevenness in terms of skill and confidence.”
Despite the field being in flux, new teacher educators and experts on the ground are working to figure out supports for those just starting out. Here are three takeaways for leaders about the unique experience these new teachers are facing.

Takeaway #1: Be patient with teachers (and students)

There’s been an incredible amount of pressure on educators and leaders to identify where students are in their academic learning after, in many students’ cases, less time and fewer opportunities for learning during virtual instruction. Gerardo Cano, who is in his first full year of teaching 8th grade math in Texas after starting in a hybrid environment in January, says many of his students need support with the foundational math skills “that you’d expect 8th graders to have.” He worries about the time pressures of getting students up to speed academically, despite feeling well-equipped with his knowledge of technology tools like Nearpod and Google Classroom to support lesson planning.
“We have to go back to root concepts,” says Cano. “Then, [administrators are] saying you only have a certain time frame to prepare kids for that material. It’s very complicated to try to get everyone at the level the school used to have—it’s not something teachers can fix within the year.”
Atyani Howard, the chief program officer of the nonprofit New Teacher Center in California, echoes these concerns and stresses that schools should avoid the kinds of “silver bullet quick-fix programs” they have historically activated in challenging moments. Rather than creating what Howard calls “counterproductive strain” on instructional practices or making isolated decisions around teaching that will overload educators, leaders should think about the research-based practices that will reengage students without sacrificing classroom community.

You can’t really assess the pandemic damage until it’s over. First-year teachers are experiencing this with their students.

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Part of that work should involve equity-centered professional learning around teacher self-reflection—including how their identity and experience affects how they relate to students—and ways to build student relationships that empower all learners, Howard suggests. The New Teacher Center offers open-source materials to help new teachers think about relationships through an equity lens, such as The Revolution podcast and the “Knowing Students” tool.
“I cannot imagine what it must feel like to be a new teacher trying to find her way who also feels the pressure of compensating for pandemic impacts in terms of . . . ‘lost’ learning,” says Howard. “Everyone needs to figure out how to be together again in ways that are supportive and positive so we can make learning flow.”

Takeaway #2: Remember that teachers (and students) have gotten used to the virtual classroom

One challenge second- and third-year teachers may encounter is dealing with the switch to a physical environment after getting started remotely. Certain classroom management challenges—bell and fire drill interruptions, for instance—didn’t come up. Teachers had the power to “mute all” with the press of a button. And students grew used to doing more self-paced learning (with tools like Google Classroom) and taking care of needs like getting a snack when they wanted. Some students also pushed pause on social development as a result of prolonged isolation. Now, both early-career teachers and students are getting readjusted to a more restrictive routine in the physical school space.
These teachers are establishing in-person rituals and routines for the first time, in addition to overseeing safety and healthy protocols like masks and social distancing. Even if a teacher’s lesson planning is on point, Kang says, she’s noticed pacing tasks—which are going to be different online versus in the physical classroom—can be an issue. Pacing struggles aren’t uncommon for newer teachers, but skill sets may be uneven because some teachers are doing this for the first time in an in-person setting. Kang reminds the new teachers she works with about the importance of an inquiry perspective. For example, the question of what went wrong in a lesson should not be, “What did kids do wrong?” or “What did I do wrong?” but instead, “What can I do differently tomorrow?”  
It’s key to establish rules of thumb around the ebb and flow of a class period. For lesson planning, Kang suggests that leaders support teachers to mock up the order of lesson events and establish predictable routines—with an opening experience, short lesson, a period for independent practice, and a closing. Because research says the mind is most activated in the beginning and last minutes of class, leaders should also support teachers to help students consolidate their learning of the important takeaways at the end of a session and get ready for the next class, as well as provide in-class transitions that preview to students what they’re doing next and how to prepare.  

We want to make sure what we bring teachers is relevant to serving students who have been away for a year and a half.

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Columbia University’s New Teacher Network’s podcast Teaching Today, geared toward early-career teachers, breaks down practices and tools like these to implement in the classroom. (Kang recommends using the center’s “Pace Your Lessons” tool under the website’s instructional design resources tab.)
Angela Salinas Oveido, who has directed the New Teacher Support Department at Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District in Texas for more than a decade, adjusted her district’s program that serves around 90 early-career teachers in both structure and content to account for the pandemic’s changes. In addition to smaller group cohorts for safety, Salinas Oveido wanted the instructional coaching, mentoring, PD, and community-building they provide throughout the year to fit with the current context. They’ve recorded some of the training sessions so that teachers can embed the PD into their days, have tried to unpack takeaways from virtual teaching, and are trying to understand what kids learned during the last year, what they didn’t, and why.  
“We want to make sure what we bring teachers is relevant to serving students who have been away for a year and a half,” says Salinas Oveido. “How are we getting teachers to identify what kids have learned, and how can we build on successes of what they’re already doing?”

Takeaway #3: Set up well-rounded support systems

It goes without saying that teachers are feeling tapped out. Though it’s too early to tell exactly how the pandemic will continue to affect the profession’s attrition, early indications in national studies find that more teachers have thought about leaving. According to a National Education Association survey of their members in June, 32 percent of 2,690 respondents said that the pandemic has caused them to plan to leave the profession earlier than they anticipated (even if they haven’t left yet). Another survey by the RAND Corp., also released this summer, reported pandemic-related increases in educator burnout and stress, and noted that teachers were much more likely than adults in other professions to experience job-related stress and depression.
That means that many of the typical educators early-career teachers rely on—coaches, mentors, more experienced teachers—are feeling burned out beyond capacity. New teachers in Howard’s circles have reported that it’s been “challenging and unsettling” to see how depleted experienced teachers are—if those support sources are feeling drained now, what does that mean for newer teachers’ capacities down the road?
In Salinas Oveido’s district this fall, one teacher who decided to resign said he felt guilty about spending time with his family while in the throes of teaching. “We’ve got to give teachers the OK to take care of themselves,” she says. “We transfer those vibes.”
That’s why coaching with an established teacher who was teaching prior to the pandemic is essential, says Kang. Having someone to reflect with at the end of the day, or to co-plan lessons with, can make or break efficacy—especially with continuously shifting norms.  Beyond one-on-one support, having an instructional coach who can work with new teachers as a cohort can radically improve teachers' sense of community, collaboration, and confidence. It's important that new teachers have a productive space to safely talk about the challenges they're facing, without concern for their evaluation or rating.
Overall, those who work with new teachers stress that leaders and colleagues should listen to early-career educators’ challenges and concerns and incorporate their input on the supports and systems that will be most helpful to them in another unprecedented year.
“New teachers deserve to have supportive guidance on what they need to prioritize,” adds Howard. “That goes beyond saying, ‘it’s going to be a tough year, make sure you meditate and do yoga.’ It goes beyond the individual teacher to how the system or school is thinking about what it’s going to take to effectively orient someone to a very complicated profession in a complex time.”

Kate Stoltzfus is a freelance editor and writer for ASCD.

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