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May 1, 2010
Vol. 67
No. 8

What Supports New Urban Teachers?

Ten young teachers in urban schools describe their avenues of support—and what's on their wish lists.

Urban school districts throughout the United States are desperate to find and keep well-prepared, committed teachers. New teachers who work in urban areas are twice as likely to be assigned to high-poverty, low-performing schools as are teachers with more than five years of experience (Bolich, 2001). But beginning teachers typically leave low-income school settings for more affluent districts or, worse, leave the profession entirely (Guarino, Santibañez, & Daley, 2006).
What kinds of supports could schools provide new teachers that would both attract them to low-income, urban schools and keep them there long-term? Education leaders need to look closely at this question, in part because the U.S. teaching force is becoming younger and "greener." In 2008, the average teacher had one to two years experience (Ingersoll & Merrill, 2010). Where better to seek an answer than in the perceptions of new teachers in urban settings?
During the 2008–09 academic year, we interviewed 10 new teachers—five in Phoenix, Arizona, and five in Portland, Oregon—who were in the first five years of their careers and had chosen to teach in underachieving, urban schools in which at least 60 percent of students received free or reduced-price lunch. All expressed an intention to continue their careers in low-income, urban schools. We asked these fledgling educators 21 questions regarding their school experiences, including the following questions about obstacles and supports:
  • What challenges do you face as a beginning teacher at your school?
  • In the face of these challenges, what sustains you?
  • Who at your school has supported you?
  • Who in your school or district has presented obstacles?
Our aim was to investigate the factors, people, and events that affect new teachers' daily teaching lives and to broaden our understanding of how schools might make those lives rewarding enough to keep well-intentioned young teachers in classrooms. We came to see the nuances of new teachers' work in such settings. Although the media and conventional wisdom support negative beliefs about diverse, urban schools, all the teachers we interviewed described key avenues of support that helped them feel connected and committed.
Two major themes emerged: the significance of school leaders and the positive influence of other new teachers.

Administrators: The Strongest Potential Support

All the teachers reported that the people they worked with influenced their views of their environment more than did the community's perspective on the school, the school's physical structure, or the presence or absence of resources. Teachers cited administrators as the leading factor in how they perceived their schools; administrators provided the most encouragement, but also the most discouragement. Six of 10 teachers reported that administrators served as their greatest support; four shared that administrators were their chief obstacle.
Those who saw their school leaders positively emphasized that administrators went out of their way to recognize them and offer valuable support. For example, Joanie noted,
Our administrators know our names, shake our hands, treat us like colleagues, and continually praise our daily practices. When my boss makes me feel valued and does not treat me differently because I am new to the profession, then I feel more confident and capable. Little gestures like these go a long way.
Joanie also appreciated that her principal stopped by her classroom frequently to compliment her efforts; this made her believe her work mattered.
Nick, an 8th grade teacher, appreciated how his school administration didn't buy in to the negative stereotypes the outside community attached to his school:
It would be easy for my principal and vice principal to have a doomsday perspective about our school. There are a lot of [daily] challenges, and sometimes it feels like the newspapers are out to get us. There are some days where you walk down the hallways and things are chaotic and tense. Our students struggle because of poverty, and city culture can be brutal. Regardless, my administration refuses to perceive our school in a negative light.
Bonnie shared how the administration contributed to a stable faculty at her diverse elementary school:
Our administrator is candid and professional. When I see her, I can tell she's taking note of what's happening in our classrooms and she cares about our well-being. … She believes all teachers are capable and that it is our job to meet kids where they are in their learning and development. [M]y principal also practices what she preaches. She works to meet all teachers where they are in their development; she fights to provide us with resources, time, and training. She also asks our opinion before making important decisions.
Likewise, Andy felt supported in his first year teaching high school because he received daily feedback from his principal, whom he described as approachable, open, and receptive. Overall, teachers who had direct, ongoing communication with their principals listed communication as the chief reason they felt committed and connected to their school settings—and successful with their students.
On the other end of the continuum, lack of involvement from administrators was demoralizing. Violet, a new middle school teacher, said her administration simply ignored her:
You're in your classroom, you get your teacher binder and the benchmarks where students need to be at certain points, and that's it. I haven't had an observation by a district officer or principal.
She yearned for acknowledgement, saying, "I don't even know what I'm looking for as far as support goes. I've never done this job before. Having the feeling my principal doesn't even know who I am … makes me feel invisible."
Two other teachers described a debilitating lack of administrative involvement:
It has been a rough year. I have no administrative support. I'm confident in my teaching abilities, but I have no administrators observing me.Administrators are not helpful; they just come in and watch for a little bit and leave. We never talk about my teaching afterwards.
These teachers expressed a hunger for feedback and described how lack of administrative involvement created an atmosphere of new teacher isolation.

Other New Teachers: The Lifeline

All those we interviewed talked about connections with other new teachers as an enduring source of support. Nick, an 8th grade educator, said,
I was linked up with a mentor who has 15 years experience working in city schools, which was terrific. However, I've found informal conversations with other new teachers in my school to be more valuable and constructive than the time spent with my "official" mentor.
Eight interviewees said their schools hired large numbers of new teachers every year because of retirements and teacher shortages. They also believed that their schools had a disproportionate number of new teachers because, as Nick explained,
My school isn't tops on everyone's list. I think more experienced teachers steer away from schools like mine. My school … needs a balance between new and experienced teachers to provide a healthy school climate.
Will described forming a supportive cohort of new teachers at his school: "We support one another and meet regularly. We're all in the same boat, and we help one another a great deal." Will and others reported that they collaborated with other beginners to prepare and design curriculum, communicate with parents and administrators about difficult students and challenging scenarios, and gather and share classroom resources. These newest educators created online forums for professional conversation through blogs, Nings, and other tools.
Andy and Pete also actively connected with new teachers hired the same year they were. Andy realized he talked to a fellow new teacher more than to his assigned mentor: "I talk to her every day, and we plan lessons together. We are on the same page."
Joanie valued "talking shop" honestly with other new teachers on her middle school's faculty. She found that these new teachers opened up and shared experiences more than veteran teachers did; they seemed to feel more comfortable talking about their insecurities, questions, and vulnerabilities.
The chance to make collegial connections with other new teachers contributed to schools being healthy, rewarding workplaces for those new in the field. Clearly, one way to tackle the problem of teacher retention in urban and underserved schools would be to foster such connections and provide opportunities to collaborate.

Informing the Profession

Our interviews revealed another side to the "struggling new urban teacher" stereotype common in conversations about schooling. Messages—some subtle, some blatant—about new teachers' lack of confidence and skill abound. Our informants described being warned about the horrors of the first teaching years ("you just survive your first year"; "the first year is hell"). They had braced themselves for a negative experience but were surprised to find they felt like teachers from the beginning and enjoyed their chosen profession even in challenging settings. Their stories presented a dynamic picture of the competence, commitment, and knowledge these young professionals brought to schools from day one. Indeed, our follow-up research showed that all these teachers still serve in challenging, urban schools.
That's not to say that the level of support new teachers found wasn't a factor in how they perceived their early years. School cultures—especially the actors within them—emerged as the key factor in either hindering or supporting new teachers. Hands-on administrators led most of our participants to see themselves as valued contributors, but those teachers who reported a lack of administrative involvement felt invisible and devalued.
Our conversations with new teachers in urban, underserved schools suggest that supports that feature new teachers working together to hone their craft would be a promising strategy, one to examine further. Researchers should also talk with more beginning teachers about what they experience and need. Beginning teachers can help inform the profession about how to attract, prepare, and sustain new teachers, to the benefit of urban children.

Bolich, A. (2001). Reduce your losses: Help new teachers become veteran teachers. Atlanta, GA: Southern Regional Education Board. Available:http://publications.sreb.org/2001/01S05_teacherattrition.pdf

Guarino, C. M, Santibañez, L., & Daley, G. A. (2006). Teacher recruitment and retention: A review of the recent empirical literature. Review of Educational Research, 76(2), 173–208.

Ingersoll, R., & Merrill, L. (2010). The teaching force: six trends. Educational Leadership, 67(8), 14–20.

Jessica Singer Early is assistant professor of English education at Arizona State University in Tempe.

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