Research Says First-Year Support Is Critical
When things got tough for new teacher Nora O’Donnell last year, she thought about changing careers and joining the rest of her family in practicing law.
“It was just a lot to try to tackle, and it seemed that everything needed to be accomplished at once,” says O’Donnell, who feels she’s made headway and is better prepared to face the challenges of this school year.
O’Donnell reports her biggest challenges during her first year of teaching at Chaminade-Julienne Catholic High School in Dayton, Ohio, as: balancing work and fun; learning the school’s policies and procedures; developing units within a specific curriculum; grading papers; handing back homework; and enforcing discipline.
O’Donnell weathered the difficulties, and after speaking with family, friends, and colleagues, decided she’d rather feel the satisfaction of completing the year and realized she enjoys the challenges delivered by each new day of teaching.
O’Donnell is grateful for the generous advice and assistance she received as a new teacher and notes that more help is always a good thing. She suggests that administrators give new teachers a time to come together once a week or once a month to talk about strategies they are using and what seems to be working.
“Here at Chaminade-Julienne there is a mentoring program for incoming freshmen to help them become acclimated with the school, their classes, and anything that may be new or foreign to them; I think that a similar program for first-year teachers could be just as beneficial. Providing an open forum of peers, in my mind, would alleviate some of the pressures associated with meeting certain expectations held by administration, department heads, or more experienced teachers.”
Unfortunately, O’Donnell’s struggles are not unique. “Beginning teachers are exposed to many challenges and difficulties; as a result, nearly half will leave teaching within their first five years in the profession.” Thomas M. McCann, Larry R. Johannessen, and Bernard P. Ricca make this statement in the preface to Supporting Beginning English Teachers: Research and Implications for Teacher Induction.
Their interviews with teachers revealed that they are concerned with issues in five general categories: Relationships, Workload/Time Management, Knowledge of Subject/Curriculum, Evaluation/Grading, and Autonomy/Control.
Ricca, who is assistant professor in the School of Education at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois, notes that new teachers often underestimate the work. “We found that while preservice teachers express greater confidence than experienced teachers that they will be able to handle the workload without much difficulty, they quickly recognize that the demands of the job are overwhelming.”
According to McCann, who is assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Elmhurst Public Schools in Illinois, teachers cope by believing that things will improve. “The new teachers reported to us that a teacher has to have not just a sense of hope but also an attitude of tenacity. A sense of hope that things will get better apparently supports the teacher’s endurance; but at the same time, the teacher is consciously working strategically to make things better. This means that the teacher will try one strategy after another and consult one colleague after another to find the means to make things better.”
But not every new teacher is able to cope with the difficulties. Often “the combined force of a number of difficulties” makes them lose hope, McCann says. He notes that situations were most frustrating for teachers whose experiences were very different from what they expected.
“We interviewed some teachers who felt that teaching was a career compromise that did not pan out the way they had expected,” explains Johannessen, who is associate professor in the Department of English at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb. “Instead of having a strong belief in the importance of their work and a commitment to helping students, they cared to remain on the job only until a more attractive alternative presented itself.”
As for who is most likely to stay, McCann says their research shows it’s someone who is between 39 and 55, with children older than five, who is earning a competitive salary, and teaching in an area for which they are properly prepared and certified.
“Beyond this narrowly defined group there are those who stay because they have a sense of mission to schools and to their teaching,” McCann adds. “Those who are likely to stay in the profession see teaching as a vitally important contribution to a community; in some cases, teachers believe that they were saving lives. These teachers recognize that there are challenges in schools: troubled homes, dangerous neighborhoods, poor skills, strained resources—but the teachers who stay in the profession do not see the challenges as excuses for leaving; instead they recognize the difficulties as compelling evidence of the need for the teacher to be in the school.”
McCann, Johannessen, and Ricca offer this advice for administrators and educators wanting to help their newest colleagues: “Mentors and supervisors would do well to be proactive and not wait for the beginning teacher to approach them for help. We advise that those who are charged with preparing teachers and with supporting their professional development focus especially on two areas: contending with a potentially demoralizing workload, and developing positive relationships with students. The first year of teaching is obviously a critical one, and the proactive supports that teacher preparation programs and schools’ mentoring programs can provide to anticipate and contend with challenges will increase the likelihood that new teachers will remain in teaching and grow in their profession.”
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