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‘I Probably Cried Every Night’: The Truth About Supporting New Teachers

The most common type of teacher in schools today is a new one.

The fact stands in stark contrast to the stereotypical image of a teacher—a graying Baby Boomer, Jaime Escalante, or Edna Krabappel from “The Simpsons.” Now, a “veteran” teacher often has spent fewer than five years at their school.

Classrooms are different spaces too. Cellphones and social media are a distraction; students have a lot of ground to make up in reading and math proficiency; mental health challenges have multiplied. The entry point to the profession has become much rougher.

Two examples show how that can play out for new teachers.

For most of her adult life, H., 30, worked on and off, towards a teaching degree. The whole journey from associate teaching degree through student-teaching, with breaks, took seven years and cost close to $60,000 in coursework and test fees.

A year into her hard-won teaching career, H. quit the profession.

“I wanted to quit as a student-teacher many times, but I didn’t because teaching was what I wanted to do my whole life. I thought it would be different in a real school. But it wasn’t,” said H., who requested to be identified by her first initial because, like the other four new teachers interviewed for this story, she worries about whether being named could impact her employment opportunities in the future.

The trouble began right away: H. said she was hired to teach kindergarten and 2nd grade three days before the school semester started and missed out on new-teacher orientation. She had no curriculum, and her class, while small, had lots of behavior and discipline problems she wasn’t equipped to meet.

“I would get advice about moving around the furniture or being firm. But there was no actual support,” said H., recalling a student who would knock over tables, and who was frequently suspended. “The school didn’t have a great way to deal with these behavioral issues.”

Like H., Chance Manzo got no “new teacher” orientation before launching into his teaching career in the 2022-23 school year. A former actor and bartender, Manzo decided to get his teaching degree at 39, after the pandemic ravaged the service industry. “I wanted a COVID-proof profession,” Manzo said.

He teaches at the PAEC Center, a special needs school in Maywood, Ill., which also acts as a hub for special needs students from neighboring districts. He, too, had a challenging start—but he’s keen to go down the path of special education. “I fell down the right hole,” he said.

Manzo said a mentor helped him learn how to grade student work, when lesson plans were due, and how to prepare Individualized Education Programs for students. But he also lacked support on what curriculum to teach, and tools like manipulatives and calculators for his classes.

“It was a lot of cobbling together of resources and information from other teachers. The administration is too busy trying to get more bodies through the door,” Manzo added.

The chances that all new teachers experience the same kind of chaotic first week is now slim, experts who study teachers say, and nothing has hit the profession quite as hard as the pandemic. But the common tensions of feeling overwhelmed and under-supported leave new teachers with the same choices as H. and Manzo: soldier on, or quit.

“There is often no clear, effective system when teachers walk in,” said Susan Moore Johnson, a professor at the Harvard School of Graduate Education and director of the The Project on the Next Generation of Teachers. “There has to be a schoolwide understanding of what its norms are.”

Rocky starts that don’t always get easier

School leaders are often well aware of the problem and grappling with constraints of their own.

“It’s a huge challenge to find teachers to come to a low-income co-op school. Teachers want to work in schools that can pay them more. Teacher burnout is very high,” said Inga Ezerins, the vice principal at PAEC, Manzo’s school, and a former teacher there. Already, two teachers who joined last year have quit PAEC.

There is a tight window of three days when a teacher joins, to get through all the training, which is focused on the district’s numerous testing requirements. Ezerins said she would like at least a week to train and orient new teachers to the realities of working in special education school, with a special focus on curriculum. She tries to take new teachers under her wing, but relies heavily on mentors—current teachers—to fulfill the training needs.

The level of support, Ezerins acknowledges, doesn’t match the pressures of a teacher’s job in her school.

The rough landing of teachers into the profession fuels a longstanding problem: hanging on to them. A significant number leave before hitting the 5-year mark, somewhere between 40 and 50 percent.

“The problem of teacher shortage isn’t that we’re making too few. We’re losing too many,” said Richard Ingersoll, a professor at Harvard University, who has studied teacher attrition trends over the last three decades. Ingersoll’s research also shows that this turnover disproportionately affects low-income schools and those with a higher percentage of students of color.

It can be hard to understand these numbers in context. Some data suggests that overall teacher turnover, as compared to that among new teachers, isn’t all that different from similarly situated professions, like nurses and social workers, although the pandemic led to an uptick in turnover.

There’s also the wrinkle that, over decades, the teacher population has boomed relative to the size of the student population, which is now beginning to shrink. Districts’ constant hunger to hire reflects, in part, the fact that they have created proportionally more teaching slots—sometimes in the form of instructional coaches and others who don’t directly supervise classrooms.

Still, districts’ reliance on new talent, coupled with a leaky pipeline, can weigh heavily on schools, exerting pressure on existing teachers who pick up the extra teaching load. Often, more senior teachers double up as mentors for newer teachers, a phenomenon further complicated by the fact that even so-called veteran teachers frequently have been in the system for fewer than five years.

New data from a nationally representative survey of nearly 1,500 teachers conducted by the EdWeek Research Center finds that teacher morale starts out slightly above neutral on a -100 to +100 scale for teachers with fewer than three years of experience—but then drops precipitously for teachers with three to nine years in the classroom, right about the time they’ve grown more effective on the job.

Teacher morale, on a -100 to +100 scale, by years of teaching

Just why that is is hard to interpret: Perhaps that’s the time at which secondary stress points, like a heavy administrative burden, become more apparent to teachers, or perhaps it’s as simple as the glow of a new job wearing off.

But what it does mean is that districts are trying to plug the gap at both ends of the creation-retention cycle.

Schools are also training grounds

Numerous “grow-your-own” programs encourage substitutes and paraprofessionals to teach full-time. Alternative programs help students obtain their degrees while they teach. Many states have even lifted restrictions on who can become teachers now—a four-year college degree is all it takes in some cases—or even less. With so many entry points into teaching, schools are onboarding new teachers with different levels of experience and expertise.

Manzo initially applied to his school to fulfill requirements for the second year of his master’s degree from National Louis University in Illinois, but landed himself a full-time job instead, 30 minutes into his interview.

“I will never forget my first day. Someone let me in, walked me to my classroom and three days later the kids showed up,” said Manzo.

Brianna Crabtree is a first-time principal at the Citizens Leadership Academy Southeast in Cleveland, a charter school that hired 23 teachers since the 2022-23 academic year. Half the new cohort has fewer than five years of experience; the least experienced teacher, just six months. Five teachers in this group have made a lateral entry into teaching, from careers in insurance and the military.

In response, Crabtree said she’s developed an intensive coaching model: two deans of instruction whose sole job is to coach new teachers. These deans observe new hires teach and hold 45-minute coaching sessions with each of them every week. In these sessions, new teachers practice different skills they need to pick up, like delivering a lesson in class, and the deans give them granular feedback on their style or content.

Each week, coaches focus on one action item with the new hires, like positive reinforcement for students who stay on task.

“We can’t throw everything at new teachers together. We expect them to improve 1 percent every week,” said Crabtree.

The training plan officially kicks off in the summer through an intensive three-week bootcamp. The charter network’s central office gives all new hires the curriculum they’re expected to teach and helps them get familiar with the state standards and learn classroom management strategies. From the fourth week on, the school takes over.

This coaching method has paid dividends, according to Crabtree, especially for new teachers who haven’t had any formal training: “It’s mind blowing to me is that our most successful teachers over the past two years have been our career changers.”

For part of the training, Crabtree stands in the back of classrooms to coach new hires, delivering tips and feedback directly to the teachers who wear an earpiece.

“I give them cues based on what I observe in their class. I tell them to stop, scan their class and see if they have everyone’s attention. The cueing process can build a habit. It’s sort of like a coach coaching their quarterback through different plays,” said Crabtree.

Mentorship is a continuum requiring planning

It takes time and effort to plan a support system like this that is sustainable. Schools have been told since forever about the importance of mentoring, but getting it done in a way that bears dividends is a much more difficult proposition.

H. struggled with her mentorship experience. While her mentor tried to help, even covered field trips for her, the mentor couldn’t really help H. with her disruptive classroom.

“Too many schools rely on the mentor thing. But in most cases, it’s not a formalized process. When it’s not planned, mentors can’t help new teachers with specific tactics, like how to talk with parents,” said Renee Gugel, an assistant professor of leadership studies at National Louis University in Chicago.

Crabtree says she also relies heavily on veteran teachers to guide new teachers. “It’s funny to call them veteran teachers because they’ve only been teaching five years. But I count on them to hold up standards and culture while the new teachers adjust. I worry about them burning out,” said Crabtree.

Mentors—existing teachers—must mentally prepare for the workload, and it’s the principal’s job to set expectations from the beginning. Elizabeth Brown had to hire a whole new staff when she was asked to lead Ocali Charter High School in Ocala, Fla., which opened in 2021. Her cohort is a mixed bag too—veteran teachers with over 28 years of teaching experience side by side with people completely new to the profession.

Brown has implemented a three-year beginner training program. Year two is the most critical for her: mentors work on specific challenges—disengaged students, new curriculum—with new teachers to hone their craft. Then, mentors will teach one period with that strategy; in a second period, both the mentor and new teacher teach it together, and then in a third period, the new teacher goes it alone, and gets feedback.

How long a new teacher stays is 100 percent dependent on their relationship with the mentor, Brown concludes. It’s a heavy lift for the mentors, who have their own classes to teach.

“I prepped them. I told them the work is going to be much harder than the money [you get]. I told them, if you can’t give the new teacher your full attention, don’t do it,” Brown said.

The Cleveland school district has helped Crabtree sweeten the deal for mentors temporarily. All the principals in her school district were given $50,000 to distribute as bonuses for high-quality teachers, and she directed it to those who put in extra time and effort to mentor new teachers—up to $3,000 apiece.

“Everyone loves a pizza party. But this truly let me compensate for their time, Crabtree said, adding: “We don’t know if we’ll have these funds next year.”

A millennial workforce needs different supports

On the other end of the spectrum, district officials like Marco Muñoz, in charge of employee retention at the Jefferson County school district in Louisville, Ky., are trying to prevent new teachers from slipping through the cracks, with what he calls a “whole person” approach.

“This goes beyond helping them with technical skills like classroom management. You must see them as human beings first,” Muñoz said. “Are people connecting with their job? Do they have a sense of belonging?

The unseen burden of H.’s role as a new teacher were the 12-hour days that stretched into her home life.

“I probably cried every night. I was doing all this extra work at home and before school and not getting paid for it,” H. said.

Mental health is a critical part of supporting this generation of teachers, said Muñoz. “There is a generational gap between new teachers and their school leaders. They need to avoid stereotyping millennial and Gen Z teachers … they should focus on the strengths that this new generation of educators bring to the table,” he said.

Muñoz is part of a two-person retention team, and travels across the district to visit teachers and find out, firsthand, what they’re struggling with. The retention rates in the district took a plunge in the 2021-22 school year, when 430 teachers resigned. Muñoz and his team managed to stem the departures the following year, which fell to 371—a 14 percent decrease.

“The advantage of working in a district for close to two decades is that you know who to tap if a new teacher needs something,” Muñoz said. “I know who in their building can drop in for a quick chat.”

He’s aware of the creeping disillusionment that hits teachers after about the three-year mark. It’s normal to feel unfulfilled after a few years of teaching, he reassures them.

“With newer teachers, they don’t see the fruits of their labor immediately and it’s a problem if they want to see gratification soon,” he said. It helps to keep them focused on the goal of earning tenure, and the stability that comes with it.

And often, teachers are keen to explore growth opportunities like advanced degrees or licenseendorsements. In planning for the future, teachers realize there’s room to grow in the profession, and that the district, to some extent, can financially provide for it.

Manzo, for instance, sees a path in switching to school administration. “I want to bring issues from the classroom into decision-making spaces,” he said. “There isn’t enough of that.”

Muñoz has now directed his attention to a pilot program running in three schools with some of the lowest retention rates in the district—35 percent. Teachers in these schools are getting one-on-one mental health counseling on how to cope with the pressures of teaching. Separately, principals will be trained on how to nurture teachers and be more tuned into their teachers’ wellbeing.

To be faithful to this “whole person” approach to retention, Muñoz said it’s also important to realize when a teacher might need to take a pause. It’s not a common strategy to ask teachers to voluntarily step back into a temporary substitute’s role or take leave while they sort out mental health or familial issues, but it’s helped getting some teachers back full-time to the district, he said.

Stepping back is maybe what H. needed too, to gain a clearer perspective.

“I want to go back to teaching someday when my kid is old enough for preschool. But I’d have to know, in advance, what kind of support I’d be getting from the school,” she said. “I’m still scared of what happened.”

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