Survival Guide for New Teachers

Message for New Teachers

If you are new to the teaching field--or if you work alongside someone who is--then this book was written for you.

In it are the reflections of award-winning first-year teachers who talk candidly about their successes and setbacks, with a particular emphasis on the relationships they formed with their colleagues, university professors, and their students' parents.

These relationships played a crucial role in influencing their success on the job, according to the first-year teachers we interviewed. Veteran teachers, especially, are a powerful factor in a new teacher's experience, which explains why so many of the 53 teachers involved in this book spoke of the need for hands-on assistance from mentor teachers.

As award-winning first-year teacher Katy Goldman (Pine, Arizona) writes, supportive veteran colleagues are "your lifeline to information and sanity." Not surprisingly, lack of support from veteran teachers proved highly discouraging, according to the teachers we talked to.

Relationships with principals, professors, and parents also took prominence in our discussions, which yielded practical tips both for teachers and for the people who work alongside them. Suggestions focused on how new teachers can foster supportive professional relationships and what they stand to gain from them. First-year teachers also discussed what principals, veteran teachers, university professors, and parents can do to make first-year teaching a success.


The Importance of Support

Why is it so important to foster support and success for first-year teachers? Because dissatisfied first-year teachers are exiting the profession in record numbers, costing taxpayers money for retraining and leaving a significant portion of the teaching force with little professional experience. The exodus takes perhaps its greatest toll on students, whose productivity is affected by the high turnover and unstable educational programs that are often the result.

According to a recently reported statistic, more than half the new teachers in Los Angeles, California, give up their profession within 3 years, at a cost of $15 million a year. A 1996 study in North Carolina found that 17 percent of the state's teachers leave the profession after the first year in the classroom, 30 percent by the end of 3 years and 36 percent by 5 years.

Nationally, 22 percent of all new teachers leave the profession in the first 3 years because of lack of support and a "sink or swim" approach to induction.

What Does "Sink or Swim" Mean?

To start with, first-year teachers are still liable to be assigned the most challenging courses--the ones with a heavy developmental emphasis and students who need additional expertise to teach. Moreover, many new teachers receive little more than a quick orientation on school policies and procedures before they start their jobs. And there is often no time in the day--or week, for that matter--allotted for sitting down with colleagues to discuss pedagogical methods, daily dilemmas like time and classroom management, and coping strategies.

"I never sat in anyone else's classroom even once," laments first-year teacher Gail A. Saborio (Wakefield, Rhode Island). "Mine is the only teaching style I know. I felt that sometimes I was reinventing the wheel."

Given the pressures on today's first-year teachers, it's no surprise that drop-out teachers look for jobs in more lucrative, less emotionally stressful fields.

"Some of the state's top business leaders in banking and pharmaceuticals tell us that their leading job candidates are young teachers leaving the profession," says University of North Carolina Chancellor Michael Hooker.

The problem looms larger in light of the projected shortage of teachers and shrinking percentage of minority teachers in the next decade.


New Initiatives

Fortunately, some promising new initiatives are already underway. For example, 100 percent of the graduates of a program for first-year teachers from Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, Texas have stayed on the job after 5 years of teaching. Meanwhile, the statewide retention rate is about 50 percent after 5 years, according to the university.

Texas's Induction Year Program is designed to provide support and instruction to first-year teachers while getting them started toward master's level professional development. The program focuses on practical issues such as classroom management, communication skills, and discipline. Also, faculty members regularly visit the classes of participants to evaluate the teacher's performance.

At the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, professors from the university's education department provide problem-solving support to graduates during their first years on the job. This program, called the Lighthouse Project, fosters online discussions that assist young teachers while keeping education professors up to date on the realities of today's classrooms.

In addition to university teacher-preparation programs, school districts are doing more to make first-year teaching a success. Districts from Delaware to Columbus, Ohio to Omaha, Nebraska have instituted induction programs for new teachers that include mentoring, peer assistance, and other forms of guidance and support.

But even as 21 states have established teacher-induction programs and some 5 more are piloting or planning initiatives, nearly 50 percent of beginning teachers still do not participate in anything more substantive than brief school orientations. In some cases, the resources are not available to provide good orientation programs, and in other cases beginning teachers do not participate in the available programs.

A National Issue

The U.S. Department of Education has a keen interest in the issues of teacher induction, quality, and retention and is taking steps to improve the American teaching force: supporting legislation to improve teacher education; connecting with teachers through a National Teacher Forum and listserv; and working with college presidents to call attention to teacher education.

One additional way to support efforts to improve the quality of teaching is through our interviews with the winners of the Sallie Mae First Class Teacher Award, which recognizes the nation's most outstanding elementary and secondary educators during their first year of teaching.

Sallie Mae, which provides funding and servicing support for education loans, annually selects one teacher from each state, the District of Columbia, and the Virgin Islands to be honored in the nation's capital and to share their experiences and insights.

When the Sallie Mae winners came to Washington, DC, in September, 1997 they talked at length about the struggles that first-year teachers face, and what might be done to improve their experiences. This booklet pulls together their thoughts on how best to work with veteran teachers, parents, and others to give beginning teachers the support they need to develop their skills and enjoy their work--even in districts lacking the resources to provide extensive orientation programs. The Sallie Mae winners responded to a series of questions:

  • What type of support was the most helpful to you in your first year of teaching? Who provided the support?
  • What kinds of support should principals and other administrators provide to beginning teachers to ensure quality teaching?
  • What kinds of support should teacher educators provide to beginning teachers to ensure quality teaching?
  • What kinds of support should veteran teachers provide to beginning teachers to ensure quality teaching?
  • What kinds of support should parents and the community provide to beginning teachers to ensure quality teaching?


This book is based on the discussions sparked by the questions above, along with the 53 teachers' contest essays. It deals honestly with the highs and lows of first-year teaching. For example, teachers talked frankly about the negativism of some veteran teachers; they also generously credited supportive colleagues and principals for getting them through their first year with flying colors.

And teachers also talked about their role in making the crucial first-year partnerships happen. In many cases, for example, new teachers who were not getting enough help from their assigned mentor took the initiative to cultivate an informal mentor relationship with a more inspiring colleague. New teachers also described the lengths they went to in drawing parents into their classroom and into the educational process. Weekly newsletters, phone calls home, and "contracts" asking parents to ensure a child completes his homework were some of the ways that new teachers pursued parental involvement in education.

We hope readers will take to heart the recommendations made by the 53 teachers we interviewed. Their thoughts could prove vital in making the first year of teaching--and all the years that follow--fruitful, satisfying, and productive.

The Age of Knowledge Meets the Little Red Schoolhouse

As the industrial age gives way to the information age, knowledge assumes a more pivotal role in daily life than ever before.

In offices and factories, for example, employees work in teams, pooling their knowledge for gains in productivity. Network technologies make vast quantities of data available from a desktop. People around the world with a shared interest exchange information on the Internet.

But in America's schoolhouses, places that exist to disseminate knowledge, a teacher in one classroom often has no idea what the teacher in the next classroom is doing (although some schools have developed effective "team approaches" to teaching). In many schools with isolated teachers, however, the principal may seldom if ever set foot inside a class to observe and give constructive feedback.

This isolation not only denies a new teacher the chance to improve performance by learning from experience, it fosters a debilitating isolation that leads to stress and burn-out.

And educators are facing new pressures that make it more crucial than ever for new teachers to quickly learn the strategies and methods that make for higher quality instruction. Nearly all 50 states have mandates that schools raise student academic performance to higher standards, as well as drug education, violence, sexual harassment policies, and the increased demands that result from dwindling public confidence and tax resources. In some states, teachers will face sanctions if students do not show improvement on statewide assessments.

This book is one attempt to make the exchange of knowledge and support for new teachers an institutional practice--for the benefit of students and the communities they represent.

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Last Modified: 09/14/2004