Supporting New Teachers: What Do They Really Need?

Supporting New Teachers: What Do They Really Need?

A teacher shortage is affecting school districts across the United States, with the Economic Policy Institute calling the situation “real, large and growing, and worse than we thought.” As EPI researchers explained, “A shortage of teachers harms students, teachers, and the public education system as a whole,” with higher turnover rates contributing to the destabilization of schools and the deprofessionalization of teaching. High-poverty, high-need schools have been hit the hardest, with these more vulnerable communities struggling to find and retain experienced, highly qualified teachers.

How surprising, then, to come across the following statement in a recent edition of the online journal Educational Leadership: “We're on the brink of a ‘Golden Age’ in education.” These optimistic words are excerpted from the introduction of a piece written by speaker and educational consultant Mike Schmoker for the journal's September 2019 issue, which focuses squarely on how best to support new teachers.

While the teacher shortage is very real and undoubtedly in need of further attention, Schmoker’s piece encourages the reader to think more deeply about how to keep new recruits in the classroom. Let’s take a look at some of the recommendations presented by Schmoker and others.

Re-examine classroom instruction

Before leaping ahead with education policy trends such as technology incorporation, personalized learning, and silver-bullet strategies, Schmoker recommended that teachers and administrators take a long, hard look in the mirror. According to Schmoker, too many schools persistently rely on uneven and stagnant instructional practices, which results in a “paucity of authentic reading and writing activities, even in courses where they should predominate” along with a lack of authentic, frequent assessment of student progress. Instead, Schmoker advocated for a back-to-basics commitment to the use of evidence-based “proven practices.”

Prioritize proven practices

As Schmoker sees it, the following practices are essential for all teachers to improve and clarify their work in the classroom:

  • Establishing a coherent curriculum: Schmoker advocated for consistent, clear lesson planning—shared among site-based colleagues—that resists “market forces” and instead adheres to tried and true best practices, including an avoidance of worksheets in favor of more active learning strategies rooted in reading, writing, and discussion.

  • Communicating effectively: Schmoker advised teachers to make the purpose of each day’s lesson plans clear for students through quick yet meaningful introductions, explicitly spelled-out learning targets, and even a little bit of sales and marketing. Laying out a method for ensuring more comprehension and participation, Schmoker recommended the following steps:

    • Introduce or model new knowledge or procedures in small, "bite-sized" chunks.

    • Follow with an opportunity for students to practice a procedure or process new information.

    • Quickly circulate while students practice, and determine if the class needs additional clarification or modeling before moving on to the next step.

  • Putting literacy first: Citing various education research, Schmoker argued that reading and writing activities should be put to greater use throughout the school day. To facilitate students’ growth in acquiring fundamental literacy skills, he recommended that teachers should be trained across the board in:

    • Phonics instruction

    • Comprehensive reading and writing activities and instruction

    • Read-to-learn strategies for students, including modeling active reading habits for increased comprehension and skill

According to Schmoker, achieving mastery of these literacy-based practices should be the “explicit goal of teacher training”—but although many education department officials agree that “these competencies are amply supported by the evidence on effective teaching,” his research indicates that educators still struggle to implement such practices in the classroom.

Refocus professional development

Concerningly, the disconnect between agreed-upon best practices and what actually happens in school often carries over into professional development sessions. As Schmoker noted, PD opportunities for teachers tend to devote too much time to flash-in-the-pan classroom strategies and not enough time to the proven practices detailed above. 

With this in mind, individuals who train new teachers and are then responsible for overseeing these educators' work in the classroom would do well to provide clear, consistent instruction themselves, along with ongoing support that includes the modeling of optimal teaching strategies to both attract new teachers to the profession and help keep them in the classroom.

Putting action before intention

High-school teacher Chase Mielke also contributed a piece to the September 2019 edition of Educational Leadership, in which he wrote from a different vantage point. Like Schmoker, Mielke argued that teachers need concrete, explicit instructional strategies to meet the challenges of teaching head-on—but Mielke went a step further by advising that incoming teachers learn how to identify their own strengths and sore spots as part of the lifelong journey of teaching. 

Ultimately, according to Mielke, teachers would do well to keep the following in mind: “Be proud that you are in a meaningful profession. But be prepared to fight every year—and every day—to keep your passion alive. Remember that the conditions of teaching matter, but your actions matter most.”

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