Supporting beginning teachers –a worthwhile investment

November 2, 2017
By Jane Macleod, Senior Manager, Research & Records

instructional leadership

Who doesn’t remember the excitement and the anxiety felt while preparing for their first teaching experience? Such a mingling of emotions is typical of new teachers. Some say that optimism is probably the most prominent characteristic of beginning teachers around the world as they watch the newest members of the profession welcome groups of students with enthusiasm, with energy and with high expectations during those first few weeks of the school year.

A 2016 pan-Canadian study of the experiences of beginning teachers, by Keith Walker, Benjamin Kutsyuruba, Maha Al Makhamreh and Rebecca Stroud Stasel, found that this intrinsic passion and desire to teach both motivated and fuelled new teachers, even during those days after September when the bloom falls away from the rose, so to speak. 

After four or five years of study and endless hours of observing teachers in action, Linda Darling-Hammond (1988) tells us that it is through the processes of socialization and enculturation that teachers really develop their identity as teachers and their sense of professionalism. Most new teachers admit that there is still much to learn about motivating and engaging students on a day-to-day basis. For this reason, it is in the classroom and the wider school environment (be it in the staff room or on the playground)where new teachers actively develop and hone their skills as a teacher. As Richard Ingersoll tells us in his 2012 editorial for Phi Delta Kappan, the school’s responsibility is to provide an environment where new teachers learn to teach, to survive and to succeed.

Not surprisingly, what the principal does or does not do plays a key role in the overall success of new teachers. The importance of a warm welcome, a daily smile, and expressions of encouragement mean a lot to teachers. Common sense and research both tell us that new teachers especially benefit from these basic collegial gestures.

However, what may be surprising is that participants in the research study cited above spoke of principals who accepted and appreciated the fact that their beginning teachers were essentially beginning learners. The principals took the time to ensure their new teachers started off with the necessary tools and resources for their teaching assignment. As school leaders, they ensured that their new teachers were not overloaded with classroom and extracurricular responsibilities. They underscored the importance of a healthy work-life balance.

Where principals arranged for an experienced colleague or mentor to work closely with the new teacher, the principals continued to inquire and attend to the teacher’s well-being and success. Regular and non-judgmental classroom walk-throughs, hallway chats, and open doors were each valued by the new teachers. Being recognized and appreciated as a valuable member of the staff was seen as important to the novice teachers. 

Principals know that most, if not all, beginning teachers will encounter their share of difficulties and challenges. What research tells us is the importance of acting quickly when problems surface. Participants in the study by Walker et al. (2016) spoke fondly of principals who supported them through what they felt to be “tricky” situations. In instances where teachers felt isolated and vulnerable, their principals provided guidance and encouragement, and subsequently worked with the teacher to reflect upon and learn from the experience.

Fundamentally, time and effort spent during the early stages of a beginning teacher’s career is a good investment. Again, research tells us that teachers who are left to struggle and fend for themselves, or do the hard yards, will fail and will likely leave the profession altogether angry and disillusioned. Sadly, beyond the loss of a trained and initially enthusiastic teacher, children’s learning and success is a casualty.

However, authors Tschannen-Moran and Hoy (2007) cite research that overwhelmingly supports the value of creating a supportive and positive environment for teachers during the first few years. Teachers who feel valued and capable put more effort into their teaching. They set higher goals for themselves and their students, and demonstrate greater openness to learning. In short, both teacher and student succeed.

The actions of an understanding and supportive principal can be the spark that ignites and nourishes a new teacher’s excitement and energy as a dedicated professional. Just as with our students, being part of and witnessing a new teacher’s success over time is a good feeling, and is most certainly worth the effort.