The Power of School Culture for New Teachers

Throughout the month of August, shiny brand new teachers have been preparing their classrooms, reviewing curriculum, planning welcome activities, and tossing and turning the night before that big day. (OK, let's be honest, veteran teachers are doing these things too. But first year teachers' hearts are beating a little faster.) Everyone wants these newbies to be successful: the administrators and colleagues who were on their hiring committees, the students who enter their classrooms, the parents of those young learners, and all of us who want them to breathe new life into our education system.

Where We Are

Sadly, recent research shows that new teacher retention is poor. Nashville, Tennessee loses half of its new teachers within 3 to 5 years. Even worse, in Oakland, California schools 70% of new teachers leave within 5 years.

The top recommendation for retaining these teachers is to build meaningful and sustainable mentorships. Most schools and districts have mentor programs in place the formalize the feedback and support loop between new and veteran teachers. These programs can be effective, but perhaps the greatest indicator for their success is how the mentors feel about their profession and their school.

The Data on New Teacher Burnout

A new study shows that the climate of a school and burnout level of veteran teachers in school is perhaps the greatest factor in predicting the longevity of early career teachers (ECTs). The Infectious Disease Advisor reports:

Jihyun Kim, from Michigan State University in East Lansing, and colleagues examined factors associated with burnout levels of 171 ECTs in 10 school districts in Michigan and Indiana. The authors assessed the impact of burnout levels of ECTs' mentors and close colleagues in a social network influence model. 
The researchers found that ECTs' burnout levels correlated significantly with the social network exposure term, indicating that ECTs' with mentors and colleagues with higher burnout levels were more likely to be burned out at a second time point.

Those of us who are veteran educators should pause here. We make up the in-person social network of early career teachers. The words we use to describe our profession, our body language and facial expressions in the hallways and copy rooms, and the tone of our farewells on Friday afternoons have a deep impact on the newest colleagues in our schools. We teachers and administrators have the power to shape school culture, and therefore shape the chances of success of our new colleagues.



Who We Are

The teachers and administrators who work together to serve students in a school are all leaders. Students look to them as learning leaders. Parents look to them as academic leaders. And, of course, early career teachers look to them as leaders of the profession. In Learning Transformed, a new book from ASCD by authors Tom Murray and Eric Sheninger call upon education leaders, whether they work at the classroom, school, or district level, to be LBAs. Here's the rub:

LBT = leader by title
Murray and Sheninger write, "LBTs often exhibit... defining characteristics such as egos, power trips, ... ruling by fear, and insecurity when their ideas are challenged in the open."

LBA = leader by action
According to the authors, LBAs are those who have "taken action to initiate meaningful change in their classrooms or schools. These leaders don't just talk the talk; they also walk the walk."

Murray and Sheninger go on to write:
In our opinion, the best leaders have one thing in common: they do, as opposed to just talk. Leadership is about action, not position of chatter. Some of the best leaders we have seen during our years in education have never held any sort of administrative title. (p. 34)

The remainder of the book is a treasure trove of research strategies to practice the mindset needed to be a leader for positive progress in education. The authors go on to address many opportunities that can help new and veteran educators alike: creating intentional learning experiences, designing learning spaces, providing personalized professional learning, and collaborating with colleagues and community members. As we embark on this school year, think about who you are as an educator. It important to plan for impact we have on our students, but also the impact we have on the other learners in our school: our newest teacher colleagues. Learning Transformed is a key resource toward this honorable goal.

As the school year begins and you welcome new educators into your school, remember that what you do and the disposition with which you do is a form of leadership and can have a long term impact on their success. Even if the school year has been rolling for a few weeks, take time to reflect on how much energy you had during those early days. Is it sustainable? How can you build on it instead of letting it wane?

Your contribution to school culture will shape the experience of your new colleagues. Help transform learning and teaching for them by being a force for good each day. When teachers feel supported and empowered, so do their students. At the end of the day, we are all there because of the students.

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