In The Trenches And At Home, New Teachers Need Support

A support system is important for anyone going through transition. Starting a new job – particularly your first job – can be one of the toughest transitions anyone faces.

New teachers have to adjust to the procedures of a particular school, but also have to navigate the trial and error of classroom management strategies, working with parents and lesson planning.

Many in the education field recognize a support system is necessary for a new teacher to navigate through the challenges, but currently there is no mandated mentoring at the state level; an school or district can make their own programs, but it’s not required. As part of their legislative agenda penned this week, state superintendent Glenda Ritz’s Blue Ribbon Commission suggests lawmakers create a statewide mentoring program for new teachers.

To see why this is important, we checked in with the first year teachers we’re following to see what kind of support is needed to keep a new teacher in the classroom.

Having An Outsider Helps Keep Perspective

In a year of firsts, Sara Draper’s first day off from teaching at Helmsburg Elementary in Brown County was memorable. She and her husband, Benjamin, took a Friday off to travel to Louisville for a wedding.

“Right away, when I woke up and I was thinking about what I would be doing if I was going to school,” Sara recalls.

Ben says from the moment they woke up and throughout the drive, Sara kept checking her watch and explaining what part of the school day it was. He says she was worrying about whether her kids were behaving for the substitute or if she left enough directions in her 12-page sub plans.

“Ben was making fun of me because I would look at my watch and be like, ‘oh, they’re going to lunch now, they’re in social studies, I hope they’re doing ok’,” Sara says. “I was just obsessing. It was really bad.”

As a Ph.D. candidate in the Chemistry department at Indiana University, Benjamin doesn’t live the daily schedule of a second grade teacher, and says he found it endearing to hear Sara so worried.

“I actually didn’t realize that they had a set schedule.”

This is more than just a charming story about a couple on a road trip – it’s a really important moment in Sara’s development as a new teacher.

“I think a big piece of it for a teacher’s support system, especially at home, is helping them to keep those boundaries,” says Robert Kunzman, professor of Curriculum Studies and Philosophy of Education at IU’s School of Education. He says while Draper obsessed about leaving her students for the first time, having Benjamin around to reassure her was good for her perspective.

Benjamin not only encourages Sara to walk away from work when need be, but helps her cope with the tough days that happen for every new teacher.

“I did have a bad day,” Sara says. “A kid in my class threw a chair and it was not good. And Ben was like, ‘it’s not your fault, it’s not because of you that he threw a chair. He was going to do it anyway.’”

While having someone at home who isn’t an educator can help new teachers walk away from the stresses of the classroom, Kunzman says it’s equally important to have someone they can turn to in the trenches.

“They need to find mentors, whether they’re assigned to them or seek them out,” Kunzman says. “Like-minded mentors that they can be vulnerable with, that they can express their confusion and uncertainty and mistakes and get advice that is supportive and also constructive to learn how to improve the situation.”

Chris Conway has this kind of mentor in Amy Reiter, who works across the hall from him at Riverside Intermediate in Fishers. Reiter is in her 21st year of teaching, but has never worked hand in hand with a first year teacher.

Conway and Reiter share a class of fifth graders. He teaches math and science, she teaches language arts and social studies. They share a lot of teaching duties, but split things up based on strengths and weaknesses. Conway can think of at least one thing he’s glad to have Amy around to address.

“Girl drama,” he says. “That is one thing Amy deals with better than I do.”

Since the day he was hired, Conway says Reiter has walked him through everything. She helped set up his classroom, planned a shared Meet the Teacher night event and took the lead during parent/teacher conferences. But more than that, she’s helped him find a work-life balance and a steady rhythm in the fast pace of life as a new teacher.

“You jump in with two feet and it’s like a race, you have to pace yourself,” she says.

When asked whether she worries about him burning out between his teaching duties at Riverside and coaching cross-country at the high school?

“No, I don’t,” Reiter says. “He’s going to make it.”

While Conway found a mentor and resource in Reiter during his first year, Gabe Hoffman, a third grade teacher at Nora Elementary in Indianapolis, gravitated to the other new teachers at his school.

“There [are] five of us,” he says. “We actually call ourselves the ‘Nora Newbies.’”

He says he also gets help from veteran teachers in the building, something all three of these teachers says is invaluable when they experience something new in the classroom, but there’s also something special about having a group that is going through the same thing he is.

“We’re a really tight knit group,” Hoffman says. “We hang out a lot, do stuff on weekends or Fridays after school together. So we know that support system is already there if you just need to blow off steam or tell each other funny stories.”

But peer interaction can sometimes be tough. Sara Draper also regularly communicates with a group of former classmates and other first year teachers, some of whom are struggling so much that they share news about looking at other jobs. And she says hearing that can be troubling.

“I think it makes me reconsider sometimes,” she admits.

But Sara says she knows these teachers don’t have the same supports both at school and at home she does, and tries to give that to them when they express frustration with the profession.

“I just try to let them know also kind of what Ben does for me, it’s not the end of the world,” she says. “It’s ok, we all have bad days, sometimes I leave crying, but we all have bad days.”