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Helping New Teachers Thrive

How early-career educators can combat stress and build resilience — and what school leaders can do to help
New Teachers Thriving

If you want to understand one reason for the current teacher shortage, google the phrase “first-year teacher.” Many of the resulting images show a variation on a single theme: a graph charting the “phases of a first-year teacher” — a seemingly inevitable descent from anticipation and excitement into survival mode and eventual disillusionment around November. Some of the graphs include stick figures steadily losing their enthusiasm or plummeting toward despair.

Research supports some of what these graphs are suggesting, with data around growing attrition and shortages in the profession. The Economic Policy Institute issued a report highlighting the immediacy of a growing teacher shortage, particularly in STEM and special education concentrations. And people have been leaving the profession in large numbers. A 2017 study by the Learning Policy Institute (LPI) found that 90% of open teaching positions are the result of a teacher leaving the profession; while some are retiring, almost two-thirds of those vacancies were due in part to dissatisfaction with teaching. 

But the alarming data masks another problem, according to educator and doctoral student Tyler Hester: We have resigned ourselves to the inevitability of teacher stress, and it doesn't have to be that way. Hester believes that we can leverage a large body of research, particularly on social-emotional learning, to help teachers overcome the predictable personal challenges that they face. In addition to his coursework at HGSE, Hester is the founder of New Teachers Thriving, a start-up prototyping a series of workshops and resources to give early-career teachers the social-emotional tools to build resilience.

    “We can anticipate that people will be overwhelmed, that they will neglect their personal needs. If we can anticipate that people are going to face these problems, let’s equip them to handle them.” – Tyler Hester

    “We can anticipate that people will be overwhelmed, that they will neglect their personal needs,” says Hester, which can lead to them feeling as if the profession is not the right fit. “If we can anticipate that people are going to face these problems, let’s equip them to handle them.”

    We asked Hester and New Teachers Thriving team member Crystel Harris, a fellow Ed.L.D. student at Harvard, to offer suggestions for educators on how to manage burnout and counter the feelings of self-doubt, isolation, and being overwhelmed:

    How School Leaders Can Support New Teachers

    Build community: New teachers’ feelings of isolation and beliefs that they are the only ones overwhelmed can be exacerbated in competitive school environments. Build a space for new teachers to vocalize their feelings and help them form communities of practice to find similarities and support.

    Address the problem from multiple angles: Equipping teachers with the tools to thrive is necessary, but it’s not enough. Leaders also have to push for systemic change. One way to do that is for school leaders to join teachers and receive training to ensure they’re making and implementing changes to the systems and processes at the school that give rise to burnout.

    • Clarify and define core values. Practices like mindfulness and growth mindset are easier to implement when everyone in the community understands and uses them. To that extent, an understanding of positive psychology and its frameworks is valuable not just for new teachers but for established, mentor teachers and principals as well.
    • Streamline Support. “I think oftentimes, early-career teachers can get a little too much support,” says Harris, pointing out that these educators often have administrators, mentors, and supervisors for certification programs observing them. Administrators should observe intentionally, with clear goals and dedicated time for reflection to ensure teachers can incorporate feedback into their practice. Support providers should also coordinate with one another to make sure educators are receiving feedback that is complementary and not overwhelming.
    • Address challenges faced by teachers of color. This is an evolving component of New Teachers Thriving but one the team feels is incredibly important. School leaders may want to specifically consider ways they can support and retain early career teachers of color, and what successful support might look like in the school’s specific context. This begins with an acknowledgment that teachers of color face a unique set of challenges that must be addressed head on.   
    • Be aware of metrics. School leaders need to know what data they can use to gauge the well-being of their teachers. While there are many more fine-grained metrics that they monitor, New Teachers Thriving uses teacher absenteeism, teacher retention rates, and student achievement scores as high-level indicators.

    How First-Year Teachers Can Build Resilience

    Use positive psychology: While this field has been around since the late '90s, it has yet to be incorporated effectively into the education sector as a basis for professional development with adults, Hester says. “[Teachers need] better and more holistic support and to be treated with dignity. We need to do a much better job of tackling these social-emotional challenges, and we need to do a better job of leveraging the science that’s out there.”

    • Develop a growth mindset. Psychologist Carol Dweck’s work on developing a growth mindset can be beneficial for adults, not just for students — acknowledge imperfections, see mistakes as learning opportunities, and value learning and process over immediate approval.
    • Practice mindfulness. When teachers are calm and collected, it has a positive impact on students, but teachers rarely get a moment to themselves during the school day. Make sure to build in time for reflection in order to incorporate feedback, to process what went well and what could have been done differently. Try to leave room for mindful moments at the beginning and end of the day or at the start of a faculty meeting, practice gratitude for yourself and others who may have helped throughout the day, and don’t forget to breathe.
    • Use active listening. Practicing listening without commenting and having someone listen to you without judgement helps to build relationships and fosters a critical sense of belonging.
    • Develop goals and prioritize. When faced with large class sizes, grading, ensuring quality of instruction, and other school requirements, it can be difficult to figure out what to do first and get everything accomplished in a set amount of time. “You need to think about what you value and what matters to you while still being open enough to hear what the school values and balance the two,” Harris says. This might look like keeping simple to-do list or it might take on a more formal structure with a mentor helping develop those goals and checking in on progress.

    Takeaways for School Leaders

    • Provide time and space for learning communities
    • Define core values and set metrics for success
    • Streamline support for early career teachers to avoid repetitive or competing feedback
    • Recognize challenges faced by teachers of color in various school contexts

    Takeaways for Teachers

    • See mistakes as learning opportunities
    • Find time for a moment of mindfulness
    • Practice being an active listener, to build relationships with colleagues, parents, and administration
    • Learn to prioritize

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