09/14/2021 by Carney Sandoe Staff |

Faculty Onboarding in a Time of Disruption

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Some years back, Peter Gow, the Independent Curriculum Resource Director at One Schoolhouse, published an open letter to new teachers, welcoming them to our wonderful and challenging profession and offering both advice and encouragement. The popularity of the letter has led Peter to revise and reprint it a number of times over the year to fit the changing educational and cultural landscape. His most recent version appears on the One Schoolhouse blog.

In all editions of the letter, Gow taps into the deep worries and anxieties new teachers harbor:

“Will I know my subject matter well enough? How are my curriculum skills? Will I be able to manage my classroom? Will I get along with my colleagues? Can I have a life and be a teacher, too? Will my school be a good fit for me?”

Anyone who has embarked on a teaching career has wrestled with such questions. Today, however, new teachers have the added worries surfaced by the pandemic and heightened cultural matters:

What are the challenges of teaching during this pandemic? Can I support my students social-emotional lives well enough? How do I talk about race in the classroom? If I end up teaching remotely, will I be able to connect well with students? How do teachers manage the stress of teaching amid some much uncertainty?

We certainly recommend Gow’s open letter — as a way for new teachers to both strengthen their commitment and map out their first year with the goal of success. But we also think schools need to read the letter as well and — if they haven’t already — and start mapping out or strengthening their onboarding process for new teachers, both those new to the profession and experienced teachers new to your school. In fact, Gow has also written an open letter to school administrators about the need for all schools to support new teachers with greater intention than in years past.

The onboarding process is essential not only to ensure the success of new teachers, but to ensure the overall success of your school. This has always been true to some extent, but it’s particularly true today, when disruptions and challenges arise nearly daily. As we all know, the pandemic has put so much pressure on the way we work. The result in all fields is that more and more people are saying they have had enough — at least of their current job. As NPR reported in their feature on “The Great Resignation,” a record number of Americans are quitting their jobs, including four million in the month of April alone. Much of the changes in workforce patterns has been driven by the pandemic this year, but it’s also part of the changing culture in which younger adults are less committed to their institutions than previous generations were.

In schools, including independent schools, the number of people who have left their positions or who are thinking about leaving soon or who are suddenly thinking it’s time to retire are also higher than average. Because schools still have students and still need teachers, they are doing everything they can to retain teachers. But as we’ve seen firsthand at Carney, Sandoe & Associates, positions have been opening up in schools from early in the academic year straight through to opening day (and beyond) of the following year. The usual borders of the hiring season are now quite blurry. And schools are hiring more new teachers than ever.

For schools, then, it makes great sense to focus as best they can on both attracting the best teachers and establishing practices that will ensure they keep teachers happily engaged. This support certainly includes current teachers at all stages of their careers, but it also requires schools to offer a thoughtful onboarding program that will help new hires transition to and thrive in their new school and community.

The Onboarding Process

Research on organizational management makes it clear that having an onboarding process matters. Employees who are supported well in their first 90 days stay longer and work harder. In schools, as experts point out, a good onboarding program starts when teachers are hired and continues throughout the first year. Gone are the days of a single new faculty meeting and a pat on the back. Schools that truly care about the success of their new teachers will backward design a process based on both their mission and their vision of what success in the first year of teaching or a first year at a new school looks like. Then they build a detailed program back to the start of the school year.

The overall goal is not just to get new teachers to sign up for a second year. It’s to get them to feel like successful teachers who belong in the school community, who are excited to return for year two. To reach that point, schools are focusing on addressing the nuts and bolts of teaching early on combined with a programmatic commitment to relationship building that will evolve throughout the first year. The process includes a detailed approach to welcoming new teachers, helping them settle in personal and professionally, finding them mentors to connect with regularly throughout the year, helping them understand the school culture and approach to pedagogy, and guiding them through the rhythm of the school year. No teacher should ever feel alone or isolated. The connection and the support should feel genuine and meaningful.

While the process is designed to support each new teacher, another key aim of the onboarding process, says Connie White, Director of Learning Design and Innovation at Woodward Academy in Atlanta, is “to build a great faculty culture.” Such a culture includes high levels of trust among faculty and between faculty and administrators. It also encourages collaboration and professional learning opportunities. Equally essential, it consciously supports an inclusive community, with a palpable commitment to racial diversity and equity. Building a great faculty culture that reflects the mission and values of the school enables teachers — new and old — to develop a sense of pride and purpose.

To support individual teachers and create a great faculty culture, experts like Gow and White encourage a thorough and detailed process. Every new teacher should know the mission and values of the school and have a well-designed handbook that will help orient them and answer essential questions about the community and its practices. The onboarding process should include nonevaluative observations early, followed by more formal evaluative (and generative) evaluations later in the year. It includes discussions of grading policies, the writing of comments, and meeting with parents. It provides them with the information they need to be good advisors to students, as well as information about classroom management, supporting students who have learning challenges, and dealing with the inevitable discipline matters. It also offers new teachers plenty of time to connect with each other and the broader community.

Regarding this connection, a central part of many schools onboarding programs involves monthly meeting that are run like professional learning communities and led by non-evaluating faculty. These are essential opportunities for new teachers to connect often, ask questions, air concerns, and learn from each other. It also includes regular social events that allow everyone to connect on a more personal level.

In all, writes Peter Gow, “We tell them they are not alone, and so we have to show that we mean it.”

Strengthening the Value of Independent Education

While the past year has been about as hard as any year we’ve experienced in schools, at Carney, Sandoe & Associates, we remain impressed by how well independent schools have risen to the multiple challenges. This past year has shown us what independent school administrators and faculty are capable of. Evidence of the value of independent schools includes the way so many families have made the switch during the pandemic from public schools to independent schools — confident that their children would be physically and emotionally safe and engaged in learning.

As schools press on into the 2021-22 school year, committed to in-person learning but knowing that complexities certainly await us while the pandemic drags on, it’s heartening to see the way schools are both adapting to the changing landscape while also strengthening their commitment to faculty support.

Our success as a community depends on the commitment and engagement of our faculty. Developing a thoughtful, yearlong onboarding processes designed to ensure the success of new teachers is one clear way we can continue to demonstrate our value to the world.

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