New Albany Public Schools
Group allows first-year teachers to swap ideas, vent frustrations
By Monique Harrison
NEW ALBANY – This fall, 23-year-old Mark Hitt stood grinning and bright-eyed before his W.P. Daniel High School world history classes.
The way the first-year teacher saw it, he had good reason to smile.
“I breezed through my student teaching,” Hitt said. “There was nothing to it because I was working with such good teachers. I actually thought teaching was going to be a pretty easy job – that there wasn’t that much to it. I thought I was the teacher and I was going to come in and say what we were going to do and we were going to do it. I thought it was the greatest job in the world.”
But Hitt’s smile was soon replaced by a scowl.
“Your first year is really tough,” he said. “It’s nothing like student teaching. You’re just not prepared for a lot of the things you experience. There’s no way you can be ready for it. There’s so much they don’t tell you.”
It’s those frustrations that Hitt and New Albany Public Schools’ three other first-year teachers have expressed during monthly support group meetings.
A sounding board
Teachers meet at a local restaurant once a month to discuss their experiences and to share advice.
“We’ve all been very honest with each other,” said Lisa Chancellor, who coaches and teaches social studies at New Albany Middle School. “I think we’ve felt comfortable talking and knowing that what we say – the frustrations that we feel – don’t leave the room.”
New Albany Middle School counselor Jan McGreger, who serves as advisor for the new program, said it took time for the group to gel.
“The first meeting or two, everyone sat very quietly – serious and somber,” said McGreger, who leads the group in discussions. “But they loosened up once they really understood that they could be honest and nothing would be held against them. I think they’ve really learned from each other. They don’t feel like they are alone in the classroom now. They have other new teachers sharing this new experience.”
The support group was implemented this spring by Superintendent Kenneth Quinn, who heard a group of new teachers discussing a similar program at a San Francisco education conference.
“I heard these teachers and how excited they were about participating, and I thought that our teachers here could be just as excited,” Quinn said. “New teachers need someone to talk to in confidentiality. If they’ve got a kid misbehaving, they don’t really want to go out and advertise that all over the place. They just want to get some advice. Otherwise, they burn out.”
Each year, an estimated 6 to 7 percent of Mississippi teachers do not return. Of that group, about 9 percent are in their first year of teaching. According to statistics provided by the Mississippi Department of Education, more than 40 percent are in their first 10 years of teaching.
Portfolios spark reflection
As part of New Albany’s program, teachers are encouraged to put together a portfolio of their first year in the classroom.
The portfolio, which is similar to a traditional scrapbook, is designed to force new teachers to reflect on their first year.
Chancellor’s portfolio, for example, includes samples of favorite student artwork, laminated color photos of students participating in particularly successful class projects and written explanations of those projects.
“This book can’t be replaced,” Chancellor said. “These pictures say so much. There’s no way you could replace these pictures.”
Chancellor said compiling the portfolio has forced her to reflect on her strengths and weaknesses.
“Looking at this, I see that I’m good at doing hands-on things,” she said. “You can look at the pictures and see that I use that type of teaching a lot. Looking at the written end of it, you can see that that might be something I need to work on. There are a lot more pictures in here than there are words.”
Portfolios are also frequently shown when teachers are interviewing for new jobs or are up for promotions.
During their group sessions, new teachers are also pressed to identify and write their personal teaching and overall educational philosophy.
“It helps them to be more focused – to identify their goals,” McGregor explained.
Finding a niche
But while the first-year teachers said they found the goal-setting exercises and portfolios helpful, they said the communication with other new teachers was most useful.
“You can’t always talk to more experienced teachers,” Chancellor said. “You aren’t really in their niche. It’s not that they won’t let you in their niche. It’s just that … you aren’t there yet – you haven’t paid your dues and you aren’t necessarily ready in their eyes.”
Age is also a factor, Hitt said.
“I don’t think more experienced teachers always relate to me,” Hitt said. “Having a teacher at my school who is my age is so much easier. I can just pull him aside and tell him about a problem without feeling awkward about it. I say, Hey, this kid is really misbehaving. What would you do?’ Usually, just by talking, we can come up with a new idea.”
The first-year teachers said their biggest concerns were discipline and classroom management.
“There’s a lot of paperwork that teachers really aren’t prepared for coming in,” Chancellor said. “I’ve had trouble just finding the time to do everything. I have to have a schedule in the classroom so I have time to do everything I need to do with them. And then, after school, I have all these papers to grade, so I have the same sort of management problem again. It just takes getting used to. I’ve gotten some advice from this group about management, and it’s helped.”