What helps new teachers feel welcome in a school? Colin Smith looks at the early professional learning (EPL) of teachers, and discusses the key areas to look at when welcoming new teachers into your school, with reference to research in real schools
No headteacher wants obstacles in the way of new teachers (NTs) becoming integral and valuable members of staff. Experiencing team membership is an important factor in developing identities as competent professionals. It is, therefore, worthwhile for headteachers to ask how well the intention to support the integration of NTs is actually achieved. We hope this article will help in those reflections.
The main questions driving our project are: ‘How do new teachers learn?’ and ‘How is the process best supported – by competence-based models or otherwise?’ The team has developed a number of instruments and procedures to explore these issues and the findings will be disseminated in various ways.
However, a major part of our role has been interviewing and interacting with NTs, both in our own schools and others. We draw on this experience in asking, ‘What actually helps new teachers feel welcome and find their identity as teachers in a school?’ As schools and circumstances vary widely, we cannot give a universal answer but can only point to the factors that need to be considered as you strive to welcome and integrate NTs.
Much of what follows might seem common sense but we have been surprised that common sense has not always prevailed, though this seems to be due to systems and events rather than being deliberate.
For convenience, we have divided our observations into four. However, they are not really ‘stand-alone categories’ but a shorthand way of teasing out complex interactions so that the practicalities of facilitating the development of teaching identity can be recognised. Thus, ‘welcoming’, ‘integration’ and ‘teaching identity’ will be discussed in relation to navigation of:
- The school building and environs.
- The school’s systems and policies.
- The formal and informal social relations in the school.
- The delivery of lessons.
1) Navigation of the school buildings and environs
Many schools organised tours of the schools as well as their catchments and this was generally welcomed by NTs. However, not all schools did both.
‘The first time I went to try and find the base I got lost, so… I could have done with a wee tour round the school I have to say. They were very good in so far as they took us round the catchment area and showed us all the schemes and towns that most of the kids come from, which was good, it gave us a history of the area… If only… they [had] done the same for the building.’ (William)
Also, the building tour may have been some time before the new teachers joined the school, with the result that much of the layout was forgotten. If the tour was not repeated, then its effect was largely lost. Also, NTs may remain uncertain about the school layout for a surprisingly long time. This may be worst for those who join the school at unusual times.
‘Well… this is now October and I have been here since February and I still don’t know where some departments are, but I have never been shown an actual tour of the school because when I came in February, it was rushed (and) I had to get into my classes. So, I just kind of vaguely know where departments are and it is quite confusing.’ (Kat)
Certainly, time to get to know the place before being ‘thrown into’ actual teaching was welcomed.
‘Obviously it was nerve-racking. I think any new job would be to be quite honest but it was helpful that it was an in-service day so it wasn’t like trying to get to meet staff and classes at the same time. It was just a day finding my way round the school and around the department, working out where things were, just getting to know… getting a feel for the job really.’ (Lewis)
Clearly, Lewis was further on the road to feeling physically integrated into the school than William or Kat. However, for others the physical proximity of people they could call on for help seems a more immediate priority. Lizzie worked in an art department that was largely open plan (a way of working she did not like for herself) but where she had been allocated one of two classrooms.
‘People are easily accessible when you need them and I’ve also got the benefit of having my own classroom… And they’ve obviously done a lot of work to make it that way, I think… In fact, since I’ve been here, I’ve probably strayed no further than the main corridor in my department but I’m hoping that will change… I think it’s good to go out and see other areas, but at the moment I would say I’m quite blinkered because I’m focusing so much on what I’m doing.’ (Lizzie)
However, not all NTs find the support they need as easily.
‘Sometimes trying to find my way somewhere or, you know, like, if I need to speak to somebody for guidance, it’s like, “How do I get there?”’ (Gordon)
Others operate on a need-to-know basis.
‘I think in the first few weeks you are trying to get used to your own department rather than going too far afield. I know the PE department, the lunch hall, reprographics, where SMT is and staff bases and, at the moment, that is all I need to know.’ (Mark)
So, what are the issues that this section raises for headteachers? Obviously, the answers will be different for different schools with different layouts but the above suggests the following interrelated questions need to be dealt with when considering how to help NTs to navigate the school.
- When to organise tours of the school and catchment area? Should there be a ‘refresher’ when the NT starts work for real?
- Are there particular circumstances (eg extra time for the NT due to a relatively unstructured inservice day or arriving at an unusual date in the school calendar) that will help or hinder the NT in learning to physically navigate the school?
- Does the location of the NT’s teaching space enable all the support and resources they need to be physically close and accessible? If not, what is the minimum number of locations they need to know and how do we ensure that they can find them easily?
Clearly, as some of the above NTs’ comments indicate, answers to these questions also affect other aspects of integration and identity. There are also other building issues that need to be taken into account when asking how best to help NTs settle in. These include, immediate issuing of cards for entering the school or buying lunch, issuing of keys and passwords for access to the school or its relevant parts, and the way distance from the main staffroom inhibits networking. Being able to navigate the school supports other aspects of forming a teaching identity and we should not underestimate the importance of the above questions.
2) Navigation of the school’s systems and policies
NTs talked generally of experiencing a steep learning curve here.
‘The systems is a big thing eh? There’s so many things, there’s so many… you know all the emails…’ (Ailidh)
This learning can be left to trial and error.
‘I think the most sort of things I’ve learned just basic school policies and school ways of doing things, you know like lateness and like everything, sort of things connected with form classes and stuff. Just all the kind of admin stuff has certainly been something that I’ve had to learn and get to grips with and find out, discipline procedures and all that. Which has basically been trial and error, find out for myself and check with faculty heads if that’s right and…. constant asking of questions… And just reading up stuff like the staff handbook…’ (Linda)
On reading Linda’s words, one feels that this trial and error process cannot be the most efficient way for her or the faculty heads. What would happen if the NT did not ask so many questions?
Problems may occur from giving information without sufficient explanation.
‘We have several different passwords for the computers and it wasn’t really explained what they were for and there were certain things like the Phoenix system and you are new and you don’t know.’ (Garibaldi)
One cause of concern is that NTs experience a relationship between systems and how others evaluate their performance.
‘Particularly at first… your real anxieties are reporting to parents and dealing with disruption, those kinds of things, those things that are right there and now and, you know, you feel you are going to be judged on.’ (Lynne)
Commenting on some inservice support she had, Lynne goes on to emphasise the need for early information and reminders.
‘[There was] a bit on disruption and there was a bit on reporting to parents and also a bit on child protection which was useful child protection information because it was about dealing with children that perhaps abuse, and not to touch the children, all those kind of… common sense but…’ (Lynne)
‘Good reminders.’ (Interviewer)
‘Yes, particularly early on’. (Lynne)
However, sketchy guidelines are not always enough. NTs may need detailed guidance on systems and policies – not be left to learn them as they go along, particularly when the pupils are experts.
‘The most issues that I have is actually with my register class, that was one issue that I don’t think was well enough explained at the beginning… I have a very challenging third year class who know how to bend every rule in the book and so the simple guidelines that I was given, just don’t apply… a few of them are on special discipline and guidance strategies, so they have different rules and I mean, the house head is generally very good at popping in, but to be honest I need somebody everyday. I have always got a question because the class are, they know how to play the system… I feel that there wasn’t enough information but it sounds silly to ask for it because it is such a simple part of the day, you just give them a tick if they are here… but it is not, you know, there is a million other little things and forms that need to be filled in and, on the face of it, it is simple, but when… the kids know how to play it, you don’t have a hope. So I could do with, to be honest, a good session on that.’ (Vonnie)
As Vonnie is also pointing out, we should not assume that things that are simple for more experienced teachers are simple for NTs.
So the issues to consider here are:
- How to minimise the amount of trial and error the NT has to use to navigate the school’s systems and policies?
- How to ensure that NTs feel comfortable asking questions, however trivial these may seem?
- How to get information on systems and policies to the NTs early enough, including what may be useful reminders of what may seem common sense?
- How to support information with explanations, when necessary?
- How best to provide information to NTs who are faced with additional challenges?
3) Navigating social relations
One clear message is that the more quickly the authority and school act the better.
‘I was still on my third placement [as a student teacher] when I found out what school I was at. I thought they were really well organised with that, so whatever they are doing there they need to keep doing it.’ (Haddon)
And prompt action by the school can get social relations off to a good start.
‘… it was good and certainly I mean the PT from my department was phoning me you know minutes, practically minutes, after I had opened the letter telling me I was coming here. So they were really on the ball.’ (William)
Here is another example where the authority and school worked together.
‘… I think I spoke to Mary Chalmers first of all who’s our coordinator for Morningside [council] and she was very positive about it, like, “Oh I’m sending you to a great place and you are going to love it.” …and then she straight away… suggested I call him and I actually spoke to Darren and he arranged for me to come through… and I came into visit and sort of set out what was going to happen next.’ (Lizzie)
Getting the welcome right
The welcoming process can be patchy.
‘I have worked in retail and I have had jobs where I was the first point of contact with people… but I just didn’t feel welcomed by certain people in this school.’ (Katrina)
Katrina gives an example.
‘I had this form class and the amount of people who have come into my class and spoken to the kids and gone back out again and I have had to say, “Excuse me, Nicole, who was that man?”’ (Katrina)
One reason for this apparent rudeness may be that even established teachers are a little shy of new faces.
‘… there seems to be an issue a bit in schools where once people know you they will talk to you but when you are new they don’t talk to you.’ (Aaron)
However, there may be issues of status involved in Katrina’s example that we will return to below. Meanwhile, shyness of both existing staff and NTs, along with the next issue, may need some proactive steps to promote feeling welcomed. In the first article, we discussed how the benefits of a school tour could be lost and a ‘refresher’ required. A similar issue arises here.
‘… Jamie took us round, before the holidays… and introduced us to all the senior management team, guidance staff, principal teachers of every department and that was before the holidays, so, I don’t know, you are meeting so many new faces.’ (Gordon)
‘Maureen did that when I came back, she walked me down and she told me loads and loads of people and when we got to the end she said, “Who can you remember?” and Brian the janitor was the only name that stood out and that was the first person I had met.’ (Beatrice).
One way round both staff reticence and ‘the sea of faces’ might be to organise occasions, perhaps over the first few months, when new teachers and different groups of staff can meet, say for a cup of coffee, and get to know each other a little better.
Some schools, through the approachability of their staff, seem to be able to open up formal pathways.
‘I find that with the heads and the deputies that they always [say] when they pass you or whatever, “How are you doing? How are things going?” And I feel that although with some heads and deputies you just say, “Oh fine, yes,”… they are very approachable and you could say something along the lines of, “Well can I speak to you about something…”’ (Haddon)
As they did when talking about systems and policies, NTs here emphasised how they appreciated the freedom to ask what might seem to be trivial questions of staff at various levels.
A question of status?
However, status was an issue for many NTs. In the current Scottish induction scheme, with its extra support and reduced timetable for NTs, they are marked as something different. One PT seems to have anticipated this.
‘… he said, “This is the last time that I will refer to you as ‘probationers’. In my department, you are just teachers, the same as everybody else.” And he never has, he never says the word “probationer”.’ (Wendy)
However, for others their status of not being permanent members of staff is to the fore. Did the visitors to Katrina’s form class think that she was not worth acknowledging? In the following example, two NTs (Gavin and Katie) in the same department were victims of historical circumstances that affected both their social relations and their delivery of lessons.
‘One thing that we constantly get reminded of is, “remember we have got to take your classes over again next year” because they had a bad experience of a probationer last year… so we want you to teach them the way we want rather than you teaching in your teaching styles.’ (Gavin)
This led to them feeling uncomfortable in the department, as will be described later. However, one other issue needs to be highlighted: one that headteachers may have little control over – the number of NTs in the school or departments. NTs talked frequently of the support they got from each other and in finding that they had similar kinds of problems. A single NT does not have that luxury. Some also talked of the support they got from last year’s NTs or from others within their own age group. However, such informal support groups did not always form naturally and may need to be encouraged.
4) Navigating the delivery of lessons
Gavin and Katie came from college with merits for teaching and felt that they had learned something about a particular style of teaching.
‘… an atmospheric classroom with discussion and things like that but in here they want us to teach the kids to work in silence on their own, no discussion. We are scared when the PT walks in, just in case it is too noisy.’ (Gavin)
Both were keen to emphasise that they did not have a ‘know-it-all’ mentality.
‘… even though you get a merit, you are still told the things that you can do better, there is a big difference between being told, here is what you are good at and here is what you need to do better, than just being told you need to do everything better…’ (Katie)
A new teacher from another department in the same school evidences that this was a departmental rather than a whole-school approach to NTs, indicating that the problem lay with one particular teacher and that elsewhere in the school they had only met with ‘total encouragement’.
Other NTs seem to have a degree of freedom and, sometimes at least, learn their own lessons about how to handle particular classes.
‘… instead of standing there, talking the way that I probably should as a teacher, I will be more slangy with them because that is what they understand and I will be, not their friend, but I will be more friendly with them than what I probably should be… I call one of the boys, I say, “Come on Shauny Shaun,” and it is like, nobody calls me that, just you. You know, he appreciates that, but I would never do that with any other class. But that is what they need… I started thinking… I need to respond to you the way that you need me to… and that has worked…’ (Kerry)
Although it appears to be working in this case, situations such as this might need careful monitoring to avoid some NTs stepping beyond professional relationships. Against this, NTs may bring skills that should be encouraged. Finding the balance is the issue.
The right resources
Two major themes occurred around the delivery of lessons. Firstly, many NTs emphasised the value of having their own room that they could organise as they wished. Apart from suiting their own teaching styles, this helped tremendously in establishing authority, as it signalled to pupils that they were ‘real teachers.’ Where this was not possible, NTs talked of the difficulties in moving rooms period-by-period, carrying resources, ensuring any required technology was in place and sometimes just gaining access to the room. This often added unnecessarily to discipline problems and/or difficulties in delivering their lessons as planned.
Secondly, some schools or departments did not seem to be efficient in pointing out the available resources or allowing NTs advance access to them. Again, there were many comments on how this constrained the quality of lessons they delivered. It should also be noted that many NTs felt that they had made significant contributions to available resources by updating or extending them.
Given the issues that arise from the above examples in helping NTs to navigate social relations and the delivery of lessons, it is clear that headteachers need to address the following:
- How to ensure that the authority acts quickly and positively in allocating NTs to your school.
- How to ensure that an appropriate member of staff follows this up immediately by welcoming the NTs and inviting them for a visit.
- How to ensure that certain staff members do not undermine (even unintentionally) the positive effects of the above by appearing unwelcoming or rude.
- How to organise existing and new staff coming together, getting to know each other, and overcoming shyness or reticence.
- How to ensure that key staff members, eg heads and other managers, come across as approachable so that informal contacts can lead to formal discussions where necessary.
- How to ensure that NTs feel that their status as teachers is recognised while providing them with the support they may need?
- How to encourage informal support groups between NTs, and/or NTs and recent NTs, and/or age groups.
- How to make sure that NTs are not victims of historical circumstances in particular departments.
- How to ensure the school achieves the balance between allowing NTs to use their own (perhaps new or unique) skills and personalities to relate to the pupils while not stepping beyond professional relationships.
- How to minimise the problems of moving from room to room if NTs can’t have their own room.
- How to ensure that NTs have easy and prompt access to available resources and recognition for the contributions they make to improving or extending those resources.
This article was written with contributions from Kitt Curwen, David Dodds, Lesley Easton, Phil Swierczek, and Lesley Walker