Whitney Aragaki is the 2022 Hawai'i State Teacher of the Year and one of the four finalists for the National Teacher of the Year. She teaches biology and environmental science at Waiākea High School in Hilo, Hawai‘i. Five years ago she assembled a group of mentors called the Warrior Professional Learning Community to assist new teachers with their professional development.
Our school is nestled in the middle of our town, close to mountain peaks and surrounded by ocean breeze. The physical grandeur of our school’s campus amplifies its position as a hub of our community. I was raised on this campus. My mother served as a science teacher here, and I am a proud graduate of the class of 2004. When I started teaching here eleven years ago, I felt like I was returning home. However, I recognize that my sense of place at school is not always felt by new teachers.
Five years ago, I noticed a large turnover of teachers at my school. At the same time, we were also pivoting to a deeper investment in career academies and adjusting to new state leadership. Other induction programs acutely focused on the teacher evaluation system, reducing training to checklists and triage response. It seemed that a sense of responsibility to the job preceded a sense of belonging at school and within the profession.
A sense of belonging is strengthened through relationships with a place and its people. Investment in belonging is imperative for a new teacher mentor program and carries over to classroom engagement and student success.
In response, we started the New Warrior PLC (professional learning community), a teacher induction and mentoring group inclusive of new-to-profession and new-to-school teachers. The namesake was derived from our school mascot.
Getting Started with Teacher Mentoring
Every new teacher mentoring program has its own successes and challenges. Here is what I learned and how we continue to grow as professionals in our New Warrior PLC.
Pillars of a Mentoring Program: The 3 P’s
Our school has a reputation for academic success that honors cultural knowledge and diversity. Community and place engagement are essential components. A focus on place, people, and professional development as a triad helps new teachers see themselves as integral and professional contributors to the school and larger community.
The beauty of schools is their proximity to the community they serve. Students learn, reside, and play within familiar boundaries that shape their identities and help form their perspectives of the world. Engaging new teachers, especially those new to the community itself, with common experiences of their students helps teachers bring the community into the classroom. Holding new teacher gatherings at a local restaurant, sharing culturally familiar foods at events, and garnering support from local businesses are examples of centering place for new teachers.
New teacher meetings that force attendance and focus specifically on teachers in their first through third years in the profession may cause stagnation in shared development. Invite a variety of teachers into the community of practice. Select a time that does not overlap with leadership meetings. Veteran teachers can serve as models, but also may learn new practices as new teachers share the latest innovations. It is important to remember that all teachers are learners, and even new teachers can be leaders in this shared coaching space.
Professional Development (PD)
The harrowing plight of new teachers often centers around low pay and lack of professional respect. While collegial support is nice, we can keep our teachers in this profession by helping them earn a salary that honors their expertise. As our PLC grew and cycled cohorts, the pervasive need to compensate teachers for their professional learning remained. With no budget, we developed and implemented our first school-based, salary-advancement PD course so our new teachers could earn credit for their learning in New Warrior PLC. Through New Warrior PLC, we embedded semester-long PD coursework that supported school initiatives and education innovation, including technology integration, career academies, and culturally-responsive instruction.
How to Implement a Teacher Mentor Program
While no school year is entirely typical—with teaching during a pandemic clearly emphasizing this statement—mentoring programs tend to have common attributes and benchmarks throughout the school year. The most functional years of our New Warrior PLC occurred when our principal embedded meeting times into the faculty calendar. Consistency offers a source of comfort when there are so many moving parts. A keen focus on supporting new teachers as their whole selves cultivates a teaching cadre with a sense of belonging to the school community.
Step 1: Build a Base of Empathy
Before the school year even begins, enter the mentoring experience with empathy. Reflect on your own experience as a new teacher. Learning a roster of new adults right before an entire roster of students while getting situated in a new place can be overwhelming. If you are mentoring new teachers this year, seek out educators to introduce yourself and the program, but offer space for them to develop autonomy in the building. Office hours and the opportunity to communicate via text go a long way.
Step 2: Set Consistent Meetings
Set consistent meeting times from the beginning of the year. Even if it seems like a heavier workload for new teachers, intentionally carving out meeting time and space offers grounding and a time of rest. The first meetings prioritize getting to know each other, getting to know the school culture, and answering questions. If possible, providing light refreshments can draw out the crowd who may not otherwise attend. Bonus points if the food and drink are locally sourced or can spark a conversation about a familiar experience in the community.
Step 3: Determine the Priorities
Digging into the priorities of the school will be the bulk of professional development as new teachers grow more comfortable in the school environment. Focus on one or two priorities for the school year. While there might be more, it can be intimidating for teachers to be thrown seven or eight initiatives. Taking a deep dive into technology integration or schoolwide data team structures may give teachers a focus when reflecting on their practice. Covering a few select topics will deepen the learning and offer opportunities to level up aptitude in the near future.
Step 4: Stay on Track
The winter slump can be very real for new teachers. The honeymoon phase of the year may be waning, while the load of professional development and in-service training increases. While there may be temptation to invest in winter holidays, now is a great opportunity to hold discussions about cultural competencies and the variety of celebrations (and non-celebrations) during the winter months. Working collectively to highlight diversity in holiday celebrations may help to deepen a practice of inclusivity year-round.
Step 5: Divide and Conquer PD
In the spring, mentoring takes the form of professional development. To simplify this stage of the mentoring process, try separating the “professional” from the “development.” For the purposes of the “professional,” you may utilize meeting time for individual conferencing. This time can be used to refine résumés and practice for hiring interviews. Depending on the hiring practices in your district or state, new teachers must be ready to promote themselves to their current or hiring districts. Help them to highlight their expertise, the knowledge they’ve gained, and their investment in professional growth that you have supported all year. On the “development” side, it is never too early to engage in reflective practice and work on setting intentions for the next school year. If your school has six school-wide initiatives, introduce the next two initiatives in a process of planning ahead.
Step 6: Celebrate and Reflect
Celebrating new teachers is one of the most rewarding parts of the mentoring process. Allowing space to breathe deeply, appreciating the little and large feats of the year, and reflecting on the learning is also a form of professional development for the whole person. I have seen local businesses offer in-kind donations to new teachers in appreciation of their efforts. Even sharing a potluck meal at a mentor’s home is a rewarding experience. In any regard, the end of the year is cause for celebration to prepare our body, mind, and spirit for the next year ahead.
Pay It Forward
New Warrior PLC emerged from my own sense of belonging to our community and a shared sense of responsibility to facilitate the experience for others. I hope that in your work to support new teachers, you commit to your place, people, and professional development. Teacher mentoring is meaningful and continues to pay forward for years to come.
What will you do as a leader to nurture the next generation of educators? Check out our webinar on “Using Coaching to Effectively Onboard, Engage, and Support New Hires” to explore best practices for ensuring new teachers are supported—and can become a successful part of your school community.