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NEW FACULTY ORIENTATION: ALWAYS TOO MUCH, NEVER ENOUGH

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We’re halfway through our week-long new teacher program at my school, and it’s going well. They have their laptops and have had a whole lot of training on the way we utilize the Google suite of applications, they’ve had a thorough, stop-and-meet-the-office-folks tour of the school, and they’ve had time to sit with their division directors and not-their-division directors (always seems nice to foster some cross-divisional interaction); they’ve had time to get into curriculum planning with their department heads, and yesterday they even had a panel of students who just shared their experiences of teachers here.

Every year we tweak the program based on some end-of-year feedback from the previous cohort, but by and large the program remains essentially the same from year to year. Now that we’ve been doing this for almost 15 years we have some principles and our goals pretty much down pat. Shifting to a very tech-intensive, laptop-enabled environment had us adding a big chunk of content, and we learned a few years ago that cutting a few workshops so that new folks could connect with department leaders and teachers sharing courses made the prospect of actually teaching a curriculum to actual kids a little less daunting.

The goals of the program are pretty basic:

  • Become more familiar with the school as an environment.
  • Meet some of the cast of characters, including some students (in the panel) and some parents (in a panel tomorrow after a session on the advisor program).
  • Begin to understand the school’s culture in ways that the website and the comprehensive Teacher’s Guide to Life and Work that we create can’t fully do.
  • Get some work done on curriculum and lesson plans that will ease the inevitable stresses and strains of the opening weeks of classes.
  • Bring new folks up to speed on the technology-related aspects of work and school culture.
  • Bring new folks into the ongoing conversations about the school’s strategic directions—design thinking happens to be on our plate this year.
  • Build a little group spirit among the members of the cohort.
  • Begin (because that’s all you can do, even in a week) to help new folks build their understanding and skills around school-specific aspects of the work—in our case, how our advising system works, what it means to be an diverse and inclusive community.
We’ll check in with the new folks individually and as a group as the year goes forward, and what we’ll collect is a list of “I wish I had known that…” topics that we can try to fold into next year’s program. We’ll also collect, especially at the beginning of the year, feedback that reminds us that this program, and some of the sessions in it, can feel like being asked to drink from a firehose, no matter how gently we try to pace the week.

All of this reminds us, in a human sort of way, that starting work at a new job in a new school is really hard. We try to acknowledge the anxieties that the new folks bring, often by referring to our own. “You’re never too experienced for pre-school sleeplessness,” we tell them, and this seems to help, at least a bit. I can recall being haunted by the names on class lists before starting my first job; it was like a nightmare version of the roll-call at the end of Goodbye, Mr. Chips. “It will get better,” we tell them, and our biggest single intended lesson is, “You are NEVER alone as a teacher here.” I think our school culture, once the year is under way, is consonant with that assertion.

But the big lesson, and there isn’t much we can learn from it except to accept it as part of the messiness of working in a place and a profession full of people—people whose needs, aspirations, and differences we are bound not only to accept and to celebrate but to accommodate as best we can within the framework of our own goals and aspirations as well as the school’s mission—is that the new teacher week will always feel like way too much when it is happening and will seem way too little in retrospect.

Sometimes the balance between such contrasts is the best we can hope for, and I think that’s okay. But it doesn’t mean that we won’t continue to seek feedback and to make changes where we can.

The main thing, though, is that our new folks will at least start the year with a pretty good sense of how the place works and what and where the resources are that can make their lives better. In my head there is a countdown to the first day of classes, but nowadays it’s largely a happy background noise. I remember, though, being at the stage in my career when that countdown felt like the voice of Dick Clark at New Year’s Eve of 2000, with the all excitement and nervousness around the Millennium—and the Millennium Bug.

And that all worked out just fine, now, didn’t it?

(BTW: Next up for our new faculty: advising, parent panel, quick overview of our philosophy around curriculum and assessment, quick intro to design thinking, and living and working in a multicultural community–plus more quality time to plan and talk specific academic policy stuff with department leaders.)

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