The Best Shot We’ve Got

A few days ago, I had a really nice walk down memory lane—ASU Tempe Teachers College—while attending a meeting with my dissertation chair. I was overcome with feelings of nostalgia! As I walked around in my old footsteps, I thought about my feelings as a pre-service teacher. Those times were so full of glee and pride for the profession. I walked past the classroom where I decided to become a special education teacher, and I drove the same commute I once traveled to my pre-service internships. It brought back a flood of excitement and anticipation—memories from years past. I still love my job every single day, but there was something really special about my excitement back then. Early career teachers have a magical sparkle.

As an after-school mentor for early career special education teachers, I’m pretty convinced that early career teachers are the best shot we’ve got at rekindling the energy we need to advance the profession today. At a time when teacher shortages are on the rise, we simply have to support and retain young professionals in the field. There are far too many statistics about leavers and stayers in the news—it almost gives them permission to throw in the towel. I often tell our early career teachers, “You just have to disbelieve that quitting is possible.” I think experienced teachers can play a big role in their decisions. Here are some things I’ve been thinking about lately:

We simply must treat them like professionals from day one. There are a couple of terms for early career teachers that drive me crazy. The worst one? I’ve heard some colleagues call them “baby teachers.” I despise that term. I don’t even like the term “new teachers” because I think it steals away some of their professionalism. Personally, I prefer the term “early career teachers” because I think it puts an emphasis on the fact that this is a lifetime career rather than a three-year job to quit when things get hard. I know that challenges will come up—it’s about preparing them for resilience. I want them to stay for the long haul.

We should respect their ideas and seek their contributions during collaboration time. In a large group setting, early career teachers might have a tendency to keep quiet and listen to more experienced colleagues. This might develop their teaching practices, but I think it’s more important to increase their sense of value and efficacy. In my dissertation study, early career teachers loved contributing ideas to others during problem-solving conversations. It created a huge boost of efficacy and even made them feel like leaders. We can facilitate these opportunities by asking their opinions, sharing our own problems, and listening with an open mind (and face!) that values their ideas.

We should keep it positive as much as possible. Sure, experienced teachers know a lot about the realities of teaching. We know that things can look a little bit more like Dangerous Minds than Dead Poet’s Society. We’ve experienced politics, felt under-appreciated, seen sad things happen in kids’ lives, and worked far too many late nights. We’ve seen some of the ‘dark side’ of the profession, but sharing these experiences is not necessary or helpful. Early career teachers are trying to decide whether they want to teach as long as we have, so we should provide a glimpse into the things that make teaching worth it!

We should talk to them about the importance of being a leader and connecting with the community. We should offer them leadership roles and then support them in being successful. We should employ practices like cognitive coaching to facilitate their thinking instead of directly providing solutions. We can construct lots of meaning together if we act as equal partners in the quest for knowledge!

Every day on my campus, I watch a long-term sub leading one of the kindergarten classes around because there is no certified teacher to fill the job. Though she is kind and devoted, this sight always makes me sad. What will happen if we continue to experience teacher attrition and shortages? When it comes to advancing this profession, I think one of my roles is retaining as many young professionals as possible. Teaching is a team sport and I really do think that retaining and supporting early career teachers is our best shot at winning the game.


Jess Ledbetter

Dr. Jess Ledbetter teaches preschool students with developmental delays in a Title I school in Glendale, Arizona. She is a National Board Certified Teacher (ENS-ECYA), an Arizona Hope Street Group Teacher Fellow Alumni, and a Candidate Support Provider for teachers seeking their National Board Certification. She earned her doctorate in Educational Leadership and Innovation at ASU in 2016. Her mixed methods research used a Communities of Practice model as a strategy for early career special education teachers to collaborate with peers to increase their team leadership skills working with paraeducators in their individual classrooms.

Dr. Ledbetter is guided by the belief that all teachers are leaders in their classrooms and possess the skills to be leaders within their schools, districts, communities, and greater context. She hopes you will contribute to the dialogue by leaving comments about your own experiences, opinions, and insights so that real-life stories from our schools can inform the policies that affect students, teachers, and their communities.

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