The Freshest Apples: Teacher Terms Matter

Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words…well, I think that words can hurt a lot. In a teaching climate with an ongoing teacher shortage and massive teacher attrition, I think we need to choose our words very carefully.

A few weeks ago, I heard someone talking about a teacher they are hiring for next year. They called the person a “baby teacher.”  Baby teacher? What the heck does that mean? I briefly considered a sarcastic comment about getting diapers for the school supply closet. Instead, I opted for a quizzical look and raised eyebrows. The person unabashedly explained that “baby teacher” meant first-year teacher. Wow. They continued talking without pausing, using the term a few more times to emphasize what a “baby” the teacher actually was. Seriously.

How can educators use terms like these in the field? I think it’s time we all have a conversation about it—and I intend to start one here.

I don’t think we should ever call first-year teachers “baby teachers.” I don’t even like calling these educated, passionate young people “new teachers” or “beginning teachers.” Personally, I prefer the term “Early Career Teachers” (ECTs) because I think the term implies that teaching is a profession and ECTs are career professionals. Other common terms tend to set ECTs apart from more experienced colleagues and may imply they are less effective. This is not always the case. Each teacher has their own strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps we should just call everyone “teachers” and leave off descriptors entirely.

When ECTs join the field, they are often called terms like “new teacher” for about two years. That is a really long time to feel like the new guy. When we use terms that make ECTs feel like outsiders instead of insiders, we steal away some of their efficacy, status, and potential for leadership. Instead, we need to maximize opportunities that raise their efficacy, elevate their status, and offer clear paths to leadership. I think this starts at the building level with school administrators and teacher colleagues.

What if we all treated ECTs as experts instead of rookies? Recent college graduates are familiar with current research about teaching pedagogy. They are often filled with enthusiasm, energy, and the powerful belief that every single student can be successful. I’d like to think that experienced teachers share these qualities, but I think these traits tend to wear off and become muted over time. If teachers were apples, ECTs are the shiniest, freshest apples out there.

What if we strategically asked ECTs for their opinions at every single PLC meeting? What if we gave them permission to think outside the box and suggest unconventional solutions? What if we openly listened to them without calling them idealistic or saying that their ideas have been tried before? What if we told them they were leaders from Day 1?

Bottom line is: We have to retain ECTs in the field to stop the open position crisis in Arizona. According to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 28.3% of Arizona teachers have less than 4 years experience. Arizona has the highest percentage of ECTs in the nation. We don’t want our ECTs to waste those first few years. We need them to act like leaders in their classroom and community. We want them to envision themselves teaching far into the future. We need them to stay.

It’s true that ECTs benefit from induction and mentoring programs at the beginning of their teaching careers. I think we need to be cautious about what we call these programs, the activities they require, and the overall tone. In my four years as an induction coach, my theories about supporting new teachers changed a lot. To summarize my biggest shift, I stopped using phrases like “how can I help you?” and instead offered phrases like “I’m here to support you if you need me.” This subtle change is everything because it empowers ECTs without implying their need to get help from others. This theme came out in my dissertation research as well. I found that ECTs were not waiting for “experienced teachers” to come along with the answers. Instead, they wanted time to discuss problems and find their own solutions with peers.

So if you are fortunate to have an ECT on your team, look for opportunities to let them shine. Welcome them as an equal with valuable ideas and discourage others from using terms that diminish their expertise. There’s no room for terms like ‘baby teacher” in this teaching climate. We need unified teams of grown-ups who are committed to saving our schools and protecting the students we serve.

How do you think we can get there? What changes do you think we need to see? I’d love to continue the discussion about empowering ECTs in the comments below.


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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