‘A very isolating experience:’ First-year teachers seek support through unprecedented year

A cell phone on a stand recording a teacher during a remote learning lesson.
While in college, teachers generally are not taught how to teach remotely. (Drazen_ / Getty Images)

When Erica Parks, 22, imagined her first year of teaching, she didn’t foresee that she would greet her students through a computer screen.

But Parks, a seventh-grade math teacher, started her career during the pandemic at Thomas J. Kellar Middle School in Posen-Robbins School District 143.5. With school buildings closed throughout the south suburban school district, she met her students and colleagues online.

“I imagined coming into the classroom already set up, having my intro together and how I was going to address the students. I imagined how I was going to greet them when they entered the classroom and the handshakes we would do,” Parks said. 

Jeanne Paulino, 22, an 11th-grade English teacher, started her first year of teaching at Intrinsic Charter High School in Chicago this fall, where she works with students with special needs. The year has been hard. 

“Just think about all the struggles a first-year teacher has but over Zoom and alone in their basement. It’s just been a very isolating experience,” she said.

Nearly 4,000 teachers in Illinois are starting their careers online, unable to meet students or network with their colleagues in person. The first year of a teacher’s career can be pivotal: Teachers with less than five years in the profession leave at a high rate. It’s hard to know how this year’s new teachers will be affected by starting their careers virtually and amid a global health crisis that has bought added stress to their students. 

The first year of teaching was hard before the coronavirus pandemic, said Julie Peters,  associate director of the Teaching of History Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. With new teachers teaching remotely and from home, it’s essential they have support, she said.

“The first year of teaching is just so hard and if people get discouraged and don’t have the proper support, they’re going to leave the profession. At a time when there’s already such a teacher shortage and sooner than they need to,” Peters said.

State officials have taken steps to support first-year teachers. The state board of education put $6.5 million from federal coronavirus funds toward mentoring teachers. The state also has a partnership with Lurie Children’s Hospital and Peoria Roe to provide mental health support to all teachers. 

Peters said she has heard from past graduates that their first year goes well when they are paired with a veteran teacher who mentors them or they are placed at a school with former graduates who went through the same teacher preparation program. 

Both Parks and Paulino have been able to connect to mentors, network with other first-year teachers, and access professional development this year. Parks is a Golden Apple Scholar — a program by an Illinois nonprofit that provides support to students pursuing their teaching degree — and Paulino is a Teach For America fellow.

Paulino’s Teach For America cohort has created a group chat where they can express their frustrations about teaching remotely and give each other tips, she said. “Finding solutions that have worked for other first year teachers has been useful,” she said.

Parks has been able to find helpful resources like Nearpod, an online interactive program for teachers to upload lesson plans, by talking with her group of Golden Apple Scholars. “I didn’t know about really any of those resources until my peers gave them to me or any of my Golden Apple mentors gave them to me.”

First-year educators have a learning curve to understand their schools, how to adjust their teaching strategies to their classrooms and the needs of their students, but Peters has heard from graduates that virtual learning has been an equalizing experience in some ways.

“None of the veteran teachers had extensive training with virtual learning, which is kind of nice because everybody’s in it together,” she said. 

While in college, teachers generally are not taught how to teach remotely. Since the pandemic, teacher preparation programs are planning to create classes about virtual instruction in case of another emergency. In the past, a few Illinois school districts went remote due to extreme weather conditions. 

Timothy Duggan, a professor of secondary education at Northeastern Illinois, said that schools will have to adjust to teaching virtually in the future. 

“I don’t know that we’ll go back to the old normal. I don’t want to underplay how bad this  has been, but in any crisis you see innovation. I think we’re learning things now that will inform our teaching and learning from this point onward,” he said. 

Peters and her colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago have already started to implement virtual teaching strategies into their classrooms for student educators. 

While remote learning has been hard, Parks says that she has learned a lot from the experience.

“Though the first year of teaching has been challenging, it’s definitely been a rewarding experience nonetheless. I’m constantly learning and growing not only as an educator, but as a learner,” she said.

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