How we built a New Teacher Cohort to sustain our staff

When my principal first invited me to join Lincoln Middle School as an AP, she emphasized the importance of being a lead learner for our staff. She said, “We’re going to create a learning environment not only for students but also for teachers.” 

Research has shown that the first three years of a teacher’s career are pivotal in whether an educator stays in the field. Our job isn’t only to recruit teachers, nor only to retain them at our schools, but to build structures that can sustain them in this vital profession.

My principal, instructional facilitator and I worked to develop a New Teacher Cohort program to support educators through the critical first three years. We designed this program from the ground up to meet each educator where they are. With the program now in its fifth year, it’s our privilege to see mentorships flourish between first-year teachers and those in their third, fourth or fifth years, and I’ve seen the investment pay off for student outcomes, too.

Our New Teacher Cohort program is a three-year cycle that includes five complementary elements.

1. Tailored Onboarding

Before our students even walk through our doors on the first day of school, we want to make sure every educator is ready to deliver the type of educational experience we believe in. We recognize that our new teachers come from diverse backgrounds – some are graduates of four-year institutions, others hold industry certifications and some are participants in grow-your-own programs. 

To ensure they start off on the right foot, we provide two days of professional development focused on the “Lincoln way.” In these sessions, we cover classroom management, understanding standards and assessments, and instructional practices. We start by asking, “What do our teachers need in their first two days?” The next question is, “What does it look like to make sure teachers stay on track over the course of the school year?”

2. Official Gatherings and Breakfast Club

Once the school year is underway, the support continues in the form of nine gatherings. We hold five gatherings in the first semester and four in the second semester. The term “gathering” is important to us. We don’t call them “meetings” because we want to differentiate them from other elements of our staff’s work. 

During our time together, we dig deeper into instructional practices that promote equitable student outcomes, and we engage in book studies to spark deeper conversation. Some of the texts we’ve explored include “Teach Like a Champion, “What Great Teachers Do Differently” and “Teach Smart.

We also host a bimonthly Breakfast Club in the library. Breakfast Club sessions are optional, but we see our cohort members show up again and again because they’re thirsty for support, guidance and connection. We provide donuts and coffee, and we open the floor for questions, concerns and honest sharing. It becomes this occasion for shared truth and support, with teachers opening up about their struggles or asking for resources to help them navigate particular student dynamics. Teachers leave knowing they’re not alone and that they’re connected with thought partners in this work.

3. Instructional Support

Each teacher in the cohort has two co-teaching partnerships: one with an experienced educator in their content area and one with a mentor outside their content area, selected based on relationship match. We also work with an instructional facilitator who maps out a coaching calendar with our cohort members.

Before we formally observe new teachers, our instructional facilitator holds two mock evaluations that are not scored and talks over the rubric. She helps set a collaborative tone around teaching feedback and helps take the pressure off of the experience of being observed by school leaders. 

While our gatherings help us develop shared beliefs about instructional practices, we believe the most critical support happens during the school day, with students present, through this personalized instructional coaching.

4. Conference Travel

Last year, some additional funding allowed us to add a layer of support in the form of world-class professional development opportunities. Every teacher in the building had the opportunity to attend a national workshop, connect with experts in the field and bring that new learning back to our school.

One of our school’s professional development practices is holding teacher-initiated, teacher-led “Pop-Up PD” sessions, and the conference learning boosted educator confidence to participate. Even early-career teachers were asking us, “Hey, can I do a pop-up PD session on what I learned at the conference?” We could feel educators stepping into their professional identities and taking ownership of team learning in new and inspiring ways.

5. Impactful Growth

It’s impressive to see how this collaborative effort has moved the needle for our students and fostered high energy around learning for teachers at all levels of experience.

This school year, our staff elected to lead a summer institute as a professional learning community. Every teacher – from the novices to the veterans – is leading or co-leading a learning session for other educators, and I think this speaks volumes to the strength of the learning environment and how teachers own their professionalism.

A question that persists in our profession is how teachers can grow and develop as professionals if they aren’t interested in moving through the traditional hierarchy of administration. What does it look like to step into a more established level of experience as a teacher in their own classroom? The work of the New Teacher Cohort isn’t only to support new teachers but also to empower staff members throughout their careers to share their craft with a larger network.

Every day, we hear our teachers asking questions about how they can improve to ensure every student is growing. While the New Teacher Cohort requires a significant investment from our school, we see it paying off in the thriving culture of support among educators and the correlating impact on positive achievement.