Attracting and Retaining Excellent Teachers

  • by John Potter          

    At The New School, the teaching environment is unique and rewarding, and our staff usually stay many years.  Only six out of 31 staff members have been here less than eight years, a striking piece of data by any measure.  Such longevity leads to a very tightly knit group working in a highly collaborative manner.  As a result, bringing in new faculty members is both exciting and daunting.

    Our faculty represent the heart and soul of the school.  New School teachers have freedoms that teachers in most schools would envy.  They create their own classes based on their interests and passions—consistent with our curriculum guide—and we encourage them to develop their own unique approach, always bearing in mind the highly dialogic nature of this environment.

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    On the flip side, being so small means we ask much of our teachers, all of whom wear many hats. They may have fewer students than teachers in larger schools, but they put an extraordinary amount of effort into their classes, their assessments and their relationships with students and their parents.  The effort they put into designing a course for a class of ten takes more time for our teachers because of the latitude they have.

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    As teachers in most small schools will tell you, our salaries can’t compete with the public schools or some of the wealthier independent schools, yet we attract amazingly talented teachers. Why do these talented, creative people choose to work here? And why do they stay so long?

    Juana Gomez-Diez has taught Spanish at The New School for 14 years, having turned down repeated offers of higher paying positions at big name prep schools in Washington, DC.

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    Students often stay with her for four or five years, and achieve a remarkable level of fluency. When asked what keeps her here, Juana says she is endlessly grateful for the freedom to create classes in her own style and the chance to work so closely with her students, with whom she develops a powerful bond. “I am not micromanaged,” Juana says. “I believe in mixing language instruction with cultural studies, often through film. In this I am supported and encouraged, not restricted.”

    So what do we do when an outstanding faculty member leaves?

    I have a system that might make some people wince, but it winnows the field very effectively so that I’m not inundated with responses from those who might well be less passionate.  More times than not, it has brought me excellent applicants. My teacher ads don’t simply ask for a cover letter and resume, they contain a challenging prompt to which the applicants must respond.  For example, a well loved, multi-talented humanities teacher moved to another country after being with us for several years, leaving a huge professional and personal hole in the staff. We had big shoes to fill.

    My ad for her replacement read, “Write an essay about what it means to be a Renaissance teacher.”  I received only ten responses, of which four were thoughtful and well written.Of those, one in particular stood out, and that was from Jacob Cholak, whom we ultimately hired. The ad didn’t include the name of the school.  Jacob was so intrigued by the ad that at first he thought it was a hoax placed by his friends to see what he would come up with. Here are a couple of excerpts from his essay:

    Real learning is an act of aggression. One must kill one’s own assumptions and then ransack the past… But there are fragments which, reconstituted, provide new life.”

    “My small apartment consists mostly of books. I try to read three a week. Sometimes I read four.  My students need me to know everything. I can’t and never will. But: Russian symbolism, German idealists, ancient Near Eastern poetry, Zoroastrianism, political economics, Chinese zen painting, paleolithic fertility icons, Ethiopian garage bands, and C# programming. I’m a young, old-fashioned generalist in an old, specialized world. I’m learning Akkadian. I rode through Asia on a motorbike.”

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    Great stuff!

    I also require an applicant to design and teach a class before I make the final decision.Jacob taught a class on the culture surrounding The Great Gatsby, using a film clip,pieces of art, a short reading and an analytical discussion with the class. The students ate it up. I hired him_I2A2194

     

    Echoing Juana, Jacob loves the freedom we’ve given him to follow his passions. As a film school graduate, he badly wanted to start a film program at the school, and he pitched it professionally. He now has the equipment and time to train students to use it, and is planning a film festival for February. He is actively collaborating with the rest of the staff to film exhibitions, unusual classes and school events. Half of his classroom is set up as a living room, with couches, chairs and lamps, over which hangs a large pull-down screen for viewing films.

    Jacob appears to have settled in for the long haul.

    Our new theater director, Steve Elm, had the task of bringing together six high school  students (no warning for them) to coach them into creating a cohesive production in 90 minutes (between 9:00 AM and 10:30 AM).

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    The result was nothing less than sensational.  Steve’s extensive theater experience is breathing energy and inspiration into the department and this is proving to be infectious.

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    We work extremely hard to find and retain people who will add to the richness of the mix we have. It is imperative that we hire people who will not only be successful teachers and mentors, but who will ultimately blend their own considerable strengths with those of the rest of the faculty as they grow into The New School community.

    7 thoughts on “Attracting and Retaining Excellent Teachers

    1. John, one key point you didn’t mention is that your teachers are committed to student success, with high expectations for engagement and performance. I’ve been so impressed with their ability to understand each student’s current level of development, and then invite (and expect) each student to stretch their limits. This works wonders, especially since it’s combined with warmth and acceptance. New School teachers are the best!

    2. After one and half year at the new school, I am still very appreciative of the mentoring that the NS teachers provide to my son. The teachers are amazing in their ability to create and maintaining a creative learning environment. This has enabled my son to gain confidence in his ability and strengthened his communication skills, both one on one and with presentation.

      1. Giving talented and creative teachers the room to, in the words of Joseph Campbell, “…follow their bliss” inspires them to heights of communication they might never have imagined could happen. Then the students begin to see that the possibilities for them are endless.

        1. I think you hit the nail on the head, John. Teachers are at their best when they’re excited about the material. -Travis (I’m logged in as Steve)

    3. My children have attended the New School for quite a few years. I think when teachers have the freedom to create, the thought of teaching every day returns to being a vocation, not just a paycheck. They are preparing my children to see the world through very discerning eyes. As a result, my kids are becoming real contributors. They see the root causes in problems and identify new solutions. Look what happens when you see learning as a challenge, not a chore!

    4. looking back at these comments.
      Jenny notes that our teachers closely follow the development of each student and thus are able to create intellectual opportunities consistent with each student’s development.
      Amanda suggests that our teachers are particularly competent in creating and maintaining creativity in the classroom.
      Tammy observes that the freedom and the creative opportunities teachers at The New School have, seems to induce them to widen and deepen the intellectual experiences the students have in the classroom.
      it is my judgment that New School teachers work synergistically with each other so that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. If my judgment is correct then this synergy is a force in the school we have to bear in mind when considering student achievement/staff collaboration/ the pace if student development and the fundamental reasons for students success here.

    5. I will never forget the New School’s teachers. My son thrived there and was happier and learned more there than at college. Not only did Janis T teach him, she mentored him at a time when he needed it. It wasn’t only Janis, though. Almost all his teachers were amazing. Thanks so much!!

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