The first day of school is exciting and terrifying for students. It’s also the cause of many stomach butterflies for teachers. But the first day at a new school, in a new career, in a new country? Well, that might cause more than just butterflies.
Osceola School District sits just outside of Orlando. And while millions of people visit the area each year to play or work, it can be hard to settle down and grow roots.
Thanks in part to the tourism industry, student populations in Osceola School District tend to be transient. Many families work at the nearby theme parks, where employment and income can vary month by month. A whole population of students lives in extended stay hotels, and when their family needs to move, they may change schools or leave the district entirely. “Families may live there for four weeks, and then need to move out to a different room or a different hotel,” said Heidi Foley, lead mentor for the district. “So we have students who jump from school to school, within our county and outside our county as well.”
But students aren’t the only ones who move around a lot. For years, Osceola has struggled with teacher retention — especially in their high-needs schools, which the district identified as having the highest levels of teacher turnover. According to Megan Dierickx, program lead in Osceola, those schools require “teachers that want to be there and are willing to build a foundation at those schools and become part of that community.”
Many first-time teachers from out of state find themselves placed into Osceola’s high-needs schools. “We have people who relocate here teaching and their families are from up north,” said Heidi Foley. And without the proper supports in place, they may stick around for a few years and then transfer to a school with more resources. Or move back home.
Then there are the alternative-certified teachers, who bring a whole wealth of experience and knowledge with them from their previous careers but have never taught in a classroom. “They come into the profession and they want to change people’s lives,” said Heidi, “but they don’t know how.” These teachers require a whole different set of tools and support to help them get oriented and engaging with their students. They need a grounding in things like classroom management and lesson planning. Heidi points out, “If you don’t come from the education field, how would you know how to create a lesson plan?” And if these new teachers feel overwhelmed, stuck or unsuccessful, they may decide that teaching simply isn’t for them.
Osceola also has a population of international teachers, many of whom came to the US after Hurricane Maria. In the first year of working with NTC, “the district hired 40 international teachers,” said Elizabeth Salvato, a lead mentor in Osceola. “Most of them ended up getting picked up at our high need schools.” These teachers had classroom experience, but required a lot of support adjusting to new cultural norms. “We wanted to help them feel welcome and supported,” said Elizabeth. “And we had to bring them along and help them understand American culture.” Without a deep connection to the culture and their students, international teachers may not thrive in a new environment. And often their work visas may mean they only teach in the US temporarily.
A big part of NTC’s work in Osceola was to help provide the tools and create the support systems for these unique teacher populations within the district. NTC worked side-by-side with Osceola to create pathways for new teachers, alt-certified teachers, and international teachers to improve teacher retention. And while the program was built on a unifying foundation, it was critical to recognize that different teachers require different types of support.
“I’m so grateful to have somebody who can still see me in my practice and push me to keep growing,” said Elizabeth Salvato of her mentor. “We got really close and developed a relationship where she wanted me to succeed. And then I was going and building that same relationship with my mentors. It’s a support system I never had before.”
– Elizabeth Salvato
And it all comes back to relationships. Strong, open, collaborative relationships between teachers, coaches, mentors, and administrators are vital to creating a school ecosystem where students can thrive. One key element of establishing these relationships: lead mentors were trained right alongside those they would work with during the school year. “At first it was scary,” said Heidi Foley. “But I think it helped really build relationships because we were learning together.”
In just a few short years of working with NTC, Osceola County has seen its teacher retention rate skyrocket from 70 percent to 90 percent. “We didn’t have an established teacher induction program, so we started from the ground up,” said Elizabeth Salvato. She’s happy to report that “three years later, we’ve created an incredible program, and we’re retaining teachers because of it.”
The small percentage of the teachers that did leave didn’t go far, opting to go to other schools within the Osceola district. And retention in high-needs schools has improved significantly. “They wanted to stay at their schools,” said Megan Dierickx, discussing the new teachers placed at high-needs schools in Osceola. She credits it to the fact that “they built a relationship and they had that foundation and that support through the instructional mentors.”
Finding confidence and community is a big part of what it takes to help teachers find their homes in a district. It takes relationships to help those who once felt transient find roots and grow. “The kids see that we have stability with our teachers,” said Megan. “They want to come to school and stay there and really work with the students.” That community is key for teachers and students alike to find a place to belong.