The opening of school is always an exciting time in the lives of students, teachers and parents. It has always been one of my favorite times of the school year because everyone is happy and looking forward to learning.
Most students are anxious to get back to their friends and their activities. Most teachers can’t believe the summer is already over and many, if not most parents, have been thinking that the first day of school would never get here!
The opening of school this year, however, will be unlike any school year this group of students, teachers, parents and this superintendent have ever experienced. Hopefully, none of us will ever have to experience such again.
This year we will be opening school in the middle of a global pandemic. Whitfield County is experiencing high spread of the virus, forcing us to delay the start of school for students and to try to find ways to reduce the number of students present at one time in a classroom to better enabling social distancing.
Although school will begin differently, some tasks of opening a school did not change. We still had to hire approximately 70 new teachers to replace those who retired or moved to other areas. Although our teacher retention rate is better than the state average, principals spent weeks searching for the very best teachers to fill vacancies.
Hiring teachers this year was an interesting and somewhat challenging endeavor. Many interviews had to be conducted virtually through platforms such as Google Meet or Zoom and some teachers were hired by principals without the usual face-to-face meetings. Approximately 50% of our new teachers are new college graduates having just received their teacher certification. Some of them had their student teaching experience interrupted last March when schools were mandated to close. Many of these young teachers have already been tried by fire before they ever signed their first teaching contract.
Although experienced teachers often find moving to another system stressful, their stress level does not compare with the stress of the beginning teacher who must not only adjust to a new work environment, but must also master grade-level or subject matter curriculum. This year, all teachers will have the responsibility of trying to maintain social distancing with their students and reminding young students to please wear their mask on their face and not on their head or their arm when in the hallway.
Due to the pandemic, all Whitfield County students were given the choice of face-to-face or virtual learning. Approximately 3,900 students or 30% of our students chose to receive their instruction virtually. When you add the additional responsibility of teaching some of their students face-to-face and some virtually, I would say that these beginning teachers will be experiencing more on the job training the first few months of their work experience than any beginning teacher before them.
Thankfully, they will be mentored by some of the best teachers in the state — our experienced Whitfield County teachers — but even these master teachers have never started a school year during a pandemic. They will be learning ways to keep themselves and their students safe from the virus while helping their virtual and face-to-face students achieve high levels of learning during these very difficult times. The goal for all students, whether attending school in person or virtually, is to provide them with rigorous and comprehensive instruction.
The new teacher will experience many emotions during the first year of teaching. The transition from college student to the teacher in charge of a classroom of children can leave one feeling extremely excited yet terrified at the same time.
The brand-new teacher will first anticipate the wonderful adventure of teaching, but as they try to adjust to their 60-hour work week and keep from sinking under the demands of their chosen profession, a little bit of that excitement may begin to disappear. It is at this time that they will need the most support from their principals, instructional coaches and fellow teachers.
Beginning teachers will not be alone in experiencing the stress of potentially contracting the virus and developing the new methods of teaching virtually. This is new territory for all of us and we will be learning together. We will support our students, parents, and fellow teachers because we are #OneWhitfield and that is just what we do.
Next August, these beginning teachers will be excited to start their second year of their career but this time without the added burden of something called the COVID-19 virus.
Judy Gilreath is superintendent of Whitfield County Schools.