First days are always a bit strange. A new commute, a new school car park to navigate, a new staffroom and, of course, new colleagues to acquaint yourself with.
But consider how odd it must be to start your new school induction without being able to set foot inside the door. So, what can leaders do to reassure new starters during this tumultuous time?
We spoke to a teacher, who was worried about starting at her new school during school closures, and three school leaders about to welcome new staff, to find out how schools can ease the transition and make the strange situation a little more familiar.
1. Talk regularly
Sarah, a secondary school teacher due to change schools after Easter, says her first concern was that her new school might change its mind.
“I wasn’t worried to start with, then it all started to sink in,” she explains. “Then a friend asked if I’d still get paid and that’s what started me worrying.”
Caroline Derbyshire, executive headteacher of Saffron Walden County High School, in Essex, has tried to ease the worries of her new starters by getting in contact earlier, and more frequently, than she would under normal circumstances.
“It is an odd time for them,” she says. “I imagine that the new starter is feeling more nervous about their start than they would had they been starting last term. Our communication with them reflects that different need.”
Once Sarah’s new headteacher contacted her and she confirmed her start date, her worries began to subside. “My new headteacher has contacted me to say they’re looking forward to seeing me and we’ve spoken on the phone,” she says.
“This has made a huge difference to my anxiety levels. I am actually looking forward to starting now.”
2. Part of the family
One of the worries Sarah has is that she doesn’t know many people at her new school yet. How can she be a productive member of the team when no one knows who she is?
“Thinking about what my first term will be like makes me feel lost,” she says. “I don’t feel part of my current school community anymore, and I haven’t met most of my new school community so feel as if I’m on my own, professionally anyway.”
Part of the problem, Sarah says, is the missing piece of the new-job puzzle: the handover day.
“I was due to visit my new school the first week of the closures, which obviously couldn’t happen,” she says.
This is a tough situation for everyone. Nick Soar, executive principal at Harris Academy St John’s Wood and at Harris Academy Tottenham, says that, to overcome this, it is important that schools give teachers as much support as possible before they join.
“We want to ensure the on-boarding process goes forward well, and they feel included and have a sense of belonging,” he says.
Soar sees the school closures as an opportunity to be more focused on his staff and their wellbeing.
“We try to generate a sense of family at Harris,” he explains. “Our ethos and values – that were central to our recruiting [new staff members] – are the same things we like to inculcate in them as we await them joining us.” Soar adds.
Derbyshire agrees that this induction period is too important to miss out, and has plans to try to emulate this day by inducting the new member of staff over the phone.
“What we’ll do is try to recreate the normal induction by telephone interviews,” she says. “Induction would probably involve five different hours of activity, so in the phone calls we will try to replicate as much of that as we can.
However, Derbyshire doesn’t think it’s wise to try to spend the same amount of time virtually as you would have done face to face. “Instead, we will do this individually, so the new starter can speak to a range of different people and not for as long as five hours.”
3. Pass the baton
Part of what makes a smooth transition for a new starter is ensuring that your outgoing teacher has left everything in place for the new member of staff who replaces them.
Sarah has found that she can get everything ready, but only up to a point.
“I’m going to give them student information and specify where each class is in terms of progressing through the curriculum,” she says. “But I won’t know what they’ve done at home due to the school closures, so the detail there will be sparse, and it is likely to need to be revised once students return in the autumn term.”
This handover should be mainly focused on the new school year, suggests Derbyshire, rather than thinking about the summer term. “They can do very little in their new role at all, other than prepare for the autumn activities,” she says.
4. Make the most of the time
Although the school is closed, this doesn’t mean that new teachers will have to be left behind. Rather than let this time go to waste, Soar has plans to ensure all his new members of staff are set to hit the whiteboard running as soon as the school gates reopen.
“We have already sent over to new recruits online safeguarding certificate assessments and Prevent quizzes,” he says. “By doing this, we’ve been able to get people in a place where they can be smoothly added when we reboot the school.”
Soar would also recommend getting in face-to-face time, even if it is only digitally. “We will be using video conferencing software as part of our induction,” he explains. “Interactions on Zoom and on Microsoft Teams will be a key part of our communication.”
5. Include all the information you would normally in the induction
Natalie Spears, an assistant principal in Stoke, says it is vital not to overlook any of the normal induction information you would provide to a new teacher.
“Even outside of the building, new teachers will need to know login information, key staff contacts and curriculum information,” she says.
“Not knowing who deals with which aspect of school life is always a cause for anxiety when starting a new job. This is likely to be worse when you can’t physically meet these people.”
Top tip: Emailing across a photo sheet of staff and their roles/contact details will help.
6. Make sure your new starter has all the equipment they need
Spears says that trying to get kit to new starters is a good idea, if it can be done safely.
“Because some teachers are still in schools for the children of key workers, it may be possible to get new staff to collect laptops while abiding by the official safety advice,” she suggests.
“If not, then you can post laptops out without large costs. Going the extra mile to provide equipment will make a new start run smoothly.”
7. Give them an informal contact
“It is important you contact regularly in a formal capacity – we need staff to remember why they chose our school and to instantly feel part of our team,” she says.
“But although phone calls and video meetings might be a great way to break the ice and share information, it is also important to have a more personal ‘buddy’,” she says. “Someone who can text and allow those silly little questions we all have.”
8. Don’t leave them guessing what their role in the virtual school is
“Whether you’re expecting your new member of staff to provide resources, plan schemes of work or lead a faculty, you have to make it clear from the outset,” Spears says.
“The job will clearly be different to what they were expecting pre-coronavirus, but they will expect you to have a clear role for them to play.”
9. Don’t overwhelm them with tasks and unrealistic expectations
“It’s tough being the new starter at any time, let alone when you are isolated from staff and students at home,” she says.
“People want to feel useful and valued but don’t expect them to operate at full crisis mode capacity on their first day – allow a little space before they are thrown in at the deep end.”
10. Don’t lose the filter of professionalism
“During these testing times, there are WhatsApp groups and Houseparty groups full of teachers letting off steam,” she says.
“While your trusted colleagues know your eccentricities and foibles, new staff might not be ready for it.”