Building a Career Arc for Faculty

Fall 2017

By David C. Faus


History teacher Sam Kaplan embodies everything a school should take pride in. Sam arrived at St. Paul’s School, a K-12 day school in suburban Baltimore, in 2010 as an intern fresh from graduation at Bates College. He was assigned to teach three classes and coach three sports teams that first year. While we were evaluating his long-term potential, Kaplan was deciding whether teaching was going to be his career.

Seven years later, he’s one of our top 11th-grade International Baccalaureate history teachers and a two-time, conference-winning varsity hockey coach. He’s a grade dean, responsible for the student life of more than 80 boys in our class of 2020, and, in his spare time, has taken on an increasing college counseling load. One of St. Paul’s proudest and most enduring legacies are teacher-coaches with tenures stretching three and even four decades. Kaplan is now well-positioned to take his place alongside those legends. But the reality is that if we continue to do our job helping Kaplan develop his many talents even further, he will probably leave St. Paul’s in the next few years. We would consider that a great loss and a great success.

In an era of transience, with today’s younger faculty changing jobs more often than their predecessors, attracting and retaining top faculty has become increasingly challenging. It’s more important than ever for schools to assess how to help teachers thrive and how to support them in getting to their next destinations—wherever that may be. Moreover, focusing on nascent talent can help ensure that a school keeps its distinctive ethos alive even as faculty legends retire and a new generation of teachers rises.

A Focus on Faculty Development

Through the process of developing St. Paul’s strategic plan, adopted in 2014, and launching a five-year capital campaign, we identified comprehensive faculty development as a central priority. As a result, we are now implementing a range of programs that foster growth across a teacher’s entire career arc, from recruitment to retirement. These programs are broadly grouped around developing promising young faculty; honing the talent of mid-career professionals; and shaping end-of-career roles for our most venerated faculty to provide maximum benefits to the teacher and our school. Our guiding principle is “recruit, retain, reward.”

In developing these new programs, we have married the best practice of pursuing continuous professional development with our institutional culture, which has been deeply rooted in mentorship since St. Paul’s moved to its current location in 1952. Generations of our teachers talk about the faculty mentors who dedicated a tremendous amount of time and effort to help ensure their success. Sustaining this mentorship culture has largely been dependent on the goodwill and commitment of long-tenured individuals, many of whom have recently retired or soon will. Our new professional development programs will institutionalize the ethos of mentorship that is at the heart of our school, ensuring it will continue well into the future.

Developing Young Talent

“The first time I ever taught a class was at my St. Paul’s interview,” Kaplan says.

Despite his lack of experience, he showed genuine interest in working and sharing his love of history with students, and was hired as a one-year intern. Fortunately, Kaplan’s 2010 arrival coincided with the debut of
a strong new faculty orientation program launched by Joel Coleman, upper school head. It’s a yearlong required program for all K–12 teachers new to our school, but it’s particularly beneficial for those with the least experience.

The program strives to develop teachers according to best practices, and ensures they receive meaningful support their first year by observing teachers at St. Paul’s and other area schools, and being observed on a regular basis by peers and administrators who offer guidance and feedback. We often find that many young teachers are so focused on content that they overlook the vital necessity of forging connections with their students. Equally important is the grounding they receive in our school culture and mission. After just one day, every teacher is able to recite the six key aspects of our mission (truth, knowledge and excellence; faith, compassion and integrity), and relate them to their own work.

As part of our strategic plan and focus on the career arc, we are endowing three two-year fellowships for new teachers beginning in the 2017–2018 school year. We found that the one-year term of a typical internship isn’t long enough for a new teacher to shine; this two-year commitment relieves some of the pressure and enables young teachers to demonstrate their willingness to learn from mistakes, grow, and improve. A two-year commitment also makes us a more attractive destination for a talented new teacher who might have other options.

Listening is another key to developing talented young teachers. Given how mobile today’s millennial
workforce is, it’s essential to take the time to understand what matters to them—and then to risk giving them what they’re asking for. For Kaplan, it was giving him the opportunity to further develop his great passion: coaching hockey. After a year as the junior varsity coach, he moved up to assistant coach on varsity. A year later, he was ready to be head coach.

Sometimes young teachers want things they’re just not ready for. If that’s the case, be honest. Let them know what they need to do to make themselves qualified for the roles they want. Better yet, provide them the resources they need to prepare themselves. Grade deans assume a significant amount of responsibility in our upper school, overseeing discipline, serving as mentors to every boy in a class, and running the teachers’ grade team meetings about academic concerns. Over the last few years, we have prepared less experienced teachers for these roles, by pairing them with a more experienced “shadow” grade dean, who provides support and guidance for as long as it’s needed.

Likewise, as part of our two-year fellowships, new teachers will be paired with one of our most senior teachers. These mentors will provide continuous guidance not only about classroom management, pedagogy, curriculum development, and assessment, but also about communicating with students and parents, managing their time, and everything else that goes into being a successful teacher. They’ll advise young teachers on charting a career path and model how to be a good colleague. In short, our most experienced teachers will inculcate our greenest with an understanding of St. Paul’s culture.

To maximize the potential of the youngest faculty members, it’s vital to recognize and celebrate the talents they bring to the classroom. This spring, I observed new teacher Calynd Gee, just three years out of college and in her first year at St. Paul’s, effortlessly engage her sixth-graders in a history lesson that combined technology, physical movement, hands-on learning, and synthesis of information. Boys went from station to station, using laptop computers to review contemporaneous accounts and photographic evidence from Lincoln’s assassination. After gathering facts, they created evidence-based reports on what they believed happened that night in Ford’s Theater. Even as Lee continues to develop in her career, there’s already a lot she can teach her veteran colleagues about presenting lessons in ways that take advantage of students’ technological aptitude and interest. 

The Sweet Spot

Mid-career—after about 10 years in the field—is often the sweet spot in teaching. By this point, teachers have developed their craft and gained comfort in forging meaningful connections with students. From a talent management point of view, however, this stage can also be the bittersweet spot. Faculty whom you’ve helped grow and achieve mastery discover their true passion and often leave for a school where they can better realize their ambitions.

Many schools seeking to cultivate and retain their best mid-career teachers offer them greater leadership roles: department head, committee chair, grade dean. But many teachers not only don’t aspire to such roles, they actively avoid them. They love teaching and aren’t interested in positions that will reduce or even eliminate their time in the classroom with students. How then to create opportunities that enable the most talented teachers to grow and develop in meaningful ways?

Ask and listen. To give younger teachers what they want, it often means letting them step into existing opportunities. Schools sometimes need to decide whether it’s worth making a significant investment in a program or risk losing a talented teacher. And sometimes, school leaders can help a teacher discover talent she doesn’t know she has.

That was the case with Nancy Dimitriades. After 15 years at St. Paul’s as a renowned first-grade teacher, we asked Dimitriades to consider filling our vacant lower school science teaching slot. We were eager to expand project-based learning and knew she would be dynamic in this role. After a bit of hesitation, based on some negative connotations associated with her own stressful experiences completing science projects as a middle school student, she agreed.

Dimitriades viewed this possibility for a mid-career switch as an opportunity to help her students learn in different ways. She outlined a plan to transform her science classroom into a school-based version of a hands-on children’s science museum. Dimitriades provided a compelling vision; the school supplied the resources to make it a reality.

She started with the renovation of a closed-off greenhouse, which she thought was just the right size for 10 kids to get their hands dirty. Dimitriades also spearheaded the development of an overgrown lower school courtyard into a vibrant community garden. Just one year later, the garden is a learning space for students in all grades, including not only the refurbished greenhouse, but also native and non-native animals and plants, a chicken coop, garden beds, a composting area, and a pond with an outdoor instructional area.

“Going from a homeroom teacher to a special-area teacher has been like going from being a parent to a grandparent,” Dimitriades says. “I see the kids twice a week, love them while they’re here and send them on their way. I also get to see them grow not just on a daily basis for one year, but throughout the years. And now with the schoolwide community garden, I even get to see them in middle and upper school.”

Teachers Leading Teachers

Teachers learn best from other teachers. They gain insight by watching their peers in the classroom. They listen to feedback from colleagues they respect. They trust mentors who have shared similar struggles.

When Alex Dixon joined us last year, he already had a decade of experience teaching in Washington, DC, and New York City schools. But the classroom visits he made to observe colleagues as part of our new faculty orientation still yielded surprising insights.

“I was fascinated to sit in a German classroom and watch the teacher divide up words into different groups, then call students up to assemble grammatically correct sentences by selecting words from different groups,” he said. “The lesson suddenly wasn’t about memorization and recitation, which is how I learned foreign languages. It was about contextual analysis and provided opportunities for group work as other students participated and evaluated their peers’ sentences. It definitely helped me envision new ways to teach about scientific processes.” 

To complement our school’s strong support for fellows and new faculty members, we are creating a Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning that will foster peer-to-peer collaboration on professional development among mid-career teachers. By offering the opportunity to train in the skills of mentoring, instructional coaching, peer leadership, and new pedagogical approaches, the Center lays out a career path for long-tenured teachers who want to have an impact on the next generation of teachers while remaining full-time educators.

During this, the Center’s inaugural year, five St. Paul’s teachers received off-campus training in instructional coaching and mentoring. During the second year, these trained teachers will begin their program of instructional coaching as part of the Center, and a second group of teachers will be sent to off-campus training.

The instructional coaches will lead task teams and work with individual teachers seeking new ways to engage students and improve their learning. As positive models of effective, change-oriented conversations, the coaches will serve as our primary drivers of faculty innovation in areas including assessment, technology, advising, inclusion and equality, and curriculum review. These mentors will also play a key role in complementing the new faculty program as they promote the growth and development of new faculty members’ ability to effect student learning. 

Most important, instructional coaching and mentoring will become paid contractual duties. Rather than hope or assume our senior teachers will continue to pass along the St. Paul’s ethos, we’ll have a cadre of faculty who will have official responsibility for helping new teachers succeed in the classroom, and as members of our broader community. In turn, they will be fairly compensated for these duties, receiving the same stipend that other teachers receive for coaching a team. By creating this formal structure, we hope to safeguard the most essential part of our school culture.

Honoring a Lifetime of Service

Sam Kaplan might leave our school in the coming years. His ultimate goal is to coach at a school whose hockey program is as nationally prominent as St. Paul’s is in lacrosse. As much as we want Kaplan to stay, St. Paul’s can’t provide that opportunity, and we support him in achieving his goal, just as we support all teachers in pursuing their passions.

History teacher and college counselor Mitch Whiteley has been part of the St. Paul’s lacrosse team as a head and assistant coach for more than 35 years. Knowing Sam’s long-term goal, Whiteley invited Kaplan to
spend the 2016–2017 season as part of that team’s coaching staff, learning how to handle college recruiting, scheduling, media interviews, and other ancillary issues associated with running a top-ranked high school athletic program. 

Whiteley’s outreach embodies the St. Paul’s ethos of mentorship. Though it’s unlikely that Kaplan will have a tenure here on par with Whiteley’s, we want to do our best to ensure someone who embraces the opportunity to guide a young colleague forward will be here in a quarter-century.

That’s why last year we formalized a structure that will enable us to benefit from the perspective and wisdom of teachers who have been with us the longest. With a little creativity and flexibility, we have crafted several part-time roles for retiring faculty with 30 to 40 years of service that benefit teacher and school alike, from one-season coach and on-call substitute, to one-on-one tutor in our learning services center. For now there are three such positions; with a half-dozen retirements looming in the next few years, the number might grow as the school’s needs—and the needs of the retiring teachers—dictate.

By the completion of our capital campaign in 2021 we will have created a permanent multi-million-dollar endowment that will fund these senior master positions, as well as initiated a master teacher’s program which will pair our most experienced and our newest teachers in a mentoring program. It will not only help the young teachers develop their skills, but also ensure that our culture remains alive.

By demonstrating St. Paul’s institutional commitment to those who commit to us, we hope to inspire our talented mid-career teachers to stay and become the next generation of master teachers. 

David C. Faus

David C. Faus is headmaster at St. Paul’s School in Baltimore.