Working with New Teachers: First Steps

by Sandy Millin

Since becoming the Director of Studies at International House Bydgoszcz, over 90% of the teachers I’ve worked with have fallen into the category of novice teachers, having less than three years of experience. Most of them have recently completed the CELTA, and many are living abroad for the first time. I also have very strong memories of my own experiences of this period of my career, and of how overwhelming it could be, both in positive and negative ways.  

I’d like to share some of the strategies we’ve used to help new teachers survive when they’re starting out in a new place. I’m not going to claim that any of these are particularly new or revolutionary, but they may serve as a useful reminder if you find yourself supporting new teachers for the first time, or if it’s a while since you’ve been in their shoes. In this article, I will focus on helping foreign teachers to understand what they’re getting themselves into and to settle in when they first arrive.  

Managing expectations 

As part of the interview process, all potential teachers receive a pdf of our school handbook. This has been written by teachers over a number of years, and is updated in June each year. The handbook contains a wealth of information teachers might need to know about Bydgoszcz and our school. This includes what to bring and not bring with you, where to shop for vegan food, and how to buy train tickets online, as well as an introduction to administration requirements at the school and professional development opportunities, among many other things.  

During the interview, we spend at least ten minutes discussing the requirements we have of teachers in terms of hours teaching and in school, and the time management that the intensive environment of our school demands. I find out about time management strategies the applicants already use and we discuss how successful these strategies are.  Applicants are also required to submit a lesson plan based on a typical coursebook spread used in our lessons. We talk about how long it took to put together the plan, and I ask questions about any potential problem areas, in the same way as I would before or after an observation.  

Taken together, I hope that these two strategies mean that applicants have a fairly good idea about what they are getting themselves into if they decide to accept a job with us.  

On arrival 

For some of our teachers, their move to Bydgoszcz is the first time they have ever lived abroad. When they are dealing with a new country, a new culture, a new career, a new working environment, a new language, etc., it is easy to understand how they might feel overwhelmed. Here are ten things we try to do to make sure teachers can settle in to the city as quickly as possible, leaving mental space to focus on their job. 

  1. Meet them on arrival in the city and take them to their accommodation. If possible, show them how appliances work. In my first week living in the Czech Republic, we managed to break the washing machine by not closing it correctly, and then flooded our bathroom and that of our downstairs neighbour! 
  2. Provide a small welcome pack of essentials like toilet paper and some basic foodstuffs. When you arrive late at night to find no toilet paper in your accommodation and with no idea where to buy it, it’s not a pleasant experience! 
  3. Give them a map of the city with their accommodation and the school marked on it. Even though most people have smart phones now, there’s nothing quite like being able to see the city laid out in front of you. This also avoids potential problems with internet access. 
  4. Tell them the kind of prices to expect for basic items. For example, what would be a cheap or expensive lunch? This could also be covered in the handbook. 
  5. Show them where the nearest places to buy food are, and offer to send someone with them the first time. I couldn’t buy fruit or vegetables on my first trip to the supermarket in Brno because I didn’t realise you had to weigh it. The supermarket was closing as I left, so I had no time to go back and do it. It can also be difficult to identify food if you don’t know the language, and sometimes even if you do! 
  6. Show them how and where to buy tickets for public transport, as well as how to make travelling around the city as cheap and as efficient as possible, for example, which passes will save them the most money. If teachers will be working off-site, accompany them there on public transport if you can. Public transport in Sevastopol scared me for my first couple of weeks there as the system was completely different to anything I’d ever seen: you call out the name of the stop when you want to get off, and pay as you leave the bus. Having Olga, the school Director, escort me on the first day made things a lot easier. Alternatively, put them on the bus/tram/local mode of transport of choice and have someone meet them at the other end if possible. This is perhaps better than driving them, as they’ll have to go back again by themselves. If the return stop is in a different place, don’t forget to tell them – it took me at least a week to figure out where to get my tram home from school when I was in Brno, as it was a block away from the stop going in to school. 
  7. Pair new teachers up with more experienced teachers who can help with day-to-day life, not just what’s happening at school. This year we’ve done this by setting up a Facebook group for all of our teachers. 
  8. Help them to get a local SIM or phone. Give them a few key phone numbers:  yours, that of the school, and some people they might be able to socialise with, especially if they won’t have internet access for the first few days. It can also be useful to show them how to get internet on their phone, as this can be quite challenging in some countries. 
  9. Give them some language lessons to help them become more independent. Before they arrive, you could also given them links to courses such as ‘Polish 1’ The website has a range of beginner’s courses which are free to study and cover a lot of the basics. Encourage them to learn numbers and food, even if they don’t study anything else. 
  10. Organise or encourage teachers to organise social events for your teachers. In Bydgoszcz, we organise a dinner the night before induction week, and teachers use our Facebook group to organise other social events, like pumpkin carving on the afternoon that I’m writing this. Being invited to a walking weekend with other teachers within my first month in Brno helped me to get out of the city for the first time and start to appreciate the beauty of the Czech countryside.  

What would you add to the list? How does your school support foreign teachers on arrival? 

In later articles I will discuss how we can help novice teachers to manage their time, deal with typical classroom situations they might encounter, and find the mental space to reflect on what they are experiencing. 

Author’s Bio: Sandy is the Director of Studies at International House Bydgoszcz in Poland. She is also a CELTA trainer and materials writer. In November 2017, she is self-publishing ELT Playbook 1, a book of tasks to help new teachers settle into their career and build up an online support network. You can find more information on her blog: