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New Teachers Report

Over 150 new hires enter Arlington’s classrooms for orientation this week.

For a teacher with 23 years of experience, moving to a new classroom shouldn’t take much of an adjustment — unless that classroom is 900-miles away.

“I grew up on a farm, and I’ve lived within an eighth of a mile my whole life,” said Karen Roark as she entered the New Hire Orientation for Arlington Public Schools. After earning her doctorate and teaching in her hometown for more than two decades, Roark decided to make a change, and came to Arlington to teach gifted students at Oakridge and Long Branch Elementary schools.

APS officials created a friendly environment for teachers and students, she said, and the educational philosophy here makes sense. Besides, it’s tough to argue with results. “People want to go where the success is, and find out how it’s done,” said Roark.

About 150 new hires reported to Washington-Lee High School on Monday morning, Aug. 18, to begin a week of orientation. Veteran teachers will be back at work next week, and students will hear the first bell ring Tuesday, Sept. 2. At orientation, new teachers received welcomes from senior staff, overviews of core curricula and presentations from veteran teachers and administrators.

With new hires spread across all subjects and grade levels, it was a diverse group. So too, was their level of experience, with some teachers getting ready to step into their first classroom, and others entering with years of experience in other jurisdictions.

Whatever their circumstances, these newcomers are an elite group, said Superintendent Robert Smith. On average, school officials received eight applications for every open position.

“That’s very positive, to see some new blood coming in, but to see the experience, so you don’t lose a lot,” said school board chair Frank Wilson.

HAVING PREVIOUS EXPERIENCE means avoiding some of the first-day butterflies. Lisa Hutchison will be teaching computer skills in the business education department of Gunston Middle School this year.

It’s a new subject for Hutchison, who previously taught sixth-grade social studies in Anne Arundel County, Md. But her master’s degree and eight years of teaching experience have made her confident.

“I’m not worried about the first-year teaching jitters and all that,” she said. “I’ve gotten over that. This is my forte.” Still, she spent much of the summer preparing for the new position by brushing up on curriculum and learning Arlington’s procedures.

Jeff Stahl, 24, spent the last three years teaching in New York. He’s now getting ready for the school year by getting to know people in the area. “I hope everything just goes nice and smooth,” said Stahl, who will teach French and Spanish at Swanson and Thomas Jefferson middle schools.

Even with three years’ experience in the classroom, adjusting to a new environment can be tough — the moving van won’t arrive at his new Alexandria apartment until Saturday.

FIRST-TIME TEACHERS look to bring new energy to county schools. Given the choice between nervous or excited, Amy Leidheiser said she was feeling “a little bit of both.”

Leidheiser graduated from college in 2002 and spent last year working in public relations in Richmond. This year she’ll be teaching Kindergarten at Long Branch Elementary.

Orientation events this week introduced new teachers like Leidheiser to various resources. The most important resource, said Debbie Parker, is other teachers. Last year was Parker’s first in the classroom at Abingdon Elementary. She encouraged new hires to turn to others in their schools for help. “I could not have survived last year without my mentor, she said.

School officials pair each new teacher with a veteran teacher from the same discipline, who serves as a mentor. Arlington requires each mentor to complete training so they know how best to assist the new educators.

It’s vital that new teachers bond with other faculty members, said Bonnie Pfoutz, staff development supervisor. “Teaching can be very isolating,” she said. “You’re alone in your room with your 20 or 25 students, and it’s very easy not to talk to another adult from the time you enter the building to the time you leave.”

NEW TEACHERS ADJUST not only to differences in the classroom. For those moving in from other parts of the country, it can be difficult adjusting to the cost of living.

Jennifer Reid, a new preschool speech pathologist from Atlanta, is renting an apartment because she and her boyfriend haven’t yet been able to find an affordable home to buy. For what she’s now paying in rent, she said, “We could have a mansion in the middle of Atlanta and walk to everything.”

Unfortunately, that’s one of the realities of choosing education as a career, especially in this area, Wilson said. “I think we all realize that there are some sacrifices we make.”

WHILE HE ISN’T new to Arlington, Gregg Robertson said he’s ready to face new challenges this year. Robertson moved out of the principal’s office at Swanson Middle School, to become the new principal at Washington-Lee High School, replacing Marion Spraggins, who retired at the end of last year.

Spraggins left him with a strong environment, he said. “It’s already a great school, and I want to see how I can contribute to that.”

The first order of business will be to sit down with Washington-Lee faculty members and “develop a vision” for the school’s future.

With veteran teachers not scheduled to report for another week, Robertson said hosting the new teacher orientation was a welcome change of pace.

“I’m glad to see them come back and add a little life to the building,” he said. Only two of the new hires will be at Washington-Lee next year, which Robertson said shows the strength of the current staff.