Offices & Resources

New Faculty Orientation: A Model of Intentional Support
New Faculty Orientation: A Model of Intentional Support
I recently took the opportunity to sit with our newest faculty members to hear about how they have experienced our efforts to support their entry to St. Mark's. I heard generally positive feedback, with a particular emphasis on a sense of welcome and a readiness on the part of members of the adult community to offer support and advice and to answer questions.

The intentionality of the St. Mark's efforts to orient new faculty is a far cry from what I experienced when I began my boarding school teaching career in the fall of 1979. If my first school had any formal orientation program for new faculty, I do not remember it. I also know that when I started my career, most boarding schools employed a "close the door and let them have at it" approach to new faculty.

Over the course of my career I have seen the approach to orienting new faculty at boarding schools become far more intentional and extensive. This improvement is part of an overall increasing recognition of the extraordinary degree of sophistication required to deliver high quality education both inside and outside the classroom.

What I remember with great fondness is mentoring advice I received over the course of my first two years of teaching. In the absence of the sort of formal orientation program that St. Mark's and other schools employ in this day and age, that mentoring advice, offered at just the moment I needed it, was all the more important. Mentoring advice remains an essential part of an effective approach to the successful entry of a new faculty member, whether that faculty member is new to boarding schools or simply new to our school.

Two pieces of "just in time" mentoring remain in my mind all these years later. The first came from my History Department chair. As my advisee and I were heading in to an evening discipline committee hearing. I conveyed my panic to my department chair that I would be unable to prepare properly for my next day's classes.

In very reassuring tones, the chair told me that we all need to have a couple of exercises in our back pocket that we can pull out when the inevitable expected—or unexpected—need arises that prevents the normal class preparation time. That need might be an evening discipline hearing, or it might be a sensitive advisee conversation that cannot wait or it might be the need to take a student to the emergency room.

After the hearing concluded, my department chair gave me a couple of exercise ideas that did not require extensive preparation and that I could employ at these inevitable boarding school moments. I slept longer and far more soundly as a result, and my students were well served. While I, and my colleagues, take great pride in our careful preparation for classes, having a couple of strategies for those moments is essential, and that advice has stuck with me, and I offer it often to others.

The second piece of advice came after a practice early in my first season as head varsity baseball coach. From my point of view, the practice had been a disaster. Nothing that I had wanted to see happen had happened at anywhere near the level of quality I expected, and I was left wondering whether the team would ever be able to execute the plays I knew were essential for competitive success.

The advice came from my assistant coach, who had been the highly respected head varsity baseball coach before administrative duties prompted him to relinquish that role. "Remember, John," he told me, "a bad practice is never as bad as you think it was, and a good practice is never as good as you think it was." He then proceeded to point out some silver linings (he did not sugar coat the fact that, all in all, the practice had really been bad). He also reassured me that the approach I was taking to leading the team was sound (and—he said gently and kindly—the approach would benefit from some refinements). This advice has stuck with me ever since because I believe it is applicable to far more than coaching baseball.

I was struck, in my conversation with new faculty members, by the examples they provided of similarly invaluable "just in time" mentoring from veteran colleagues. Sometimes this mentoring came from the mentor assigned by Sam Brennan to each new faculty, and sometimes this mentoring came informally, as mine had.
Above: 2019-2020 New Faculty Members
A number of the new faculty revealed moments of totally understandable insecurity and described the combination of emotional support and practical advice that they received. "Math Department colleagues," said Johnny McNamara, "some of whom have been at St. Mark's since before I was born, are as committed to my success as I am." English teacher Lauren Kelly said of her department head, Jeniene Matthews, "it seems as if she mentors half the faculty; she is always there for me." Lauren also described Maggie Caron as "my spirit animal," recollecting a moment when Maggie answered Lauren's late night telephone call to engage in creative problem solving to find a student who was not where he was supposed to be, instantly calming Lauren's anxiety. Nora Guyer recounted how her college counseling colleagues, Eric Monheim, Jordan Studevan, and Maria Galvin "will not let me feel dumb," because they patiently offer answers to every question she has.
Above from Left to Right: Jeniene Matthews, English Department; Maggie Caron, English Department; Eric Monheim, College Counseling; Jordan Studevan, College Counseling; Maria Galvin, College Counseling
Complementing the mentoring is a carefully structured program of new faculty orientation that begins in late August, the week before full faculty meetings commence, and continues with periodic meetings throughout the academic year. The August orientation, which spans much of a week, includes big-picture discussion of the School's direction and educational philosophy and practical information like how the course management system, Canvas, works. The orientation includes an introduction to the various School offices and time with administrative personnel.

During that orientation I inevitably find myself helping new faculty find meeting locations because the Main Building can feel like a maze. Indeed, I remember Laura needing a number of days to figure out how to navigate the Main Building's 175,000 square feet when we arrived in 2006. Laura pointed out to me, at one exasperated moment, that I needed to recognize the complexity of the interconnection of the various hallways and that as an alum—which she was not—I had a mental map of the building imprinted in my mind. Orientation also allows demystification of the St. Mark's secret code. What is the Ritz, for example, and where is the Ritz? (The Ritz is the central common room for the West Campus dorms; new faculty—and I—were not able to answer the question of why the Ritz is called the Ritz.)

New faculty members told me that a highlight of the August orientation was a student panel. The students were remarkably candid, and their comments and anecdotes provided a valuable complement to the philosophical discussions, "closing the circuit," as Lauren Kelly observed.

It is clear that spending so much time together during that August orientation creates a sense of camaraderie and mutual support that continues throughout the year. Time together happens throughout the academic year with periodic Saturday morning meetings that Center Director Colleen Worrell leads for classroom teachers new to St. Mark's. It also includes periodic lunch meetings for the entire group of new faculty facilitated by Sam Brennan.

The Saturday morning sessions and the lunches provide a combination of concrete practical advice, insights about our School's culture, and the continued opportunity to build camaraderie. On a practical level, for example, shortly before Family Weekend, new faculty learn what to expect and both the philosophy and the details that characterize the St. Mark's approach to Family Weekend. On a less concrete level, new faculty told me, the gatherings also provide a chance for explanation of the unwritten parts of what makes St. Mark's the community it is. "Not everything is put down on paper," one colleague commented, "which is not a surprise, since cultural norms are often informal." Getting to know each other better, and becoming an ever stronger source of mutual support, were also identified by a number of new faculty as invaluable benefits these periodic gatherings provide.

My appreciation for the sophistication and care that characterizes the St. Mark's approach to orienting new faculty became all the greater when I talked with Sam Brennan, and those who work most closely with her on envisioning and delivering the program, Dean of Academics Nat Waters and Center Director Colleen Worrell. The three of them observed that new faculty orientation actually begins with the interview process, either at hiring fairs or in first-round audio or video conversations.
Above from Left to Right: Assistant Head of School & Dean of Faculty Sam Brennan, Dean of Academics Nat Waters, and Center Director Colleen Worrell
In addition to seeking candidates who possess a record of professional success, a passion for lifelong learning, subject matter expertise, and a commitment to the 24/7 education of students, these colleagues told me, the School will only pursue candidates whose values align with our School's current strategic direction. Sam and Nat listen particularly carefully for commitment to experiential learning, global citizenship, and community and equity. One "tell" for Sam and Nat is the quality of ideas potential candidates offer for a Saturday course or Lion Term engagement. "We feel much more confident about the success a new faculty member will have at St. Mark's by creating this intentional screening process," Sam observed. "Hiring faculty who have demonstrated they buy in to the School's direction," Sam continued, "allows the on-campus orientation conversations to start at a much deeper level."

I was impressed by how deeply Sam thinks about supporting new faculty in all aspects of their life. If figuring out childcare is an issue—or finding a dentist, or a reliable auto mechanic—Sam points new faculty to resources. Sam hopes that a community picnic she hosts in August, at the beginning of new faculty orientation, will facilitate relationships between new and veteran members of the adult community that can provide sources of this practical advice as well as the beginning of lasting friendships.

For teaching faculty, I was impressed by how quickly Sam and Colleen provide supportive classroom feedback. "We get into the classrooms of new faculty within the first month," Colleen explained, "to create a relationship and to offer support not negative judgment. We also want to make immediately comfortable the open-door feel about St. Mark's classrooms that is such an important part of the adult culture here." Sam noted, too, that she and Colleen commit to offering feedback to new faculty after these visits, which, new faculty report, is very reassuring.

"We try hard to meet everyone where they are at," Colleen told me. "The Center is here for everybody, and depending on the new faculty member's amount of experience or role in the School, what the Center can offer differs." This point was reinforced by new faculty members who praised the advice about providing academic support to advisees or students in their classes offered by Director of Academic Support Sarah Eslick.
Above: Director of Academic Support Sarah Eslick
My conversations with new faculty members and my conversations with Sam, Nat, and Colleen reinforced for me how far our boarding schools have come in supporting the entry of new faculty since I began in the profession in 1979. I suspect that 40 years ago boarding schools felt less of an imperative to invest in extensive new faculty orientation because so many new faculty were graduates of boarding schools themselves or had come to their present school from like schools.

Indeed, one of the many ways St. Mark's and peer schools have improved their approach to building a diverse community is the broader variety of backgrounds of faculty we hire. This year's St. Mark's new faculty cohort includes colleagues who were, most recently, in higher education, at a junior boarding school, in a public school, and in a community organization, in addition to colleagues who were, most recently, at other independent schools. The benefit of this diversity of background was made apparent to me in my conversation with new faculty because of the suggestions many offered for making new faculty orientation even better, based on orientation experiences they had had at other organizations.

An outstanding faculty includes a critical mass of veteran colleagues who are looked up to as embodiments of the school's culture. St. Mark's is fortunate to possess this critical mass, as illustrated by the size of the "20-year club," faculty whose photographs are mounted on the hallway outside the Small Dining Room on the occasion of their 20th year at the School.
Above: Plaque commemorating faculty members who have served 20+ years at St. Mark's School
An outstanding faculty also includes a healthy number of talented new members who join a school every year. These talented new faculty bring new ideas and challenge the way we do things, helping to ensure continued improvement in the educational program both inside and outside the classroom. St. Mark's has been fortunate to attract, and orient skillfully, just these sort of new faculty members, a point of pride for me and for Sam Brennan who works tirelessly, along with Nat and Director of Community and Equity Affairs Loris Adams and others to find and attract and support just the right individuals to make St. Mark's ever better.
Above: Director of Community & Equity Affairs Loris Adams
I am very impressed by the way this year's new faculty offer St. Mark's these gifts, just as new faculty who have joined St. Mark's in the past years have done. I was heartened, in listening to this year's group of new faculty, by their descriptions of the support they are experiencing, and by their clear commitment to the values and the vision of our School.