First-Year Fauquier Teacher Reflects on Teaching Amid the Pandemic
Shortly after graduating with her master’s degree in education, Leah Gornick got the call she’d been waiting for. She got the job. Less than a week later, she packed up her life in North Carolina to jump-start her education career, teaching social studies at Liberty High School in Fauquier County, Virginia.
It was the summer of 2020, months into the pandemic. So, she knew her first year teaching would be different than she imagined; she just didn’t know just how different.
“We didn’t know if classes would be in person, virtual, or hybrid, so we started planning for all three,” Gornick said. “I thought I knew what I was getting into, but really I had no idea.”
Like so many teachers, Gornick started the school year teaching a full class of students completely virtually. It was hard to connect with students she’d only known as thumbnail images on her laptop, but she did her best. She found time to meet virtually one-on-one with her students to try to make more meaningful connections.
“In this field, it’s about so much more than teaching students the facts. We try to build relationships with them and teach them how to be good people. That’s really challenging to do in a virtual setting,” Gornick added.
What became her unexpected lifeline was a fellow teacher at Liberty High School, Katherine Waddle. For several years, Waddle has served as a mentor as part of her school division’s participation in Reach Virginia. Led by two retired educators, Reach Virginia has created a network of educators in 14 school systems. The Reach program supports a school division’s capacity to provide high-quality professional development to train learning-focused mentors for beginning teachers.
Many times, Gornick and Waddle’s mentorship relationship took the form of an unannounced check-in. One would drop by the other’s room to ask a question or talk through a challenge. Other times, Waddle nudged Gornick to take on new challenges, like leading other social studies teachers in curriculum development.
Waddle, who’s taught for 10 years, says that she wished she had a strong mentor in her early days of teaching. She almost left in her first year as an educator, and she thinks steady support from more experienced colleagues is the key to retaining teachers.
According to a 2018 University of Pennsylvania study, 44 percent of new teachers leave within the first five years. Reach Virginia is working to change that by addressing the need to modernize the model for mentoring beginning teachers.
“We want our teachers to stay, so we’re really working to grow this mentorship program so they feel supported,” Waddle said. “We want to take the stigma out of instructional coaches. It doesn’t mean you’re not doing a good job. It’s about growing and perfecting your teaching practices. For me, even though I have 10 years of teaching, it means I have this vast arsenal of people who have my back. That’s what we want our new teachers to feel, too.”
For Gornick, having a mentor dedicated to supporting her in big and small ways made all the difference in her first year of teaching—especially during a pandemic.
“One of the greatest parts about starting teaching this year is that we’re all navigating this very difficult thing together,” she said, “so I never felt alone in any of the challenges I faced this year.”
With a mission to retain excellent teachers in public education, Reach Virginia supports educators in 14 school divisions, from as far north as Loudoun County to as far south as Stafford County. Learn more at ReachVa.org.