Signing days aren't just for athletes anymore.
Dozens of people mingled in Finley Stadium's club room Friday night as school names were called out — East Ridge, Soddy-Daisy, Tyner. As the schools were called out, new teachers who will be joining those schools this fall had their pictures taken and gathered together with all the fanfare of a college signing day.
The new teacher signing day was an event brainstormed by the school district's human resources department to bring together and celebrate first-year teachers and teachers who are joining Hamilton County Schools for the first time.
It is part of ongoing efforts this year to better attract, hire and retain teachers in Hamilton County and to "recruit from the first day until the first day [of school]," said Chief Talent Officer Keith Fogleman.
About 350 new teachers will be hired this year, according to district estimates, which is about on par with the number of teachers who come and go each year in a district that regularly has more than 3,000 educators working for it.
As of June 7, 85% of vacancies had been filled for the 2019-20 school year, Fogleman said, but the district is still looking for secondary math and science positions, as well as exceptional education teachers.
But Friday night's event was meant to celebrate and connect new teachers — to show them they are valued, said Erin Kirby, the district's induction specialist.
"This is an excellent opportunity for us to show you how valued you are," Kirby told those gathered at the event. "That's one of the most important things in your first year in Hamilton County is that you feel valued, connected and supported."
New teachers received goodie bags and bingo cards that encouraged them to connect with others in attendance. Dozens of school principals and district leaders were there, welcoming them and chatting about their schools.
The district's induction team, which expanded since Superintendent Bryan Johnson brought Fogleman onboard, was ready to sign teachers up for orientation, the second annual New Teacher Academy, and even to help connect those who might be looking for a roommate.
Jonathan Barry isn't a first-year teacher — this year will actually be his fifth year in the classroom, but he's new to Hamilton County. In his former district, they didn't have anything like this to welcome newcomers, he said.
Barry said he was excited to be joining a school district with a diverse student body. He didn't always know he wanted to teach elementary school, but he knew he wanted to teach.
"I had a lot of teachers growing up that went above and beyond for me, and I wanted to do that," he said. The first time he visited East Ridge Elementary, where he'll be teaching starting this fall, it felt like the right place for him, he said.
Recent graduates Desiree Oliver, Tamela Cooley and Hailey Rapheal agreed that the event was a great way to start meeting other new teachers.
"It's a great way to network with teachers you wouldn't have met otherwise," Oliver said. She graduated from the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in December and will be joining Tyner Middle School as a special education teacher.
Cooley and Rapheal didn't know each other before Friday night, but found out they will both be working at East Ridge Elementary.
"Tonight, you are able to see a bunch of different people and see the diversity in the district," Cooley said.
Friday's first-ever "signing day," was inspired by similar events held by other school districts in Tennessee, district officials said. An avid college football fan, Johnson said it was modeled after the "signing days" that athletes typically take part in with great fanfare.
This year's signing day is just the beginning of the preparation process. Next, new hires will attend orientation, a New Teacher Academy in July and begin preparing for the school year alongside the other staff at their schools.
The district rolled out extensive new teacher support programs this past school year, including a three-year induction program, new teacher support coaches, a new teacher network, and matched every new teacher with a mentor teacher. These initiatives are an effort to improve the district's first-year retention rate, which hovered around 74 percent at the end of the 2017-18 school year.
Johnson said that, as a former chief academic officer, he knows what it feels like to be in the classroom.
"I've been in the classroom and I truly know what it takes for teachers every day to make sure students are prepared," he said. "We believe that we have the pieces that put us in a place to do that now."
Contact Meghan Mangrum at email@example.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.