Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Letter to a friend who is a new teacher...

I read your tweet today, “another eeh day of teaching.  This would be so much easier if I could observe what it is I’m supposed to be doing before I teach it.” 

My heart goes out to you.  Teaching is hard.  It’s hard to imagine the gold nugget of skills or knowledge one wants these fresh faces walking out of the classroom with.  It’s hard trying to imagine just the right kind of assessment that kids can do that will show you whether they got it or not.  Making that assessment NOT look like yet another test or quiz, is harder still.  It’s an art and a science to design just the right kids of experiences one thinks the kids need to do in order to gain the knowledge, learn the skills that are the goals of the day. 

A colleague of mine with the Center for Teaching Quality (and one of the authors of Teaching 2030), Kilian Betlach wrote in that book, “First we ask new teachers to do too much with too little preparation, and then we ask too little of them in what should be the second stage of a teaching career.”  While Kilian and I don’t agree on a lot, I cannot agree with that statement enough. 

You’re being asked to do too much with too little preparation.  I remember when you were visiting my classroom last year.  We had great conversations about what kids need to learn, and how they could best learn it.  I remember that those conversations were far too short, far too infrequent, and had far too much time in between each one. 

Wouldn’t it have been great if we could have worked together for an entire year?  I remember my own training.  I was apprenticed for an entire year to a master teacher who really knew her stuff.  Everyday in the fall, I was at her door.  I observed her classes all day, working one-on-one with some students during guided practice time.  During her preparation period, she invested tons of time into me: answering my many questions; discussing pedagogy; hearing about my frustrations with how bad I was at this new job!  In the Spring, I took over two of her classes full time.  Every day, we would plan together.  She would give me excellent advise about the lesson I had planned, really pushing my thinking.  Then after school, we would debrief.

I remember that this was one of the hardest years of my life!  I was working at UPS at the time to pay rent, so every morning at two the alarm would go off.  From three to eight in the morning, I would be off-loading trailer after trailer of boxes that would be delivered later that day.  At eight, I would punch out and go home for a quick shower, shave and change of clothing to arrive at my Master Teacher’s classroom by her second period preparation time.  After working in her classroom, and debriefing after school, I went to the University.  There, from four in the afternoon to seven or eight in the evening, I took classes from the professors.  When I got home, I had maybe an hour of time with my wife before I had to study and write papers and lessons for a couple of hours before I went to bed.

It would have been so much easier, and healthier, if I hadn’t had to work.  If I could have gotten four more hours of sleep each night, waking at six or seven in the morning to go to school then university…  but those are only memories now.

I’ve learned that I was pretty unusual that year.  Most of my student-teacher cohort didn’t work with their Master teachers daily.  We were only required to spend two or three days a week at our site school until our solo teaching began spring semester.  I remember being really tired and cranky that year, but now I appreciate the extra time I was able to put in observing a great teacher at work and the hours she invented in talking to and training me. 

Today, most new teachers are going through university-based programs similar to the one I did fifteen years ago.  A growing minority of new teachers, however, is going to alternative induction programs like Teach for America and the New Teacher Project.  These alternative programs offer very little training, substituting five or six weeks in the summer for the full year of university courses I took.   During their training time, many TfA’ers or NTP’er are placed with summer school teachers. 

Now, I’m not saying that the good people at TfA and NTP aren’t doing their very best training their recruits.  I’m not saying that TfA and NTP recruits are worse teachers than I was when I was doing my student teaching and then first year as a full-time teacher.  I’ve work with many TfA’ers and Oakland Teaching Fellow (our cities NTP branch) and they have been universally wonderful and dedicated young women and men.  What I am saying is this: their five weeks is not enough training and support, even if I count the after-work support they get, it’s still not enough.  It is certainly not enough before they are expected to be on their own with a full day’s schedule of children.  Many of these young teachers then make up for their lack of training with a lot of chutzpa and long hours.

In contrast, the Urban Teacher Residency has a much more supportive model.  They recruit new teachers into an experience where they can co-teach with a mentor teacher for a year.  This is not unlike my traditional teacher preparation program experience.  The urban teacher residents are paid during their residency year, which is very different than my experiences.  I’m not sure if, in these times of ubiquitous budget problems, the residents earn enough to make ends meet without a second job.  

Of course, you and I know that teachers need support after they have found their first job.  I’m a dreamer.  I think that school districts should provide new teachers with a mentor who works at the new teachers site.  This allows them to check in often.  I also think this that this mentoring should last longer than one year.  I think it should last three year.  Nearly ½ of new teacher don’t stay in the classroom after one or two years.  We could talk a lot about the many reasons why, but I wont go deeply into that in this letter.  What I will say is this: most of the reasons teachers leave the profession within their first three years of school could have been prevented, dealt with, helped with, if that new teacher had a mentor s/he could turn to.  The New Teacher Center in Santa Cruz knows this.  This is their core mission.  Their work laid the foundation of California’s Beginning Teacher Support & Assessment (BSTA) program.  Of course, once the mentoring concept from the New Teacher Center became a product to be mass-delivered in BSTA, the quality of the experience began to vary widely.  I know new teachers who simple love their BTSA coaches, and others who report that BTSA was just another level of administrative crap they had to do and that it made their first two years harder, not easier.

I’m not sure what kind of support and mentoring you are getting in your teaching experience this year.  I can guess from your tweet that it is not enough.  I’m sorry about this.  As a state, we can do better by our new teachers.  We can choose to make training and supporting new teachers a priority.  Instead of worrying about how we are going to replace all of the new teachers who leave the classroom, we could be making sure that our new teachers have the training and support they need.  


Anonymous said...

Hi Dave,

I'm posting anonymously because I don't want this comment to turn up in a search engine. I was actually thinking of writing to you today to ask if I could come observe up at your school again after I leave my program in early May.

During my first semester of student teaching, I was placed at a good school (technically failing) with a wonderful CT who had 14 years of experience, 11 of them in teaching US history to 11th graders - my target subject/grade. Because her school wasn't sure if they were going to go on a rotating schedule, I was there from period 1 to period 4. I observed and occasionally assisted in periods 1 and 2, studied during period 3 (she also taught beginning English) and did my student teaching in period 4. I was required to teach two full consecutive weeks of entire class periods toward the end of the semester and work my way up to that point during the first part of the semester. We also talked, though not very often, about teaching. While at that high school I observed at least 5 other teachers in several different subjects/classrooms several times - more than anyone else in my program, as it turns out. It was invaluable.

I am currently placed in a 7th grade CORE classroom at a nice, though technically failing, middle school. My CT has 22 years of experience teaching English and World History and is a master at it. He's amazing. However, I only observe him teach English. I then teach the history portion, one period a day. Because I can't observe him teach history first, I am never quite sure of what I should be doing. (I learn by observing, then practicing while being watched by a guide until I have it down, but I really *need* to observe *exactly* what I should be doing at first, and I'm not getting that at my placement.) I have a hard time simplifying my material enough for the kids and a lot of what both he and my previous CT did has become so instinctual for them that they have a hard time putting it in words. What to do is "obvious" to them, and both of them have long since destroyed all their lesson plans and teach from memory. I wish experienced teachers spent more time reflecting on what they do so they can explain it to newbies like myself, and I wish they kept their lesson plans - at least a couple samples!

Unfortunately, as well, all of the core classes at my current site are taught during the same periods so I have not had the chance to observe nearly as much. I am hoping that once my student teaching program is over I can spend at least 2-3 hours a day observing in classrooms all over the bay area to make up for what I'm missing.

Earlier I read that you think that we should go through a 3 year, paid, program to become teachers. I agree. It is extremely difficult for poor people to pay for student teaching and that sort of thing adds far too much stress to our lives. I am hard-presesd to think of another occupation that requires you volunteer for a year before you can qualify for the job. Also, having three years of in-classroom support would ease us through the first three years, when most teachers quit. I am hoping that my BTSA mentor takes his or her role seriously because I know I am going to need it - both of my CTs had classes that required almost no classroom management, so I'm going to have to learn classroom management skills entirely on my own. It's a scary prospect.

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