Helping New Teachers
Everyone knows what the problem is: within the next decade, the United States public schools will have to hire about 2.2.million new teachers. Faced with massive retirements as experienced teachers begin to age out of the system, directives to reduce class size even as student enrollment increases, and requirements from the No Child Left Behind legislation to have the most “highly qualified” teachers in the classroom, the personnel situation is daunting.
Even more daunting is this reality: that 30 percent of new teachers leave their jobs within the first three years, and 50 percent within the first five years. Or think about this—even as the student population becomes more diverse, reflecting changing immigration patterns in this country, there are fewer teachers of color entering the profession’s ranks.
So how do schools recruit, and retain, teachers who are going to stay in the field?
This significant book, which is based on a longitudinal study of 50 new teachers in Massachusetts, is an attempt to provide answers to those questions. Clearly written, beautifully organized, and backed up with specific anecdotes and details that could be easily applied in most school districts, this should be widely circulated among school administrators and school board members. It is descriptive and prescriptive, and of critical importance to avoid what seems to be a relentless brain drain of new teachers, who are often defeated by indifferent school administrators, lagging pay, lack of appropriate and useful feedback, and a supportive environment that would allow them to actually do their jobs.
The authors recognize that the newest teaching recruits, whether trained in conventional educational programs or certified through fast-track alternatives, seek a different experience than those who are on the verge of retirement. Instead of wanting an autonomous classroom, these new teachers crave a collegial environment, where they can share ideas about how best to reach their students. They want principals who stop by their classrooms and give them suggestions; what they don’t want is to feel adrift in a confusing, indifferent workplace.
As the authors write3, “Learning to teach is difficult, complex work; learning to teach students from markedly different backgrounds is even more complex.”
Pity the rookie who is essentially told, “Here are your keys, here’s your room, good luck.”
The authors describe in detail the experiences of 10 new teachers, some who are recent college graduates, and others who are career changers with experience in other fields. Some of these teachers work in urban schools, some in charter schools, and still others in suburban settings. Despite these apparent differences, the authors identify some of the common complaints. One problem is that the new teachers who are assigned to large urban schools (precisely the ones that suffer from high turnover) are usually the least likely to get the support they need. Figuring out classroom management and discipline issues isn’t easy, especially at the beginning; in a school where clear rules aren’t defined, and leadership is largely absent, it is no small wonder that new teachers are so easily discouraged.
Without guidance from a principal, or veteran teachers, new recruits often feel as if they’re being set up to fail. It doesn’t help that, in most schools, the most experienced teachers are assigned to the best courses (Advanced Placement, honors sections), with new teachers usually given the most challenging and demanding classes that require the most preparation and often offer the least academically motivated students. Or new teachers are building nomads, without even a desk of their own to call home, compelled to wander the school from period to period.
Beginning teachers also want curricular guidance; without being forced into a lock-step program, they are often frustrated at being expected to reinvent both content and methodology, especially when there is also an expectation that whatever they teach is aligned with state standards. And the new generation of teachers doesn’t necessarily want to remain in the classroom–opportunities to work in staff development, literacy coaching, curriculum development and other roles within the educational system would help retain these hires.
What are some of the proposed remedies? The authors suggest real mentoring relationships that actually help new teachers; more school-based hiring, with authentic orientations and staff development programs to acclimate new teachers to a school’s culture–even something as basic as making sure teachers have adequate supplies and equipment (like a telephone in the classroom). In one school they cite, in Evanston, Illinois, a new teacher’s mentor shepherds her from hiring to tenure. Wouldn’t it be nice if all new teachers could benefit from such nurturing!
As the spring/summer hiring season begins to get underway, administrators should keep a copy of this book front and center on their bookshelves, as a potent reminder of how they should be recruiting and retaining their professional staff.#
Finders and Keepers: Helping New Teachers Survive and Thrive in Our New Schools by Susan Moore Johnson and The Project on The Next Generation of Teachers. John Wiley & Sons, Inc, San Francisco, California ( 2004): 314 pp.