New Teacher and (Seasoned) Teacher Development…

I hate when people say “old teacher,” and “senior teacher” is just a little better — I definitely prefer “seasoned teacher,” personally — but also know that it can all be a matter of semantics to some. I like to look at myself as being reflective — and also highly critical of the way that I’ve done things throughout the years. I was recently looking back at a list of my classroom rules from my first year of teaching — wow is about all I can say!

I definitely went in with a do it to them before they do it to you mentality, and while I felt I had to be that stern disciplinarian then, I have since found other ways to achieve the same goals. I listened intently to those seasoned teachers whom I trusted and soaked in everything I could. Honestly, I can’t say as I agreed with everything that was said — but I knew that there had to be some truth to much of it and that I just had to figure out how to make it work for me. I was so fortunate to work with some incredibly gifted and dedicated individuals who took it as a responsibility to pass on their knowledge to us new guys.

There’s not a doubt in my mind that I had a lot of ideas, that I had a ton of things I knew I wanted to do in my classroom. I talked about these things incessantly with my mentor and I could always tell when I was headed in the wrong direction — her chuckle let me know this loud and clear. Thankfully, I typically listened, but there were times when I was too hard-headed to do so. And she may as well have been standing at my door telling me I told ya so, Lenzi as I fell on my face. But I like to think that I learned through the process.

Greensburg Salem has created an environment in which we are encouraged to take chances, that it’s okay to try something and fail. We’re also encouraged to continually reflect upon what we’re doing. What worked? What didn’t? Why didn’t this work this year when it was a success last year? Was it the group of students? Was it my presentation? Was the lesson sound in its structure? All of these things go through my mind on a daily basis as I critique what I’ve done.

Contrary to what some people would tell you, especially those who are continually attacking teachers, I feel that the vast majority of us actually do this on a daily basis. We want to get better and we would love to be recognized for it. I’m not talking about awards — honestly, I don’t care one bit about an award — I’m talking about a thank you from a parent or an administrator or a peer. That’s the one area I find to be lacking the most in our industry, a genuine thank you. We don’t get a turkey or a Christmas Bonus, but man, a well-placed thank you or great work on (insert one of the many great things you’ve done and weren’t recognized for here) can be worth a million bucks.

And all of this brings me back to the original point of this post. How in the world do we get from being that new, fresh teacher to that seasoned teacher? How do we figure out how to get through the hard times and the heartbreaks and the setbacks in order to continue on? I’m sure you’ve seen or heard the statistics — new teachers are dropping like flies. It’s unbelievably difficult to retain the best and the brightest — but why?

We’re told that Teach for America is a way to go — and I have no gripes with those looking to go that route, in fact I applaud you — but I just can’t believe in that model (if you didn’t get the chance to see my original post dealing with TFA, you can check it out here). I refuse to believe that six weeks is enough training to turn somebody in to an effective teacher. I had years of training and a semester’s worth of student teaching (not required for TFA) and I can assure you that I thought I was ready — and yes, that word is in italics for a reason. I was nowhere near ready. I can’t begin to explain to you how many times I went home from a day of school ready to find a new line of work. Heck, I had tended bar and made a lot more money and never had these kinds of headaches.

I can assure you that I didn’t make it through because of the New Teacher Induction Program or because of some magic potion Administration sprinkled upon us. Looking at it honestly, I think I probably survived for two reasons — my refusal to give up on it due to how embarrassed I knew I would be and the group of friends I made who also were new and who also were facing the same difficulties. It didn’t take too many Friday afternoon social situations to realize that we were all going through the same thing. And that means so much — to know that you’re on an island, but that there are others with you on that island? well, that can make all of the difference in the world. (Incidentally, I came in with a great group of karaoke singers – the patrons of Bella Luna can certainly attest to this…)

This morning I got an email from Erika Phyall, who works for the USC Rossier School of Education. Honestly, I almost deleted it — it looked like many spam emails I’ve been getting lately dealing with this or that (I swear our school email accounts were sold…). I’m glad I didn’t, though. Erika read my post dealing with TFA and it interested her, as they are also working to figure out how to retain new teachers. This is truly a serious problem, as evidenced by the graphic below:


I applaud USC Rossier for creating this — it’s easy to read and digest. It provides a ton of information, but it’s understandable at the same time. Perhaps what I like about it the most is that it not only addresses the problem, but also provides possible solutions.

Governor Tom Corbett has ensured that the idea of throwing money at the field of education certainly isn’t going to happen in Pennsylvania, so this eliminates some of the solutions. However, I truly believe that we need to focus our efforts on areas that were addressed in the graphic — specifically through: face time with administrators, mentoring, time to collaborate with colleagues, ongoing new teacher seminars and beginning teacher networks. I agree with each and every one of these ideas.

At the same time, I feel that we need to make sure that this training is effective. I can’t tell you how many professional development sessions I’ve sat through thinking we paid money for this?  Oftentimes we need to realize that we are our best asset — that we have the knowledge amongst us to truly help each other the most. Other times that may come from the outside. All too often, though, what has served as professional development is a complete waste of time and money. We need to make sure that we are planning these sessions with as much care as we would on our own for our students.

We need to trust our teachers in their professional development responsibilities just as we do in the classroom. We need to expect as much from ourselves in our mentoring and leading as we wanted when we were in the newbie’s shoes. We need to set the standard high and make it very clear that we will all fall back at times — but that we will support each other as we all climb back toward that goal. We need to think outside of the proverbial box and not be afraid to take chances or make fools of ourselves. But then we need to take a look at what we’ve done and ask those questions again: What worked? What didn’t? Why didn’t this work this year when it was a success last year? Was it the group of students? Was it my presentation? Was the lesson sound in its structure?

Forty-six percent of all new teachers are leaving within the first five years of entering this profession. Think about that — let that number sink in. It’s appalling, actually. We all must take responsibility in bringing that number down.

And we can all do better…


(Incidentally, click on that graphic — it’ll take you to USC Rossier’s blog — definitely some good stuff going on there…)

Just a little about Teach for America (TFA)…

As a public school teacher, I’ve always been a little weary of what Teach for America does. Don’t get me wrong, on the surface, it’s a noble experiment — take their own words, for instance: “We recruit a diverse group of leaders with a record of achievement who work to expand educational opportunity, starting by teaching for two years in a low-income community.” Heck, who wouldn’t want that?

But it’s not quite that simple and I learned more about this first hand from a former student of mine who will start with TFA this summer. Zane (*not his real name – I just always liked Zane Smith when he pitched for the Pirates and for some reason always wanted to use his name in a situation like this one…) is a former student of mine who excelled at just about everything. I know that people say this too much, but I honestly have never once heard anybody say a bad word about him. He’s somebody we’re all very proud of and know he will do great things.

Admittedly, I was a little apprehensive when he told me last summer that he was working to get hired by TFA. Does he really know what that entails? Has college muddled his mind? What in the world is he thinking??? 

But I also knew that if anybody could do this, it’s Zane. I’m certain that he’d be great in front of a classroom – in fact, I figured that he’ll be great to have in front of a group of young children who need a strong teacher, who I’m sure has aced all of his Ed courses, and whom I know will be a strong role model as well. But then I had the chance to talk to him recently and found out some more about how TFA works.

The first thing that really threw me for a loop is that Zane is not an Ed Major — okay, I get it — not everybody has to be an Ed Major to be a strong teacher. I figured he’d at least had some courses in the field of Education in order to become a teacher. NOPE. Not one. Nada. Zilch. You can go back and read that again. This young man, whom we are entrusting with educating some of our neediest students, has not had one single course in the field of Education. He will receive five weeks of “intensive” training that prepares him for his teaching experience. You see, we value teachers so much that we believe it’s possible to churn ’em out in all of five weeks. And we wonder why it is that the % of teachers leaving within their first five years hovers around the 50% mark.

Hmmm, okay. So I get it — we need Physics and Biology and Calculus teachers so badly that perhaps this is why — he’s got the undergraduate degree in a highly technical field and he’s being poached by TFA for the first two years, forgiving his student loans (many of them, I should say, not all) and then hoping that he’s had such a rewarding experience that he sticks with it. Umm, yeah, about that.

You see, Zane is not a Physics, Biology or Calculus major. Zane is going to graduate soon with a degree in Psychology (*full disclosure – I’ve changed that — just in the interest of trying to protect his identity again, just in case).  But I can assure you that his degree is in almost a polar opposite field from what he’ll be teaching: Math. Seriously.

So we live in a world where teachers are being crushed for leaving the industry in the first five years of teaching and we wonder why that is. We put young professionals with a Bachelor of Whatever in front of a group of students who are just begging to be led, and we then wonder why they don’t stick with it. Yep, makes perfect sense.

I’d like to make sure that one thing is absolutely, positively crystal clear — not one word of this is intended to show anything less than complete faith in Zane — I just seriously doubt this model.

And you wonder why we’ve got a chip on our shoulder? Seriously?