Who would want to be a new teacher these days? Only the very hardy, that's for sure. Most of you can probably remember your first teaching assignment—the unruly student, the difficult parent, the office manager with the key to the office supplies just beyond your reach. New-teacher travails, mishaps and mistakes are a staple of lunchroom legend. It's much tougher now.
Many teachers simply give up on the profession and move on within the first few years. According to Project Lead, a 2009 report funded by the Jones Foundation, 50 percent of all certified public school teachers permanently leave the teaching profession before the end of their fifth year of teaching. In a 2008 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research, it was reported that almost a quarter of entering public school teachers leave during the first three years.
If you go to any new teacher blog, you will hear how rough things are. Take this example: "Being a first-year teacher has many challenges. Mostly, no one thinks you're going to be able to last" (yearoneteacher.blogspot.com; posted by The Braddy Family, December 2007).
The current economic condition makes it even harder for new teachers. On September 1, 2010, the Orange County Register in Orange County, Calif., reported that at least 1,370 of about 2,788 employees targeted for layoffs or contract releases in the county had their notices rescinded or were rehired. In other words, half were still out of work as the new school year began. This story is replicated across the country. Economic survival and dogged resilience are required "new teacher skills."
The labor pool is deep in California, as many schools have released teachers due to the ongoing budget problems in the state. As a human resources professional, I interviewed many teachers this past summer for a very small number of elementary teaching positions. They came with a wealth of staff development, as many saw this as currency in a difficult labor market. They were adept at raising student test scores and, as experienced job hunters, they shared student achievement data during the interview. In other words, they were excellent teacher candidates who could not find a landing place to call home.
They shared stories that would make you wonder why they kept trying to get a job in teaching at all. In their short time in education, many had changed classrooms, schools, or districts more than once. They had been successful in their assignments, yet they had been laid off each year. They understood the economic realities of schools but felt abandoned and disillusioned. Many said that they were about to give up and try something else.
As we lose effective new teachers, we are losing the future teacher leaders at our schools. There are serious consequences to this. Practically speaking, this attrition is detrimental to student achievement, as relatively experienced teachers will be replaced by new teachers beginning again at the bottom of a steep learning curve. Teacher attrition also causes many schools to be staffed with a large number of less qualified teachers at the beginning of each new school year, and this trend is more pronounced in lower-performing schools. In addition, those who stay in the profession tend to move from lower-performing schools to higher- performing schools. This perpetuates the learning gap between rich and poor students.
There is a cost to districts in terms of lost staff development when these teachers walk out the door. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates the cost of replacing these teachers to be $2.2 billion annually (Alliance for Excellent Education, 2005).
Honing Young Talent
Think about how the current economic crisis has made the early years of teaching exponentially tougher for those teachers unlucky enough to have entered the profession since 2008. Many are asked to teach with reduced resources and in less than ideal conditions, and then they are thanklessly released or threatened with release each year.
Many states have new-teacher support programs that are often tied to reaching fully certified or credentialed status. For example, California offers the Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment Program (BTSA), a performance and content standards-based approach to helping teachers develop their teaching skills through inquiry and support from mentor teachers. It is a state requirement that teachers complete a two-year induction program of support and assessment during the first two years of teaching in order to earn a California Clear Teaching Credential. These programs are very important to help new teachers become effective teachers quickly. The idea would seem to be that if teachers are provided intense support in curriculum and instruction from the outset, they will become more effective sooner, thereby improving student success. In theory, they will likely stick with teaching longer given this increased support at the beginning of their careers.
This kind of support is essential, but it is not enough. Principals need to support new teachers in these programs, as they are often seen as "one more thing" by new teachers already swamped by the challenges of making it through the day with their students. They should engage with new teachers during the induction program and show interest and offer tangible support and encouragement.
But there is a broader range of needs for the new teacher than addressing curriculum and instruction. Many new teachers are inducted into school culture, the "how we do things around here" message overtly and covertly expressed in the school community, with the "sink or swim" method.
Another blog post details the frustration: "When you're the new guy at a school, you get the short end of the stick. You don't get your own classroom so you have to float, you have a crappy computer, you don't get the computer lab when you request it, you get the lunch period that dissects your fourth-period class rather than the lunch before or after fourth period, and most of all, when a bunch of kids want to start a club featuring games like Risk, Stratego and chess, guess who they ask to sponsor it?" (yearoneteacher.blogspot.com; posted by The Braddy Family, December 2007).
Three Key Areas of Support
Savvy principals realize they cannot leave the induction of new teachers into the fabric of the school environment to chance, or more importantly, to the wrong people. It must be planned with care and forethought. These principals systematically support their new teachers in three key areas.
- Creating a culture of collaboration focused on student achievement. A school culture set up this way will naturally provide support for new teachers as time and structures are established for them to work with and learn from their experienced peers. Principals in a professional learning community, as described by professional development author Rick Dufour and others, assign an on-staff mentor to work with each new teacher on instruction and curriculum, or they take this on themselves.
- Providing for the basic material and physical needs of neophyte teachers. For example, new teachers are allocated additional supply money for school materials, as they are usually the least likely to be able to afford to spend their own money on classroom supplies. They are not asked to travel between classrooms if space is tight. They are given assignments and students where success is more likely for both students and teacher. They are skipped on the supervision or duty schedule.
- Scheduling training about "how school works" at strategic points in the school year. For example, they provide expectations and support for the back-to-school or parent orientation meeting at the beginning of the year. They share expectations for grading student work and the provision of feedback to students and parents before the first grade-reporting period. In other words, they provide the scaffolding necessary for success.
Smart principals understand the dynamic of being a new teacher. New teachers are the most vulnerable during tough times—they have no job security. They try to fly under the radar and do not want to rock the boat. Principals need to help these teachers navigate the external pressures they may feel as the new guy with no voice. They need support in dealing with powerful teachers on staff, with union leaders during labor unrest, with demanding parents or parent groups.
Take these words from a veteran teacher: "Word of warning: Since you are not tenured, you may have to meet with admins during lunch. They are wrong to ask you to do so, and I blame your Chapter Chair for not standing up for duty-free lunches. This happens in my school all the time, and since the CC didn't take a stand, no one wants to rock the boat" (teachyoualesson.blogspot.com; post by Schoolgal, August 2007).
Smart principals don't take advantage of new teachers by asking them to do something they would not ask of a veteran teacher. At the district level, orientation programs for new teachers should be put in place, not just at the time of hire, but during the first year to explain key issues like teacher evaluation, teacher contracts and district budgets.
Although new teachers often just want to be left alone to teach and avoid distracting non-teaching-related issues, they should be informed about the realities of the current world of education during tough times. This also supports a very valuable resource—our future teacher leaders. In failing to provide this support, we run the risk of producing future teachers who are cynical and disillusioned about the system they may be required to save.