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Professional Opinion

The human cost of short-term teaching

Teaching is not a brief resume item on the way to a “real” career.

Teach For America founder Wendy Kopp once said, “If top recent college graduates devoted two years to teaching in public schools, they could have a real impact on the lives of disadvantaged kids.” I agree. TFA members and other short-term teachers have changed kids’ lives—for the worse.

As an idealistic Ivy League graduate, I was the student TFA likes to recruit. According to Kopp’s thesis, my education, academic achievements, and enthusiasm would transfer into great teaching.

But these credentials were not enough to make me a good teacher. I was a weak third grade teacher when I started in the Bronx. I couldn’t get students to stop talking over me. I couldn’t interest them in the material. I had no notion of what they already knew and didn’t know. I couldn’t calm their anxieties or relate to their life-experiences. They acted out and did little work.

I had been a “top student,” but I was certainly not a top teacher. Not surprisingly, scholarly attainments and lofty ambitions did not translate to the hard-won skills of managing a room full of emotionally and academically needy 8-year-olds.

It took me years to acquire the skills needed to provide children with the education they deserve. Good teachers must have knowledge of students’ cultural background and the life of the neighborhood. They must learn the fine balance needed for maintaining order while conveying love.

Through experience, teachers learn to successfully work with autistic, defiant, scared, and dyslexic children. Teaching requires insight into children’s feelings and experiences, and the ability to guide them through the seismic shifts of childhood with a steady, knowing hand.

Ill-equipped to succeed

According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s Office, one in five American children show signs of a mental disorder. In 2011, there were more than 660,000 American children in foster care.

Newly minted college graduates are ill-equipped to succeed in this landscape. Yet the myth of the “enthusiastic wunderkind teacher” persists. Would we want a nanny that had never worked with kids? We shouldn’t allow those who wouldn’t qualify as nannies to be professional educators.

Would we expand this idea to other professions? Do we think the best lawyers are those fresh out of law school? Would we choose a rookie surgeon because of his or her enthusiasm?

When applied to any other profession, this notion of equating high achievement with lack of experience is exposed as profoundly wrong-headed. Asserting that the best teachers are those without experience insults teachers and debases their profession.

Do we think that the rapid turnover in our field goes unnoticed by the children? As a charter school administrator, I saw the emotional scars left by the constant churn of teaching staff. The children, feeling unloved, unwanted and abandoned, cried every year when teachers they loved left.

Each year I saw the new teachers scrambling. Most novice teachers were unable to establish order in their classrooms. These rooms were chaotic places where angry children bullied scared children, and where quiet, struggling children didn’t get the help they needed because their teacher was putting out fires. Overwhelmed, scared teachers produced overwhelmed, scared students.

On rare occasions, first-year teachers do possess classroom management skills. I worked with one such teacher. She was a Harvard graduate from the same urban neighborhood as our students. The children listened to her. Unfortunately, after a year, most of her students had actually lost ground in reading because she had consistently chosen texts that were far beyond their instructional level.

She had invested energy into “managing” her class, as first-year teachers do. This left her with little bandwidth for developing sound lessons. With experience, she could have become a great teacher. Sadly, she left the job after two years.

Steep curve

The learning curve of teaching is too steep for even the best and the brightest to be successful if they don’t stay. We need to recruit and retain bright people.

All children deserve experienced, dedicated educators who are committed to constant growth. TFA-type short-termers offer one benefit. They are inexpensive and therefore attractive to budget-strapped communities. The old proverb, however, says it best: “You get what you pay for.” But this is an entirely different discussion.

Catherine Ionata is a professional educator and an advocate for child-centered learning.