This past summer I sat down with a teacher after her three years in two different elementary schools (one, a high-performing charter in a suburb, the other, a school “on turnaround” in an urban community). She had been one of my (favorite) students back in our 7th and 8th grade English class – over 10 years ago. I think the world of her. I was not surprised by her passion and honesty as she answered my questions about her teaching experience.
I am sure she does not speak for most teachers, and yet I believe her perspective deserves a broader audience. Is she going to teach again? As you read the following, you hear some of the frustration voiced by a number of young men and women in their 20’s—who hoped teaching could be the right career for them—but are not sure, after three or four years. Again—if her views on teacher preparation (too easy), teacher evaluation (little help), a charter school’s freedom to hire and fire, the very nature of the teaching profession—surprise or upset you, I hope you realize she is not alone. Having left her last school, she is free to be perfectly frank. And she cares too much NOT to speak up.
She was quick to say: “There’s so much I don’t know. I’m uninformed about a lot of this.” You might agree, on reading her words. But all of us have good cause to worry about the about the quality and quantity of people joining the teaching profession. (See the recent report - https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/coming-crisis-teaching - including its lowest rating for Colorado https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/understanding-teacher-shortages-interactive.)
Here is one teacher addressing factors that contribute to our challenges with recruitment, retention, and morale. I simply ask you to listen.
TEACHING IN A TURNAROUND SCHOOL
On teaching in a turnaround school (many years in a row on priority improvement or turnaround status) with a fairly new principal.
PH - Some say one of the reasons low-performing schools are so hard to turnaround is the old culture is “in the walls,” impossible to remove, hindering any major change.
The old staff had been there 8-10 years, that’s when the school saw its steady decline. So it wasn’t the principal’s fault (her new principal was the fifth since 2007), and you can’t blame the kids – they were different through those 8-10 years. The only thing that had not changed was the staff.
(By her second year the new principal had helped remove all but 4-5 of the old staff.)
PH - Was it difficult to decide to work in a turnaround school?
I was given a tour of the school and saw a classroom where there was mass chaos, and I felt I could really do something here. I felt needed. Yes, my mindset was – I wanted to help.
PH- Will the school make it? Will its turnaround efforts succeed?
Yes, I think they have a great shot. (She thinks very highly of her principal.) If (the principal’s) hands aren’t tied, she can. If she has control over who teaches. But there is so much that holds them back.
(Whether the turnaround succeeds, she indicated, depends on the adults. As for the students, she told me:) “The kids can do it.”
PH - Would the school be better off if it had the freedom of charters? (Her first school was a charter.)
I think so, if it had the right kind of charter freedom. You could throw out the crummy curriculum and do what works for your kids. Just because the material from the district says “Common Core” on it, that doesn’t mean that it’s appropriate for your class. My kids were capable but they needed steps to get them there. They had gaps that needed to be filled.
(The year before, when her students had been in 2nd grade, they had not made a year’s progress.)
I had never worked with such gaps before. I felt insufficient. It was frustrating; I knew what they needed but I didn’t have the skills to meet their needs.
Stay or leave? Surviving, support, and faith.
PH – You survived the year. How?
Several teachers left after the first few months. One colleague hadn’t taught in a few years; she meant well, but the 3rd graders ate her alive. After shifting her to a lower grade for a while, she left.
There were many days I thought about quitting. It would have been really hard if you didn’t have support. My colleagues were a huge life support. I could talk with them. I could say: “I’m exasperated with this kid,” and they were quick to say, “How can we support you?”
You can have the greatest intentions to do good, but just loving the kids was not enough – you need the tools. I needed so much more.
I would not have made it through without my faith. It was key to handling situations. I think the Lord equipped me, for example, to have the perseverance. It helped to remember every child – in spite of what they were doing or going through – is loved by God.
There were definitely mornings that started out with dread and fear when I wondered if I was I was going to make it. I got there thanks to prayer.
When I knew I wasn’t meeting their needs – one reason to make me feel I might quit – I knew there were bigger reasons to be there. I reminded myself to ask – did I fill them up today? (With kindness, concern, love.)
PH – Maybe you’ve heard Denver Public Schools has decided to put on a new focus on the whole child—as if it was ever about anything else!
(Laughing) That’s the thing, kids are always coming at us as their full beings! This is me! I’m hungry! I’m jealous!
Building trust, classroom management
The first month or so – there were 6 or 7 kids – their behavior was a real challenge.
PH – Why?
They didn’t trust me. When they would yell at me I would pull them aside. I would talk with them and try to show them how much I cared about them, that I cared too much about them to talk to them or treat them in that way.
Once we got through that (and we had established trust), we were ok. It took time, but I think by November they cared for me …. One special education student responded so well to praise – even if was for just sitting still for five minutes—that was an accomplishment!—and he got better and better.
I want them to feel loved and accepted. I want them to feel that they are safe.
(But then when her class went to another part of the school for “specials”-art, music, gym- where they might be with this teacher once or twice a week who hadn’t established that trust, she said her students would behave badly.) They didn’t feel safe, loved, protected in that room. Or like me, that teacher needed more tools to make them successful.
Following the district curriculum and lack of resources
We didn’t have the resources. In math, we were only given one copy of a set; it was supposed to be a workbook where the kids could do the work and write their answers on the pages – they were not meant to be textbooks. I needed to make copies for everyone –but the district only allows us a certain number of copies each year, and the copier in the office would stop when I reached my limit. So I ended up going to Kinkos to make the extra copies for all the students—remaking the book so they all had copies. That was the only way I could use the lesson as it was designed.
There’s no curriculum that made sense for my kids. It wasn’t clear. I had to figure it out. We were unable to follow the sequence. A number of students weren’t anywhere close to being able to read the textbook. I had to differentiate. I created some small groups….
Creating small groups and classroom management
The first half of the year, when I worked with a small group, there were always 5 or 6 in another part of the room who could not work on their own, who could only really focus when I offered direct instruction to the whole class. So I had to make that choice of classroom management versus meeting their needs in small groups.
(But she was able to look back with some satisfaction.)
We figured out some good routines. Maybe by January we were really working smoothly and had successful small group time. When we started I had silent reading for two minutes – that is all they could handle. By the end of the year we had reached 30 minutes, and everyone was quiet, and if not reading, at least looking at books with pictures.
And during this time I could do small group work.
So for the last two or three months it was heaven – at least we were able to finally work well – and the small group work could go on while others were more or less on task, not interrupting.
(Expectations and rigor. She saw what was taking place in other classrooms, and it troubled her.)
I knew there were colleagues where the classrooms did not look like mine. They did not have high expectations. And where they were paid $10,000 more than me just because they’d been doing it 10 years longer.
There wasn’t enough rigor in so many classes. This was partly because of the struggles with behavior management. You need to establish good rigor. My kids were on the computers—responding to writing prompts on their reading—so when the state tests came along they were used to it. But other teachers never prepared their students that way, so of course they would be unprepared for state tests done on computers.
It’s not enough to have teachers who care and have decent classroom management; too many weren’t expecting enough. I’m glad I had my two previous years to know how to challenge the kids so they were ready for the state tests. How could some classes not even do sample tests with their kids?
That does nothing. I did not grow professionally by it. I thought that (teacher evaluation process) was the worst joke. I don’t understand how this was supposed to help me.
My evaluation went like this: I’m sitting at a desk – my principal has her back to me as she types answers on the evaluation check sheet—she’s asking what I do and she takes 30-40 minutes to fill it out. That’s it! It’s just paperwork. (The principal, she said, acknowledged how little value this had for her as well.)
My rating was fine. And yes, the principal observed my classes, but it’s not like I grew at all from it. She didn’t evaluate me; she rated me. She does not have the time to really evaluate and help us improve. (The principal was often out of the building at meetings called by the district, she told me.) I needed someone so badly to come in, to be in my class ….
The evaluation system was so complicated. I didn’t even complete some of what they asked (“Show what you are doing to ….”). I would rather spend 10 minutes looking at the data on my kids….
PH – I explained some of the story behind SB 191 (The Educator Effectiveness Bill) to her.
It’s not constructive. It was so frustrating (that) this is what (my year of teaching) boils down to – a 30-minute session with the principal (with her back to me) filling out a form!
TEACHING – IN AMERICA, IS IT A PROFESSION?
Americans don’t see teaching as a profession. Parents don’t speak to their doctor the way they speak to us (as teachers). I sometimes wanted to say: I actually went to college to learn how to teach! Not all parents have a lot of knowledge about what kids go through, how they learn, how to help them learn….
Her analysis had two components – 1) how teachers are prepared, the expectations of the teacher preparation programs (she received her teaching degree in another state); and 2) how teachers are hired and protected.
Many teachers get into the profession because it’s easy.
PH – They see it as easy, or it IS easy?
It IS easy. A lot of people get in because they love kids and want to do good—but it could be more difficult. Teachers are smart and driven and passionate so we could handle more rigor ourselves. (Obviously we don't do it for the money). I think it should be harder to be a teacher. I think it is a very difficult profession. You know you can’t always make it in engineering or economics, but you can get a teaching degree. I loved my classes and professors, I just wish they could have offered us more. More content, more time, more training … just more. I did not feel the program was fulfilling.
I wish my college classes were harder, I wish there were cut-offs along the way and that the people you graduated with had successfully completed a rigorous program. I never thought anyone was afraid–we were all going to make it. There should be teachers who don’t make it. Or at least (set expectations) rigorous enough that they have to push to “make it.”
I wish a teaching degree was as difficult as a degree in biology or economics. I think it would change the profession. It’s not competitive enough of a career to make it feel like a profession. I think most people go into teaching because it’s easy and reliable.
2) Hiring and firing
(How she was hired, and how teachers are protected, are among the reasons for her concerns about the teaching profession.)
When I applied to that (turnaround) district they did not ask me any hard questions. They just needed bodies. Every place I interviewed asked me to work there. It was as if–well, “She’s not crazy. Let’s hire her.”
Teaching is the only place you can keep teaching even if you're bad. That’s not a profession to me. You're just getting people to monitor kids.
PH – “Even if you’re bad?”
Yes. Teachers are protected. I don't believe in what the union was doing. I couldn’t even sit in when the union people were there. It was all about protecting the teacher. That’s not helping the kids. I want to be where they'll push us to be better. Sometimes the union is there to pacify complaints about planning periods, just things to make teachers more comfortable. That is less important to me than making my students better.
This why I think (her previous school, a charter) has so many advantages; (with those schools) you have that movement of the faculty – you have that capability to not rehire people. I think the business-like feel allows you create a culture that can be successful. The hiring process is difficult and (they) can afford to be “picky.”
Yes, I’m frustrated… but I’m going to show up, I’m going to love this group of kids. But it hurts to know that if kids have second-rate teachers or teachers who don’t care, the kids can’t do anything about it.