Monday, May 19, 2008

A Parent's Big Questions about Education, Part 1

Recently, a concerned parent, Nanci, emailed me some questions she has about her children’s schools. She wants a teacher’s perspective before she pursues her concerns; I’ve addressed the first of her questions here rather than simply emailing her back because I certainly can’t speak for all of education or all teachers. Feel free to chime in!

Why is teaching the one profession where a brand new person is put in charge of 100+ people with little to no assimilation training and -- more importantly -- little top-down evaluation?

I don’t think many other professions put as little money towards their new people as education. The career of teaching has grown more challenging over the past fifteen to twenty years, and the management structure for supporting—or assimilating—new teachers has not changed adequately to meet the new challenges. Student teaching is the primary training, and for a long time, that six month to one year long, unpaid internship seemed sufficient. (In fact, the student teacher pays the college for the experience.) I’m not familiar with a program that pays teachers without designating them a full teaching load. School budgets just don’t seem structured for that kind of investment in workforce. Many districts are responding to the current recession by cutting the arts and increasing class sizes, so a program that paid new teachers modestly while they mastered their craft would probably be the first to go anyway.

After student teaching and graduation, most new teachers are paired with a mentor once they begin teaching. These mentors, for the most part, are fellow teachers with a full teaching load. I’ve seen programs where mentors receive no additional pay and no reduced teaching load for this role; I’ve also seen programs where mentors have three to five new teachers and receive a $500 stipend for the year. Some schools may provide substitute money so that a mentor can take a day from his or her own classes to observe a new teacher, but how much support a mentor provides will vary greatly by the individual. Also, if the new teacher is a coach or has other extra-curricular responsibilities (as many untenured teachers do), he or she may not be available after school for help. Few mentors want a phone call at 9 p.m. (when many of us planned our lessons that first year) when the mentors aren’t receiving a reduced teaching load or financial compensation for the task. Scheduling conflicts can stagnate many mentor relationships.

In addition to mentors, most schools, because of No Child Left Behind requirements, have school or district-wide training for new teachers after school or on in-service days. I’ve seen good mentors and bad mentors. I’ve seen hiring years where so many new teachers start in one year that even the good mentors have very little time left to offer. School budgets and structure have not responded to the fact that student teaching does not prepare people to the extent it may have at one time. This organizational problem creates a high rate of new teacher turnover, which wears out dedicated mentors, too! One strategy for a parent concerned about a struggling new teacher may be to go to the principal and ask who is supporting this new teacher. By saying, “Gosh, I think Mr. or Ms. So-and-So really needs some more support from what I’m seeing with my child. Who is his/her mentor?” This approach suggests that administration needs to support new teachers, and the concerned parents can seek to contribute questions and issues through that support program. If there isn’t a support program for that new teacher, parents might start to demand that one be put in place…

Most schools utilize lots of top-down evaluation on new teachers. In one school district I worked, I was formally observed every six weeks and informally observed on a weekly basis. My department chair signed my lesson plan book every two weeks for the first year. In education, the problem isn’t the observation and evaluation of new teachers; the problem is that there isn’t really a structure in place to do more than record the problem. Qualified teachers, especially in math or science, aren’t waiting to be called in mid-year to replace a struggling new teacher. If a new teacher has big problems, I can guarantee that the department chair and the front office know about it. It becomes a triage situation, including documentation of the problem and a record of mentoring (see above). Most schools just try to get the new teacher through that first year. However, this strategy does little to help students who have that teacher for that year. If the teacher gets fired for bad teaching in say, February, who will pick up those classes, especially if state testing happens in the spring? Schools cannot afford to have a substitute who may not be a certified teacher preparing students for a state exam.

I realize, Nanci, that I haven’t been very hopeful here. Essentially, I think education needs to restructure its relationship with new teachers, which will take money and community dedication. I can’t say I see that on the horizon, either. In the meantime, we teachers try to help each other as best we can in passing time between classes.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

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