by Stuart Singer
Among the myriad of problems facing public education, one of the most disruptive is the stunning exodus of new teachers within the first few years of employment. Many studies indicate that at least a third of all educators give up the profession within the first three years and more than half within five. These losses represent a continuing drain on the competency level of a school’s staff and a remedy needs to be found to stop these losses. There are a number of ways to alleviate this ongoing dilemma representing varying degrees of both cost and success.
The first proposal does not cost any money but could result in a few bruised feelings among the more senior staff members in a building as well as some consternation among some of the more “traditional” administrators. It requires a strong commitment at all levels to ensure that new teachers are given the best possible opportunity to grow into seasoned veterans. Some old-fashioned thinking may have to be readjusted and a small amount of buy-in will be required among the staff. But the cost is small when compared to the potential upside for the department and school.
Closing the Deal
In order to develop great veteran teachers one must begin with high-potential new ones. In June 2006 I had three math vacancies to fill for the upcoming school year. As was my custom when hiring new teachers, I carefully studied the resumes of the county’s forty early math hires. I found seven that interested me and set up interviews.
When meeting with prospective math teachers I always tell them that this interview is a two-way process; they should be asking as many questions of us as we are of them. We all must decide whether this particular school and candidate have the potential of being a productive combination. This discussion does not revolve around good and bad, adequate or inadequate. The simple fact that needs to be addressed is that schools have a personality just like individuals and some candidates are better suited to one rather than another. I also tell them that they have more control of the process than they realize. For highly qualified individuals multiple offers will be forthcoming and they will have choices. In addition to this honest transparency about their options, I discuss their future at my school. We talk about how we put together a career path for all of our new teachers. We will look at their first five years and plan what type of teaching schedule will best serve their long-term goals.
And finally I advise them to ask every potential employer three questions (my answers are in parenthesis):
- How many class preps will I have? (at most two)
- Will I have my own classroom? (yes)
- Will the administrative team be supportive? (You are working in one of the most creative, collaborative and supportive environments possible. We will do everything possible to produce a five-year plan to ensure that your career will follow the exact course you envision.)
After the top three “blue-chippers” were ascertained, job offers went out and fingers were crossed. In a county with twenty-six high schools the competition for math teachers is fierce. It is not hyperbole to say that a talented prospect can be offered positions at ten or more schools. But one by one my three top picks said yes. They all acknowledged they had many offers from which to choose, but decided to come with us. I asked each one why she had made her decision. Though none of them had ever met, they all had similar responses. They liked the idea that we were open and honest about the process and most of all they liked the concept of a “plan” for their career.
There is a fascinating back-story here. Another much more upscale school in the county offered jobs to the same three women. When the assistant principal in charge of hiring math teachers discovered that his school had been rejected by all three in favor of our far less affluent location he responded angrily. In a phone call to the school he demanded to know “What is it you are giving away over there?” If I had spoken to him I would have told him our “tricky” lure was the combination of honesty and the promise of a future.
Making Good on a Promise
History bears out that what occurred in these interviews was not a high-pressure sales pitch but rather a system we had been using for years. Long ago I had concluded that the job of a new teacher was difficult enough without the added burden of moving from room to room. Consequently, none of these teachers were placed in such a position. (Ironically, I used one of their classrooms as part of my itinerant day) One of the teachers was given a schedule of one regular and two double block Algebra 2 classes. This assignment offered several advantages—while teaching five classes, she basically had only one preparation and three sets of students. The slower paced double block (they met every day instead of every other day) meant she had more time to teach a concept and if there were problems they could be readdressed the next day in a more relaxed manner. Her second year schedule was exactly the same thus allowing her to perfect and refine her Algebra 2 lesson plans. It was time to begin slowly expanding her career in her next teaching assignment. That year her regular Algebra 2 was replaced with an Advanced Placement Pre-calculus. This year she has two AP sections. The second teacher had a parallel course. She taught one regular and two double-block geometry for two of her first three years and in the third replaced the regular with a Trig / Math Analysis. She is now working with the Honors Geometry program as well. The third member of the group had taught Algebra 1 in summer school prior to coming to our school. Consequently, she was assigned one Algebra 2 and four Algebra 1 classes. The next year she had an identical schedul
e and the third and fourth she taught Algebra 1 and two sections of AP Calculus. Now well into their fourth years, these talented educators give no thought to quitting. To the contrary they now proudly tell me about their classroom success and of their high level of influence in the seventeen-member department. One related to me in a letter “Just like you told us when you retired; the three of us are taking over!” She was being facetious but not inaccurate.
Finding the Answer in Your Own Backyard
To cultivate good new teachers many of the “perks” normally reserved for more senior teachers must be reconsidered. When assigning class schedules, lack of experience should be a consideration not a license to take advantage. All too often new hires are given the “leftovers” of the master schedule, a frighteningly eclectic combination of the classes that no one else wanted. If classrooms are in short demand the least experienced person is soon wheeling all of their newly created worksheets, supplies and notes on a cart during the already frantic exchange of classes. Such treatment is precisely why the statistics on new teachers are so depressing.
Perhaps the best model for how to develop and retain teachers can be found in a very surprising location—the high school classroom. When a new student enters a class several weeks into the year what is the typical treatment accorded to them? Well, let’s see, they are given additional individualized attention at first to make sure they can catch up with the rest of the students. Extra time is allowed for them to understand the curriculum. They are not expected to immediately work at the same level as their more experienced classmates. Often another student is asked to aid or mentor them through the initial process. And in many cases previous material is streamlined and simplified to ensure that knowledge acquisition is accelerated as quickly as possible.
Could such a novel approach work with another group of individuals in the same building?
Next: Two more plans, one a little bit pricey, the other downright expensive
but both really good.