Greater Greater Education

First-year teachers, part 1: Is there any way to make new teachers more effective?

Yesterday we heard from a college senior trying to decide how best to prepare herself for a teaching career. Today we begin the first of a three-part series drawing on interviews with first-year teachers who came to the profession in a variety of ways.

Photo by on Flickr.

Nationwide, between 40 and 50% of teachers leave the classroom within their first 5 years. For DCPS, that figure rises to 70%, and one DC education analyst has estimated that 55% leave within their first two years.

That's a problem, because teachers generally get better with experience. And research has shown that high teacher turnover has a detrimental effect on students' test scores, especially in schools with high numbers of low-performing and African-American students.

Many new DC teachers end up in schools that fit that description, largely because teachers with more experience don't want those assignments. A recent study found that when highly effective experienced teachers were lured to high-poverty schools with $20,000 bonuses, they generally increased student achievement. But fewer than a quarter of the teachers who were offered the opportunity chose to apply.

One first-year DCPS teacher I spoke to threw in the towel after 7 weeks and was the third teacher at his school to quit. Others said they felt as well prepared as they could have been. No one said the first year of teaching was easy, but it's clear there are ways to ensure a less difficult experience.

These days, there are basically 3 routes to becoming a teacher. There's the old-fashioned way: you major in education as an undergraduate, or you get a master's degree in teaching from a school of education. Recently there has been a spate of criticism of such programs, which often have low admission standards and, it's said, focus too much on educational theory and not enough on the mechanics of teaching.

Alternative programs, which have grown in recent years, tend to attract applicants with better academic credentials. Teach for America is the oldest and most selective of these programs, and a number of cities, including DC, also have "teaching fellow" programs that work on a similar model. Teachers who come through this route don't have degrees in education. They get "boot camp" training the summer before they start teaching, and then take education courses during their first year.

While there's evidence that TFA teachers can outperform traditionally certified, more experienced teachers, some have complained that the program's 5-week training is inadequate. And teachers coming through this route only agree to a two-year commitment.

The third route, which is the newest, is similar to TFA-like programs in that it's highly selective and draws people without education credentials. But instead of putting them in charge of a classroom after less than two months of training, these "residency" programs have them apprentice for a full year.

Residents teach alongside a mentor or host teacher, observing and getting feedback, and gradually gaining more responsibility. All the while they're also taking education courses. In some programs, they continue to get coaching and monitoring during their first and sometimes second year of solo teaching. And the three main residency training programs active in DC—Capital Teaching Residency, Urban Teacher Center, and the Center for Inspired Teachingask for a commitment to teach in the District for more than two years. (Disclosure: I have made financial contributions to Capital Teaching Residency and Urban Teacher Center.)

Both alternative and residency programs focus on funneling teachers to high-poverty schools, like many of those in DC. And teaching in those schools requires a firm grasp on classroom management. Merely reading a book about the subject, or even practicing techniques with a small group of kids in summer school for a few weeks, is unlikely to be sufficient preparation.

The DCPS teacher who quit after 7 weeks, who I'll call Mark, came through an alternative program with a summer boot camp. In the fall, he found himself at a high-poverty elementary school in charge of a class that included a couple of boys who were constantly fighting. (He asked to remain anonymous partly in order to preserve the privacy of his students.) Not only did they disrupt the class, but other students started copying their behavior.

Mark had been exposed to some well-regarded behavior management techniques during the summer. He tried them, but none of them worked. "There's some sort of magic you have to have," he says.

Maybe, and maybe not.

Read more tomorrow in the second part of this series.

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Natalie Wexler blogs at DC Eduphile and is a contributor to the Washington Post. She serves on the boards of DC Scholars Public Charter School and The Writing Revolution and chairs the DC Regional Leadership Council of the Urban Teacher Center. She has also been a volunteer tutor in reading and writing in DC Public Schools. 


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Bonuses won't work if the school is a living hell to work in.

And I don't mean that it has poor or African-American students -- I mean if the attitude from the administration is negative or hands-off such that every class is a pitched battle and students who want to learn get lost in the chaos.

by Willow on Jan 7, 2014 11:20 am • linkreport

There is no magic. Highly experienced teachers learn over decades how to motivate children to behave and to achieve. No one -- not even the best young teachers -- can master challenges like this in their first few years.

An issue that young teachers face is learning how to do everything that they need to do without burning out. Sure, TFA recruits work hard and put in loads of planning time after school. But they're in it for 2 years & using their teaching as a springboard to something else. Even the author of yesterday's article stated that she wanted to teach for a maximum of 10 years.

Teaching is really a learn-by-doing profession. If you want to know how first-year teachers can succeed, go talk with 30 year teachers who are still in the classroom. They know.

by mch on Jan 7, 2014 11:24 am • linkreport

I've been teaching for 10 years in high-poverty schools in DC as a career-changer. My first thought about a teacher who quits after 7 weeks is that maybe he really wasn't cut out for teaching. I've seen a number of these cases over the years, almost all from TFA. In every case that I can think of, the teacher had an extremely unrealistic self-perception of the change that he or she was going to immediately bring to the students and to the school. When reality hit, they have no fall-back position and often start talking about how hopeless the situation is. It's not hard to identify these "teachers" in the first weeks. What's puzzling is the lack of screening that seems to go on at TFA. I've seen some great teachers come through TFA - don't get me wrong - but sometimes they err on the side of high-achieving ego-driven kids who can't handle the shock that their mere presence is not winning the students over. Teaching is hard work, and not everyone is cut out for hard work.

by A Teacher on Jan 7, 2014 11:26 am • linkreport

One randomized trial in one specialty, in one age group doesn't warrant the descriptor of evidence. It is one study with a narrow category of teachers... There are other studies that suggest that TFA folks often do poorly in their first year. There have been various programs to provide pipelines of motivated teachers to inner city schools for decades. My college classmates who made careers if this went through various internships and summer training programs in schools in addition to student teaching. Training programs are nothing new and you should be able to find evidence as to how they have worked and why, like so much in education, they are faddish in their conception and existence (probably money and administrators who pick pet ideas over programs that work). Treating recruitment of qualified teachers for inner city schools as if it's a new idea and neglecting decades of programs and research is not a good starting place.

by Rich on Jan 8, 2014 7:59 am • linkreport

DCPS used to have a Teacher Mentor program that attached a mentor to most of the first and second year teachers in the district. It lasted from 2005- 2011. Sadly, it was cut for budgetary reasons. Initial studies on it showed that it was making progress in helping new teachers to grow instructionally. At least with regards to the impact score they would receive. A mentor would meet with them at least once/week, observe the classroom, give feedback, co-plan and co-teach with the teacher. These mentors were full-time and worked at multiple schools. I think new teachers now are suffering because of that lack of support. (full disclosure - I was one of those mentors)

by aEk on Jan 8, 2014 9:49 am • linkreport

@aEk: Would you be interested in writing a post for us on the Teacher Mentor program and your experience with it? Sounds interesting and worth reviving.

by Natalie Wexler on Jan 9, 2014 8:46 pm • linkreport

Sure. Are there specific parameters that I need to follow? Is there a particular style? Op-Ed, Feature, etc. Or should I just do what comes organically?

by aEk on Jan 10, 2014 1:46 pm • linkreport

aEk: There are tips on what we look for in articles on this page:

by David Alpert on Jan 10, 2014 2:38 pm • linkreport

I was going to suggest that you look at that link, but David beat me to it. I would also suggest that you use some existing GGE/GGW posts for an idea of what we look for in terms of format and tone. I look forward to getting the submission!

by Natalie Wexler on Jan 10, 2014 3:49 pm • linkreport

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