First-year teachers, part 3: Training is important, but all new teachers need on-the-job help

In the first two parts of this series, we surveyed various routes to teacher certification and discussed the challenges of learning to manage a classroom. New teachers also need targeted coaching, opportunities to collaborate with and observe experienced teachers, and help with lesson planning.

Photo by Janelle Graham on Flickr.

Keeping order in the classroom may be the toughest skill for new teachers to master, but lesson-planning is probably a close second.

"Mark," who quit 7 weeks into his first year of teaching at a high-poverty DCPS elementary school, said that he had only a week to plan lessons before school started, with the result that it was a struggle to stay one step ahead of the students. He would routinely put in 10- or 12-hour days, sometimes waking at 3:30 am and arriving at school at 6, two hours before students.

One problem was that he had planned to teach middle- or high-school science, not elementary school. So his summer training through an alternative certification program was geared to that subject and age group. He was unfamiliar with the elementary grade-level standards and curriculum, and it seemed that no one was available to explain them to him. With no other teachers at his school teaching the same grade he was, he couldn't benefit from their experience.

Matching up training with what teachers will actually be doing is a problem for almost all teacher-training programs, since teachers usually don't have a job lined up when they're training.

Kylie Hiemstra, a DCPS teacher who came to teaching after getting an undergraduate degree in education, also encountered that problem. She did her student teaching in a 3rd-grade classroom but got a job teaching 1st grade, which she found to be very different. And she did her training in Virginia, which uses a different set of standards than DC.

But at Hiemstra's school, John Eaton in Cleveland Park, there are two other 1st-grade teachers, both veterans. She meets with them regularly, asks them "a lot of questions," and has had a chance to observe their classes.

And Meghan Quigley, in her first year of teaching at a DC charter school, is constantly bouncing ideas off the two other 4th-grade math teachers there. The school, Achievement Prep, encourages that back-and-forth by putting teachers' desks in a common workroom rather than in their own classrooms.

"Greg," a third-year teacher at a DC charter school who is a Teach for America veteran, says that all first-year teachers need help planning lessons. Even if their training corresponds to what they're teaching, they're unlikely to know the material well enough to create good lesson plans. Experienced teachers at the school should share their plans, he says. Or, failing that, new teachers should look to online sources such as and LearnZillion for good templates for their grade level and subject.

Is there a perfect way to train teachers?

So, is there a method of teacher training that will reliably produce terrific first-year teachers? It may be too soon to know. Residency programs, which train new teachers by having them apprentice alongside an experienced teacher for a year, hold promise.

But they're still too new and too small to yield enough data to draw definitive conclusions. And, says Michael Goldstein, a founder of the Match Teacher Residency program in Boston, it all depends on whether they're done well.

Some residents may not click with the host or mentor teachers they're placed with, or the teachers may not be good at doling out responsibility to them. And even a good residency year will never fully duplicate the experience of being in charge of a classroom.

As one veteran teacher who coaches first-year teachers for a local residency program told me, "The first year is the first year."

All new teachers, no matter how they've entered the profession, need concrete, specific coaching and opportunities to observe and collaborate with other teachers, especially those teaching the same subject and grade level. And one researcher has found that two relatively easy-to-implement initiatives—working with a mentor and having regular supportive communication with an administrator—can reduce teacher turnover.

These factors, along with sufficient time spent practicing in a classroom, can make the difference between Mark's experience and Anna's. Both started as first-year DCPS teachers at high-poverty elementary schools at the beginning of this school year.

Mark, with only 5 or 6 weeks of training and little support on the job, says his chaotic classroom was his "little world," which he had to figure out "how to police and teach at the same time." For the 7 weeks he lasted, he had trouble sleeping, and as the beginning of a new week approached he would feel a tightness in his chest. By the time he quit he was "too burnt out to think."

Anna (also a pseudonym), who came through a residency program that she says prepared her well, has also felt stressed and overwhelmed this year. But clearly, not in the same way Mark did.

"You have butterflies in your stomach every morning," she says. "It's like being a doctor in an ER—you never know what you're going to get." But, she says, that's what makes the job interesting. Basically, she can't believe her good fortune: "I'm doing something I love, and I'm getting paid to do it."

If we're going to continue putting first-year teachers into tough DC classrooms, which seems inevitable, we need to make sure they have experiences less like Mark's and more like Anna's—not just for their sake, but for the sake of the children they've been entrusted with teaching.

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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The decision to place Ms. Hiemstra with two other seasoned teachers was a very deliberate and thought out decision by the principal. It enables mentoring and team planning so that teachers are not lost on their own. They had the luxery of doing that because they have multiple grades per class. This is a big issue at poorer smaller schools where there is not enough students. It is part of the reason they really do need to consolidate schools.

by DC Parent on Jan 9, 2014 5:04 pm • linkreport

Ms. Wexler,

Your articles as of late have all been on the attach against young teachers, TeachForAmerica (which by the way is all one word!) or programs like it. The problem is not the new inexperienced teachers going into the classrooms but rather the educational structure in place. The teachers have enough testing standards and IMPACT scoring in place, it is the administrations and those who are on educational boards or in education who have little to no experience in classroom instruction (this is especially true in lower income inner city schools). I'd like to give you a nice snapshot of what the urban environment looks like at my school [Deleted for violating the comment policy.] (for the record I'm Black and under 25) and I'd also not do my school a favor. The issue is that the teachers are treated as babysitters in this country, but the other issue at hand is American culture and thought process. As a teacher my job isn't seen as important or my fav line "But you get off at 3:15pm". Ha!! I wish! The issue is we try to group high, middle and low children all together in hopes that the high children will pull up the other children when in reality it makes the higher children work less harder (because of course we cannot put these children onto a educational track because its politically incorrect and would hurt some people's feelings!!!!) People's feelings should be hurt, in the real world no one pats you on the back because you are mediocre, people do not applaud you for being average, they want to see stellar work! We are setting children up for failure, it is why other countries are passing us by, because they are not afraid to hurt parents/people's feelings. If you child cannot read take them to the library. It's free after all and if you cannot read, well that's why they have a children's librarian or adult free tutoring, there is "NO EXCUSE".

It's amazing that people like you and your peers can judge young teachers about what an urban classroom should look like [Deleted for violating the comment policy.]. What about those like myself, still in the trenches each day? Those teachers who are emotionally, mentally and at times physically abused by her students? What about the 18 students that I have actually make it worth while to even show up everyday? When you write an actual story about those teachers, then your articles will actually shed light on something.

by Swtstp on Jan 9, 2014 11:04 pm • linkreport

Teach For America is not one word.
Also, I don't think these articles have been attacking anyone.

I'm impressed that Swtstp has only 18 students. That's a small class.

by Ward 1 Guy on Jan 10, 2014 9:02 am • linkreport

This has been a really interesting, informative series. Thanks for writing these.

by Thought on Jan 11, 2014 12:08 am • linkreport

Ward 1 TeachForAmerica is one word, you would know that if you were ever an OC or CM. TFA makes its corps members take a class on how to recognize its logo and brand, also TFA has its own font script.

by Swtstp on Jan 11, 2014 3:10 pm • linkreport calls the program "Teach for America" throughout its website. The fact that the logo places the words close together is irrelevant.

I think this series has been far from an attack on young teachers and it has made quite an effort to talk to people who entered the profession through different paths, some of whom are still teaching and others who are not.

by sbc on Jan 11, 2014 11:18 pm • linkreport

This series has not been attacking young teachers. It shows that teaching is a difficult profession, and even though some people have good intentions and want to help lower achieving school they aren't highly qualified. They need more training before they try to be Superman with no powers.

I'm a prospective teacher and believe this article is good to give people a heads up that these kids need people that will go through fire. Caring people who make the sacrifice. Swtstp is veering the conversation and changing the topic to what teachers can not control ( the way America set up the schools) and comparing it to other countries (the top countries in education require teachers to at least have their masters and they are always training and sculpting their craft.) Point. Blank. Period teachers in low achieving school need to get their feet wet before leading a class, go through the struggle, and continue to grow and learn with fellow teachers to find alternatives to help these kids.

One more thing, I am black (not that has anything to do with topic) and know these kids need those teachers that will love them, sacrifice a lot for them, not matter of standardized tests that are inadequate to measuring the different types of intelligences.

by Raphael B on Jan 18, 2014 8:08 pm • linkreport

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