Learning to Fly

I recently had lunch with a delightful young friend who has had a successful career teaching people how to use industrial chemistry equipment. He’s tired of the travel and loves the teaching, and he lives in a state with such a severe shortage of STEM teachers that some science courses are taught by teachers certified in entirely unrelated areas. Although he could easily walk in the door and get a job based on his knowledge and experience, he’s choosing to go through an alternative certification program to be better prepared. He has his content knowledge down and he has volunteered in a program with young adults, but he wants to learn more about being effective in a school classroom.

This took me back to my own husband’s journey through alternative certification. After a successful career in physics that included teaching at the University of Wisconsin and Yale University, he decided teaching high school students to love physics would be the ideal post-retirement career. After completing an alternative certification program, he replaced the science department chair at an affluent suburban high school who, as Illinois teacher of the year, had a one-year leave. When I expressed qualms about the two hours of daily driving piled on top of the demands on a new teacher, he assured me that he loved to drive and would use the time to decompress. Besides, he knew that I worked such long hours because I was a workaholic who taught writing. Surely he could be more efficient.

He wasn’t. Five classes and three preps threatened to overwhelm him. He, too, knew his content, but he didn’t always know how to reach students. The substitute department chair had no supervisory training or experience. When Don struggled with classroom management issues, she required him to observe another teacher every day during his plan period. Such observations can be very helpful if they’re accompanied by debriefing and projecting techniques into the observer’s classroom. But that didn’t happen, and the loss of his daily plan period added to his being entirely overloaded. Don learned to embrace retirement and, like so many new teachers, left teaching.

His experience was tough but not unexpected. Being in his late 50s, never having had to deal with not being successful, having been in management – none of these prepared him. My friend’s experience should be different. He’s younger, with boundless energy, and he’s worked with young people the age of his students.

But Don’s experience still provided a revelation for me. My first paid teaching was in 1970. The first special education mandates didn’t happen until 1975 with the passage and initial enforcement of Public Law 94-142. Over time we received training in issues like substance abuse and mandated reporting. We didn’t deal with 504 hearings, which allow students to obtain special accommodations without a special education designation and IEP, until the 1990s. New teachers don’t have the luxury of layering these learnings over time. From the moment they walk in the classroom, they have to manage all of these responsibilities, even as they tend to have the most preps, often the most demanding classes, and often some additional extra-curricular responsibilities. Thrusting inexperienced teachers into those conditions makes their success far less likely. If and when they leave the profession, we are all poorer for it. Although teacher attrition has dropped from the earliest years of this century, when 40-50% of new teachers left the profession within their first five years, the current rate of 17% still seems far too high. Teacher training is expensive, and this waste of human resources might be reduced if we provided more realistic assignments and proper support to our newest educators.

I feel optimistic for my young friend and grateful for the students and school that get him. But I worry about the future of public education when we fail to support new teachers and help them reach their potential. We need to do better.