Many years ago I read an article in Time Magazine where they attempted to select and rank the most difficult jobs in the US. The criterion that was used was based on the number of decisions that had to be made on that job in a single day. I was delighted and surprised to see that an Eighth Grade English Teacher position was ranked at the top of the list. As an eighth grade English teacher at the time, I felt both validated and appreciated. Of course, it was an article totally overlooked by most people who were not eighth grade English teachers, I am sure.
Being a teacher of any course of study is a difficult job requiring a person to make possibly thousands of decisions daily. Any of these decisions can have a great impact on the developing mind of a child. What then are the expectations of a teacher candidate direct from graduating college, and having only a few months teaching experience in a loosely organized, pre-service student teacher program? Of course expectations will vary from school to school, but there are some generalities that hold true for many schools.
A new teacher must learn a great number of things from the first day of employment. First and foremost there is the curriculum. Secondly, there are the school and district policies. Then of course there is the school culture, as well as the community. This is just the job related stuff. Now let’s add what needs to be done personally to set up an independent life outside of the college experience. Setting up a place to live, transportation, and expenses beyond the support of parents. It’s the big time with adult problems and adult decisions. All of this is being done in the first year of teaching.
How does the employing school respond to the needs of a new teacher? Too often an administrator will look to, or try to persuade, a new teacher to take on at least one extra curricular activity, or coach a team. I think most schools really expect that to happen. Of course on the secondary level at least having a new teacher in any department may mean that the department Chair need not worry about arguing with the staff as to who will take the difficult, or troubled classes. Those are the problems that most certainly can go to the new kid.
It goes without saying that some type of mentoring program will go a long way in transitioning new teachers into the system. Many schools, however, see this, as a costly program that can be sacrificed in times of budgetary crisis, which in education is a perpetual state of existence. It then is incumbent on the new teacher to find a colleague to call upon for help and hope that ever-observing administrators do not view it as a sign of weakness.
My greatest objection to the attitudes toward new teachers is about the assumptions people make that new teachers will breathe new life into the old and tired methods of the older generation of teachers. More often than not, if a school has a culture where it is not inspiring its entire staff to professionally develop with support and recognition from above, there will be no number of new teachers that will affect change in that toxic culture. New teachers will go along to get along. Attaching blame for that toxic culture does not fix it. Throwing new teachers at it does not fix it. Expecting teachers living with it to step up does not fix it. It takes a top down and a bottom up recognition of the problem to fix it. It takes leadership from experienced educators not kids fresh out of college.
When it comes to new teacher hires we should expect less and mentor more. We do nothing but add on to a new teacher’s already mountainous amounts of responsibilities with things experienced teachers and administrators need to deal with. Instead, we blame colleges and teacher prep courses for not doing the right thing. They may not be fully blameless, but they are not responsible for our mistakes. We can’t keep doing the same stupid stuff and then wonder why half of the young people entering the teaching profession drop out in the first five years. Teaching is tough enough on its own, even without having politicians and business people vilifying the profession at every opportunity. We don’t have to eat our young as well. We must accept part of the responsibility for our best hope for the future finding paths other than teaching. In consideration of all of this, as a life long learner and teacher I have told both of my children that they should consider options other than teaching. Of course, they rarely listen to me anyway.
If we are to continually replenish our profession with the best and the brightest, we need to be smarter as to how we nurture them. We need to reflect on what we do and see how it affects the outcome of what we want. If we want to maintain great educators we need to enable them with support until it makes sense to let them soar on their own. If we are to better educate our students, we must first better educate their educators.