My school district completed four days of first class professional development that began with a visit from Dave Burgess, the author of Teach Like a Pirate and ended with faculty-led collaborative committees organizing for an accreditation visit from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC). In four short days, the veteran teachers adjusted, organized classrooms, and prepared the first week of lessons. The administrators indicated that schools were off to a “great start” while the facility management personnel finished polishing the floors and touching up wall paint. One group however, looked different.
The new teachers’ eyes glazed over. Although some have taught for years in other districts, each one has been lost in the labyrinth of our hallways at least once this past week. There are at least fifty names they still need in order to match staff to academic disciplines and a number of faces before they begin to match their attendance rolls with students. The location of materials for various units of study has yet to be established; boxes are unopened in their classrooms.
In short, they are whelmed. Merriam-Webster online defines whelmed as
1. to turn (as a dish or vessel) upside down usually to cover something : cover or engulf completely with usually disastrous effect
2. to overcome in thought or feeling : overwhelm
According to the dictionary, there is no “over” in being “overwhelmed”. Watching the newest members of the faculty trying to mentally sort through the information they had taken in the past four days reminded me of how I felt my first few years of teaching. Putting “over” with whelmed seemed redundant; I was “engulfed completely” my first years of school as well.
Twenty-three years later, I am less whelmed by the start of school, but I still have to adapt. There are always new materials, new changes to schedules, new students to get to know. In 2013-2014 there is also a new state mandated teacher evaluation system and a set of new tests will be rolled out this year to measure the new Common Core State Standards. For these new-to-district teachers, the flood of information in the early days of the school year must seem insurmountable. There is research, however, that indicates with three years of practice, teachers develop strategies for being effective in improving student achievement in the classroom.
In particular, there is research that demonstrates that “teachers in their ﬁrst and, to a somewhat lesser extent, their second year tend to perform signiﬁcantly worse in the classroom” (Rivkin, Hanushek, and Kain -2005). In a follow-up interview to this study, Kati Haycock was quoted in Education Next as saying,
“And experience does matter for inexperienced teachers. As a group, first-year teachers tend to be less effective than those with even a little more experience, and effectiveness tends to climb steeply for any given cohort of teachers until it begins to plateau after a few years. According to research by Eric Hanushek and others, disproportionate exposure to inexperienced teachers contributes to the achievement gap.”
How a teacher develops on a learning curve is significant for both the teacher and the students, which is why the story from Mokoto Rich of the New York Times At Charter Schools, Short Careers by Choice (8/26/2013) flies in the face of both anecdotal data and research studies. The article addressed the high turnover rate of teachers in charter schools by first highlighting the story of 24 year-old teacher, Tyler Dowdy. With two completed years of teaching behind him, Dowdy is “exploring his next step, including applying for a supervisory position at the school.” The article described him as someone, “who is already thinking beyond the classroom, wants something more.” His interest in education appeared cursory, “I feel like our generation is always moving onto the next thing,” he said, “and always moving onto something bigger and better.”
Supporting Dowdy’s lack of commitment to the profession, was the statement by Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach for America (TFA) who said,
“Strong schools can withstand the turnover of their teachers…The strongest schools develop their teachers tremendously so they become great in the classroom even in their first and second years.”
Kopp’s claims, however, have little credibility considering her own lack of classroom experience. While she has taken TFA from a $22 million dollar enterprise in 2003 to a $244 million dollar business in ten years before her departure this year as CEO, there is no record of her creating or delivering lessons to students herself. She has not had the experience of developing or implementing classroom management skills, a major cause of much teacher turnover. Teachers, new and old, experience first-hand the fallacies in her argument. Yes, during the first years, teaching can be greatly improved, but that does not mean a new teacher has become “great”. Like so many educational reformers without classroom experience, Kopp dismisses critical teacher training as something that can be condensed, like TFA’s five week summer teacher preparation program.
A five week training for TFA is luxurious compared to the two and a half weeks of training over the summer for other teacher training programs, such as the YES Prep program like Dowdy’s, where new teachers “learn common disciplinary methods and work with curriculum coordinators to plan lessons.” Yet, these teachers from these accelerated programs will look the way new recruits in my district look, glazed and anxious. These teachers will soon learn the importance of experience. They will understand that the only way to learn how to teach is to practice teaching over and over and over….in spite of being whelmed.