New teachers sink or swim. This is how educators have
long characterized entry into the profession. But
today the odds of sinking have increased
exponentially. In New York City, 40 percent of teachers leave after three years, and 48 percent will be gone after five years, according to the United Federation of Teachers. (Nationally, the figures are 30 percent and 50 percent respectively.)
How did we get ourselves into this situation and how
do we get out of it?
A TOUGH JOB
Teaching has never been the cushy job imagined by the
public, which mistakenly believes that a teacher’s day
ends when school lets out. People outside the field
often do not seem to understand that teachers spend
hours of additional time making lesson plans, reviewing
homework, grading tests.
The profession also suffers from a lack of respect. Parents do not encourage their children to
become teachers, and college graduates from our
premier institutions view teaching as something to do
for a couple of years after graduation before
switching into more laudable and lucrative fields.
With increasing pressure on the educational system to meet the demands of a shifting labor market, more and more curriculum
mandates and high-stakes testing make it difficult for teachers to be creative in the
But this already tough job is made worse for beginning
teachers, who are typically given the most
difficult assignments in the roughest schools. The
most vulnerable teachers are handed
what no one else wants. For example, the
Fellows program was launched by the city’s Department
of Education to staff the city’s lowest performing
schools, those that the state classifies as
Registration Review. The department does this even
though the fellows are the least likely of newly hired
teachers to be graduates of schools of education.
Conditions for teachers may not have been better in the past, but times have changed. There are expanding opportunities for women who a
generation ago saw teaching or nursing as their only
All of this helps explain why there is a shortage of teachers willing to work in our city's classrooms, though there is no shortage of teachers nationally (except in math, science and special education). The Department of Education has been forced to launch an extensive
recruitment campaign, and has relaxed the requirements for these new recruits. This is why, of the 8,000 new teachers who enter the city's schools each year, about 2,500 come in with absolutely no teaching experience, not even as student-teachers.
WHY EXPERIENCE MATTERS
How can we expect people with minimal preparation to
be successful in a profession that requires the skills
of “parent surrogate, nurse, police officer,
detective, psychologist, mediator, bathroom monitor,
toilet paper dispenser, janitor, room decorator,
quartermaster for school supplies, manager, organizer,
lesson planner, cheerleader, lunchroom monitor,
negotiator,” as one experienced teacher has put it.
Teaching is all about relationships — the building of
relationships between teacher and students. That’s why
it is so hard. One elementary school teacher must have
relationships with up to 35
very different individuals, each with diverse learning
styles, needs, and levels of engagement. A high school
teacher will typically teach 150 students.
There is research
the extraordinary number of decisions that a
teacher has to make at any given moment —- more
decisions minute-by-minute than a brain surgeon. The
most conservative estimate from this data has teachers
making approximately 130 decisions per hour during a
six-hour school day, and this reflects only those
decisions made within the classroom. This is
extraordinarily daunting and often intimidating for
new teachers. It makes support from administrators and
colleagues so vital.
HOW TO KEEP NEW TEACHERS
Teachers Helping Teachers
According to a recent MetLife Survey of The American
Teacher, the role of supportive relationships is the most
important factor in helping a new teacher become a
successful teacher. Today’s corporate world may emphasize
teamwork, but many teachers remain in isolation in their classrooms.
Teachers Network, the non-profit organization where I work, has published
numerous studies of the impact of teacher
collaboration. For example, Sarah Picard, a
teacher new to second grade,
documented how her collaboration with an experienced
teacher led to success in her Lower Eastside classroom. What began as
informal sessions between the two of them to talk about children’s progress
turned into regularly scheduled weekly meetings to
investigate individual students’ reading abilities.
These sessions became the two teachers’ main tool for
understanding children’s progress and helped them
choose strategies to support their students’ learning.
The collaboration continued throughout the year and,
by June, 93 percent of Picard’s previously-struggling students were reading
on grade level.
At Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School,
Penny Arnold created a study group for colleagues who,
like her, supervised student teachers. The teachers
reported that, as a result of these conversations,
they were better prepared to help their
student teachers. The high school classes in turn
benefited by exposure to new ideas, more attention,
and better planning.
A variety of methods foster teacher collaboration and
so can help change the nature of schooling. Team
teaching, team planning, and such programs as the
Bronx teacher leadership program in which teachers
share classroom assignments so they can also take on
leadership roles in the schools, will radically change
our model of schooling. Teachers will no longer be on
their own behind closed doors.
Teachers as Leaders
Teachers themselves can assume leadership roles,
mentoring new teachers, designing and facilitating
professional development for colleagues, serving as
grade leaders and department chairs, and becoming
members of school leadership teams.
Just as young, bright people in the business world
succeed with proper mentoring, new teachers require
mentors —- not buddies, but veteran teachers who have
been carefully selected and fully trained. Building
this relationship takes time; teachers say they need a minimum of five years to feel
competent and confident in their classrooms. So, a one-year program would be insufficient.
The Role of the Principal
Effective leadership in schools is also critical. The best principals are veteran teachers who can present model lessons, coach teachers and
lead informed discussions on teaching and learning.
They remain connected to the classroom and can relate
to their teachers and the students. Good principals
create structures for teachers to work as a community.
They provide resources — time, funding, space, and
support — for collaboration, and they treat teachers
This differs from the traditional principal who too
often ruled autocratically. It also differs from the current trend
of quickly moving fledgling teachers into
administrative positions. Can such relatively
inexperienced principals serve as
instructional leaders? Deputy Chancellor Carmen FariĂ±a
often cites her 22 years as a classroom teacher as the
number one reason for her success as a principal, a
superintendent and currently as the city’s
Lessening Load, Increasing Pay, Fixing School Buildings
Schools have to reduce the teaching load
for new teachers and stop giving them the assignments
that no senior teacher wants. New teachers need to
observe other more experienced teachers, but this is
impossible with a full teaching load. Changing this
and lessening demand on new teachers will require
incentives for senior teachers to take on the tough
assignments. The teachers union has advocated pay
differentials for experienced teachers willing to work
in hard-to-staff schools.
Ultimately, schools alone cannot do all it will take
to attract and keep new teachers in the profession. We
need to ensure that teachers have decent working
conditions. Too many schools need renovation, are
overcrowded, and are sorely in need of modernization,
including up-to-date science laboratories and
technologies. Teachers need to be paid enough so they
can afford to live in the city where they teach. And
-- here is a “no cost” item -— we have to start
respecting teachers, turning what has become a
thankless job into an honored profession.
Ellen Meyers is senior vice president of
Teachers Network, a national nonprofit organization
that supports teachers to improve student learning.
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