I don’t have exact numbers in front of me at the moment, but our profession has a problem retaining smart, young, hard-working teachers in public schools across our nation. I believe the numbers are in the ballpark of half of all beginning teachers will leave the profession within their first five years. It may be higher.
Many of these teachers are bright and well-educated, and start their first year pretty much how we all did: hard-working, enthusiastic, well-intentioned, just naïve enough to take the right risks, and naturally as green as one might expect for someone entering any profession. They are typically open to criticism and hungry for suggestions. They want badly to do a good job for their students, about whom they care deeply. They are quick learners and technologically savvy – all fluent in the language Text.
So what are we as a collective professional community doing – or not doing – to unwittingly foster such horrible attrition? It’s too easy to blame poor beginning salaries, though this is no doubt a significant contributing factor. All these young people knew the salary scale on Day One. When they chose to teach, many knew of the long hours and lack of both sleep and a social life they would face their first year. So that doesn’t quite explain it.
Is it poor teacher prep programs from their college coursework, often taught by professors who’ve not been in the K-12 classroom for decades, if at all? Is the classes of low-achieving, hard-to-teach students that fills their daily docket (often without the luxury of a classroom of their own, the “floating” teacher)? Is it a lack of administrative or mentor support? New teachers these days are usually assigned a master teacher as mentor for the year, but these folks teach full-time themselves, sponsor umpteen clubs and can’t really support the Newbies as they need.
Other professions offer a full year or more of interning with an experienced veteran (or whole team of veterans, like in medicine or in the actuarial sciences) with whom they work each day until they are ready to ‘solo’. Student teaching for a semester or less seems woefully inadequate, especially when student teachers don’t get to actually ‘solo’ until the last couple of weeks of the experience.
I don’t have an easy answer, but it seems to me that first year teachers should be paid a full year salary their first year and co-teach in the same classroom as a master teacher for two-thirds of their day and spend the remaining third observing other identified master teachers. They should be engaging in professional dialogue on a daily basis with a sampling of master teachers whom they have observed. The master schedules and convoluted duty rosters in most schools must be redesigned around this important provision. Perhaps their second year, beginning teachers can teach ‘solo’ in their own classroom for two-thirds of the day but continue to spend a third of each day observing and talking with master teachers. I think a Watch-Try-Debrief mode of operation would help acclimate beginning teachers to the realities of teaching and learning and give them the confidence and success they need to stay the course, stay in the profession.
We have to do something better. Something like 50% of veteran teachers will retire in the next decade. Who will replace them? We need these bright, young, hard-working, big-hearted teachers in our schools. But if we’re going to retain them, we need to support them. Not just in theory, in practice. They must be made a priority. dven.