A shift from 'sink or swim' to mentoring new teachers
Ask experienced teachers about their first years in the classroom, and you'll frequently detect an involuntary shudder with the response.Skip to next paragraph
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"I faked my way through [the first] four years," says John Wolfe, an instructor at the Bank Street College of Education in New York. "I did fall in love with the kids, but I didn't know what to do with them apart from caring for them."
The whole experience, he recalls, was strictly "sink or swim."
The American approach to forging new teachers has long resembled a survival course. While many Asian and European schools ease beginning teachers into their duties over a few years - often limiting their time in the classroom and generally ensuring they have access to experienced mentors - new teachers in this country rarely get such support.
But growing concerns about potentially severe teacher shortages over the next several years is causing a reassessment of this practice. A lack of support is a fundamental reason that one-third to one-half of new teachers leave the profession after just a few years. As a result, experts are targeting everything from in-school practices to teacher-education programs in giving teachers more than theory and enthusiasm to handle the challenges of the classroom.
The problem can be acute - in both wealthy and struggling districts. "I've seen schools where considerable effort was being expended on making the bulletin boards look good, while talented first-year teachers were struggling in their classrooms," says Mr. Wolfe. Indeed, many new teachers are often assigned to classes or schools where others are reluctant to teach.
Studies show that even one year in the classroom with an ineffective teacher can slow the academic achievements of some students for years to come, a consideration that compounds concerns about struggling first-year teachers.
A starting point for reform, suggest critics of the current system, would be to require schools of education to more effectively prepare their students for the realities of life in the classroom. In a recent survey by Public Agenda in New York, 66 percent of new teachers said they entered the classroom without sufficient experience, and more than half said their classes in education school emphasized theory at the expense of practice.
Frederick Hess, assistant professor of education and government at the University of Virginia, says it can be heartbreaking to watch new teachers' idealism shattered by their early experiences - particularly in the case of those who teach in challenging schools.
"You get a lot of missionary zeal among the most talented young teachers," he says. "They come from good schools, they've done a lot of learning, and they're eager to share it."
Many of these beginning teachers also pick up the idea that if they have invigorating and exciting lessons, they won't have to worry about discipline.
But "it simply doesn't work that way," says Professor Hess. "To be an effective teacher, obviously you've got to make it interesting. But before you can do that, you've got to exercise control."