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Empowered New Teachers Are Teachers Who Stay

This is the fourth piece of a five-part conversation on the teacher supply.

Alicia Johal

Teachers come in all shapes and sizes. Some teach for one year, and some for 41 years. Some become administrators, some lead after-school programs. Some change the grades they teach, others change their subject. Some run every club, and some go to clubs. Here we are, wondering—what is so different about the teacher who stays in the classroom?

We are not running out of people who are interested in kids. We are not running out of people who are excited by kids. We are not lacking in numbers of adults who want to inspire and motivate our youth and our future. We are however, losing. New teachers are coming and leaving sooner than before, and though the reasons range, the outcome can be changed.

If more adults were given an opportunity to just try teaching, with no strings attached, we would retain more teachers. If new teachers were being offered support and guidance, we would retain more teachers. If we came up with ways to celebrate, rather than point fingers, we would retain more teachers.

States and districts could address teacher shortages by encouraging, promoting, and designing teaching pipelines at universities. Yes, credential programs exist—but sometimes they are very small or they are not visible on a highly populated campus. Talented and diverse individuals can be brought into the teaching profession if they have opportunities to know and experience real teaching during their undergraduate work. Many universities offer their students mentorship and tutoring programs, but this is usually for current students who need help with midterms. Mentorship and tutoring for college students is needed and it is a valuable support system.

What is lacking here is the mentorship and tutoring support college students could give to local K-12 students. Why is the support system stopping with peers, and not extending outside of our college campuses? It is feasible and possible for higher education institutions to form long-lasting and consistent relationships with local K-12 schools. If universities, regardless of their size, formed partnerships with multiple schools in their community, individuals could spark their interest in the profession. Universities often have local schools that they take under their wing to offer field trips, or rebuild a school garden. These are usually a one-time, or one-semester pact.

Universities can offer more to their students and to the students in their community, by allowing for more time for college students to be in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms.

In universities with teacher credential programs, teacher credential candidates are required to have a specific number of hours in the classroom for observations, lesson studies, etc. This experience does not have to be limited to teacher candidates. If a student majors in biology, it should not be a foreign idea to have that biology student be partnered up with a biology teacher at a local high school to help administer a lab experience or demo. If a student majors in humanities, it should not be a foreign idea for that student to partner up with a local drama teacher putting on a school play. By allowing college students an opportunity to explore K-12 classrooms, schools could gain a very diverse group of individuals impacting their schools for the better.

That's an idea about how to get the candidates in the door. But the crucial part here is making sure they stay.

Schools can improve retention rates by making sure programs like California's Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment induction system, which offer new teachers support, stay available. Often times these programs make their appearance and then disappear again as district funding fluctuates. Making this program a part of every school district should be mandatory.

When BTSA is not offered, new teachers usually enroll in a university program that is offered nearby. This usually requires a rather expensive payment plan for an already underpaid teacher. This financial undertaking contributes to one of many new-year teacher strikes. BTSA, and programs like it, offer new teachers guidance, mental support, feedback, and coaching—all of which are necessary to new teacher survival and growth.

At my school, a supportive administration has improved my new teacher experience. For my first two years at the school, I was constantly checked-in on. I was being observed in class as many new teachers are, but I was also given feedback with coaching. As a third-year science teacher, I no longer feel overwhelmed by curriculum, deadlines, transition activities, classroom management, or grading. I do not get overwhelmed by them because I have been trained in how to manage my time, how to stay focused, how to say "no" when I need to, and most importantly—how to ask for help. I attribute this to the principal and vice principal at my school.

When administrators become coaches who care about the professional growth of their staff, it changes the school culture and it changes the way a teacher feels about themselves. Attitudes and actions by administrators directly affect teachers—new teachers are more susceptible to this. As a third year teacher this year, I have enrolled in a program similar to BTSA to clear my preliminary California teaching credential. I am going in with more support, rather than not enough.

It is empowering, and it is how all teachers, experienced and new, should feel.

Alicia Johal is an 8th grade science teacher and curriculum specialist in San Diego. When she is not in the classroom she is coaching robotics, soccer, or having fun with her art club students. Follow her on Twitter: @AliciaJohal

Read more from this roundtable discussion on teacher recruitment and retention.

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