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Virginia Journal of Education


First Person: Narratives from the Classroom

 

Rookies and Veterans—Teachers Need Help

By Amy Issadore Bloom

“The students were on the roof of the school building,” Jack told us about his brief experience volunteering as a teacher in New Mexico. I assumed he meant the students were out of control and hyper.

“We could hear them stomping around up there,” he continued.

Granted, he had little to no training or experience. Still, I love the image and metaphor of the kids on the roof. How do we help students access knowledge when they aren’t even in the building (literally and figuratively)?
 
From those who took a traditional path into education, to AmeriCorps Fellows, to career changers—many teachers, especially in Title I schools, are barely surviving their first year of teaching. These teachers need support systems and training based on the kind of students they work with. Reading Savage Inequalities and taking some diversity workshops is just not enough anymore. 

Today, almost 10 percent of new teachers leave after their first year. Perhaps some think this is OK. After all, teaching isn’t for everyone. Better to figure it out sooner rather than later. But most of these teachers did not anticipate quitting after only a year. They were simply not given the tools for success.

Teaching is incredibly demanding and exhausting, and even more so for those working with at-risk populations. Students living in poverty have an entirely different set of challenges and learning obstacles. Children in urban settings have unique problems and needs compared to those in rural communities. Teachers must be trained and prepared for the students and atmosphere they teach in. And students will never truly succeed without appropriate courses and qualified staff.

Before we can even have conversations about the achievement gap, standardized testing, and SOLs, we need to make some changes to ensure that teachers and students in all communities have a solid foundation for learning.
 
Student curriculum. Those of us who took education courses somewhat recently have been taught about background knowledge and scaffolding lessons. We’re making great strides in making content accessible for students, but we frequently neglect to accommodate for their social-emotional levels. Regardless of the grade, we cannot assume students ever learned how to appropriately interact with peers and teachers.

Just as you wouldn’t attempt to teach multiplication before addition, you can’t expect students to jump into cooperative learning activities if nobody has taught them how to act in a classroom.

When my brother, a musician in his 40s, took a job at a middle school in New York City, I was excited to share all of my wonderful ideas with him. Quiz Quiz Trade! Rally Robin! Round Robin! Positive Popcorn parties! Learning Stations!

“You don’t understand,” he told me after his first month. “We’re still working on how to enter and leave the room.” They run around. They shout. They show no interest in learning. And he’s teaching drumming. What could be cooler than that?

He didn’t enter this blindly. He’d taught successfully for years, just never in a setting where the majority of the kids have only been exposed to educators who “manage” through coercion, screaming, and negative reinforcement.

These students need a completely different curriculum. Expecting them to sit still for 80-minute class blocks is unrealistic. We need to begin tailoring education to the suit the needs and abilities of students.

Teacher training and support. Just as ESOL and special education teachers have specific certification and skill sets, so should those working in “challenging” schools. They should be better trained in classroom management. The “nothing can prepare you” mantra doesn’t need to still ring true. Surely we can be prepared, just like any other profession.

Many schools have implemented mentor programs for new teachers, with varying degrees of success. Though having a “buddy” teacher to help plan lessons and create seating charts is helpful, it often isn’t enough. Educators need easier access to support groups and counselors to help deal with the emotional burden of taking on our students’ real world problems.
 
Space. We certainly aren’t going to inspire the next great innovator with schools that look like prisons and teachers who have to act like wardens.

Everyone is entitled to a learning environment that is clean, safe and bright. Even in “good” schools, resource teachers are left to create makeshift spaces to work with students. Teaching in the hallway is less than ideal, especially when you are working with students who are already behind. The cafeteria, with its eternally sticky tables is not a good teaching space—nor is the auditorium, unless you teach drama.

Author Seth Godin writes about the importance of space: “I think we can train ourselves to associate certain places with certain outcomes. There's a reason they built those cathedrals. Pick your place, on purpose.”

Issadore Bloom (bloomindc@gmail.com), a former member of the Fairfax Education Association, is now a freelance writer in Washington, D.C. You can read more of her writing at www.bloomindc.com.


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