E4E-NY Teacher Sarah Bever: Better teacher retention can start with how we prepare teachers
Sarah Bever, an E4E-New York teacher, writes about how E4E's first Policy Roundtable of this summer, "Rethinking Teacher Prep," caused her to reflect on her own experiences of preparing for the classroom. Sarah teaches middle school theater at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, a new district school in Queens.
A few years ago I was in the basement of a theater cleaning up from a day of teaching Shakespeare Camp when I got a phone call from a Virginia public school system. They were offering me the position of full time theater arts teacher and department director for grades 9-12. I couldn’t believe it. But, after all, I was the wise old age of 22, I did have a BA degree in theater and I had been working as a teaching artist and actor, so surely the fact that I had never taken an education class wouldn’t be a big deal (fyi: teaching twenty kids who signed up for Shakespeare camp is a totally different ball game then teaching 6 classes of 30 students and directing large main stage productions). A veteran teacher told me, don’t worry you learn everything while you’re teaching anyway. And thus began my teaching career: I would learn on the job, and through alternative certification I would be mentored and take my education classes as I taught in the suburbs of DC.
Fast forward a few years and you find me in New York City with a master's degree in International Education Development and a much deeper understanding of classroom pedagogy and the vital role that education plays around the world in developing healthy communities. Just as my mentor teacher had told me I would, I learned (and am still learning) from experience. This year I completed my first year of teaching middle school theater in New York City at a new public school in Queens.
I have always wondered if my lack of training prior to entering the classroom led to me feeling burnt out and moving to New York to pursue a rigorous graduate degree in education. My curiosity on the topic of teacher training and retention fueled much of my graduate school research and attracted me to participate in a roundtable discussion facilitated by Educators 4 Excellence (E4E) last week.
A number of NYC teachers gathered last Wednesday at E4E’s first summer policy roundtable, “Rethinking Teacher Prep”. We discussed the pros and cons of our preparation programs and what we saw as the desirable goals of a teacher preparation program. Today teachers enter the profession through various avenues, including alternative programs such as New York City Teaching Fellows and Teach for America and traditional teacher preparation programs offered in undergraduate and graduate school. Some of us had programs more focused on theory, others on classroom strategies, some with meaningful student teaching and others who were left with piles of worksheets. It stood out to me how all of us talked about the value that experience in the classroom and thoughtful feedback from mentors offered us.
Teaching is a complex profession, and you learn the most by experience and observation. This calls for preparation programs that respect that complexity through experiential learning. During our conversation, we paid much attention to the fact that in New York City approximately 50% of teachers leave within the first five years of teaching, and each new hire costs about $15,000 dollars (2004). Why is the education community in such a hurry to have expert teachers right away? Why is a teacher with two months of training expected to perform at the same level as a teacher with 8 years of experience? Exploring the connection between teacher preparation and retention seems like a worthwhile idea. Many teacher preparation programs are not providing teachers in places like New York City the in-classroom training, mentorship and rigor to ensure long-term success.
One idea to address this teacher retention issue that we discussed during the roundtable was to use a residency model to train teachers. Teachers are better equipped to enter the classroom after having been in the classroom with observation, guidance, supervision and mentorship. Education students would spend time learning the educational theory and meaningfully connect it to practice with the guidance of someone who is wiser and more experienced. So when you do jump in the deep end, you’ve had a decent amount of swimming lessons first. In this model new teachers are not expected to be perfect, and expectations are managed for what is appropriate for their level of experience.
And it is important that a residency program also focus on cultural competency in addition to theory and classroom practice. For example, a teacher could spend one semester in an urban middle school special education residency and the second in a suburban upper elementary art residency, after already having studied theory, pedagogy and cultural competency. If a teacher went through a residency program before s/he entered the classroom that honored the complexity of the profession through time spent learning how to do it well, this would help sustain great teachers.
I learned a tremendous amount about the variety of teacher preparation programs through dialogue with peers at the E4E roundtable and from graduate school. As teachers our voices are vital in the development of effective teacher preparation. As we rethink teacher preparation, I encourage all teachers to reflect on your experiences and engage in these conversations with each other and with the institutions that prepared you for the classroom.