Heather Wolpert-Gawron

New teacher programs: their plate is already full

By on April 18, 2008

The article, “Build Schools, Not Prisons,”  from the ASCD Community blog reports that the Brookings Institute has compiled a Top 5 list of interventions that impact “additional graduates,” those strategies that seem to prove the most effective in lowering the drop-out rates in school. They mention such steps as early childhood education, teacher salary increases, and, the ever-vague “less teacher turnover.”
It kinda got me grumbling about that last one, because I see new teacher turnover as an issue that it not yet being dealt with effectively.  I believe that the veteran teachers and school sites have a bound duty to help those newbies adjust successfully.  And rather than help these new teachers, the sites hand over the responsibilities to New Teacher Induction Programs.  
But the fact is that the very programs designed to help our new teachers, whether they be called RYAN, CFFAST, BTSA, Induction, etc…, are some of the very things inciting such a massive exodus from the profession.  While meant to support, these programs pile on tedious, redundant work that adds to the problem.
Having said that, when I was working in an inner city school early on in my career, my BTSA mentor was invaluable to me.  She was a guide through the bureaucracy and inequity of the system, an advisor based in the reality of her classroom observations, and a real touchstone in a place where the concrete was crumbling.  
As part of my own growth as a teacher, I vowed that I too would become a mentor one day, and here I am.  Currently, I have three teachers I work with, but the program as I knew it seems to have dissipated.  It has evolved into one that decays a new teacher’s enthusiasm rather then helps to retain it.  
My teachers say that the most valuable part of their Induction program is their relationship with me.  I’m there for them over lunches, by phone, through email.  I even make house calls.  I am a shoulder and a scaffold.  I observe, but I do not give consequences. This is a very key point to the value of the mentoring relationship in that they can use me and my observations more formatively that those of their administrator.  Unfortunately, the aid I give them and our small piles of paperwork that we complete together is nothing compared to the tome-sized stacks of tedium required of the program as a whole.  
I look at my own portfolio from when I was in my two-year new teacher program and I see it as a reasonable reflection of my learnings in the classroom.  I look at what is asked of them and my jaw drops.  
In their first year, they were pulled out of the classroom for 30, count ’em 30, days of training. That’s 6 weeks of school.  My three teachers all have masters degrees, two of them in ELL specialization, but they still needed to attend a piss-poor workshop on SADIE strategies hosted by some guy who hadn’t been in a classroom in 30 years.  These new teachers already donate their time to volunteer work in the school, have four preps, and get the least desirable classrooms with most challenging of students.  In addition to monthly department meetings and faculty meetings, they also have their new teacher workshops and observations.  
It’s as if the new teachers programs are focused in the wrong direction.  It’s like they are wearing a costume of a supportive program, but in actuality, it’s really set up to prove what the new teachers are doing and how in the most punitive way.  I don’t know if you can Support a teacher and require them to Prove in the same breath. 
I am by no means saying that new teacher programs are not important.  But as with many elements of education, they just aren’t set up as efficiently or effectively as they need to be.  We talk about differentiation, but (and I know the union reps out there are going to freak) why can’t we differentiate the requirements dumped onto these new, vulnerable public servants?  Some new teachers need more handholding then others.  Some need more aid in collaboration, classroom management, and classroom environments.  And don’t tell me that they get those things in their education classes.  The fact is that you don’t learn a thing until you have your own classroom. 
These programs need three things:
1.    Flexibility in a profession where there is very little
2.    Curriculum collaboration with mentors rather then mere observation and assessment
3.  Stream-lined paperwork created by teachers on site, not administrators.  These           requirements, if indeed necessary should address the issues of the new teacher’s job so that they are productive and not additional
As it stands, these programs, which were set up to smooth a new teacher’s transition, clunk along with their requirements like a steam engine in a digital world, polluting a new teacher’s energy and clogging the arteries of their precious time.
I am always honored to be asked for help by a new teacher, and I will continue to mentor these teachers as homage to the mentors that I have had, and in hopes of what these programs may one day become.
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