Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Don’t Knock the Less Experienced Teacher

By on May 23, 2008

Look, we all know the statistics.  Many of the hardest-to-teach classes are being taught by the least experienced teachers.  According to Education Week, a study was recently conducted in Philadeliphia evaluating 9th graders, “the make-or-break year for many students on the path to dropping out of school” which found that “students are more likely than their upper-grade peers to be taught by inexperienced, uncertified teachers.” 

While I understand the argument, I also know that these young teachers have an advantage that I will not have years down the line: energy.  

When I was in my early years of teaching in my mid-twenties, I was hired to teach at an inner city school.  It was, in fact, the under-funded alternative school for those students kicked out of the other schools.  We had broken glass in the halls, police tape from the weekend still strewn over the kindergarten yard come Monday, and no textbooks.  A classic Michelle Pfieffer/Hilary Swank/Morgan Freeman movie in the making.  

I actually jumped into the deep end of the pool, and there wasn’t any filter, so there was moss on the top and calcium deposits coming from the cracks in the bottom, but it was there that I learned to swim.  

I learned that students must still be held to a high, rigorous standard no matter their culture or their background of learning.  It just means that you, the teacher, needs to build more meaningful scaffolding.  I worked at a school where the standards were low, the expectations were low, and, no surprise, that was the level the students were achieving.  By the time the school year was over, I had parents coming to me, thanking me for asking more of their children.  “I don’t understand,” one parent claimed, “how teachers from their own background, expected so much less, and required so much less, than teachers ask other groups of students.”  But to fill those gaps required more meticulous, scaffolded lessons that fell to me to develop.  Nevertheless, the students saw the effort I put into their education and success, and they slowly began to mirror that effort in their own.  

I learned that if you don’t have textbooks, find a way.  You know the school you are hired to teach for, and if those challenges exist, it is still your job to teach.  That means creating engaging lessons that teach the standards.  That means giving them access to you and your knowledge perhaps moreso than you would at another school.  My students had my phone number (because I was their textbook) and they would call and ask questions and use me to talk education even after the sun had set.  When I was having dinner, my husband would answer the phone and be a part of their lessons too.  We had hours of operation, we had standards of manners on the phone, we had topics that we covered.  It was a family affair to help these kids.  Not everyone can afford (time-wise and energy-wise) to be that sacrificial, but I could, at least in that chapter of my life.  

I learned that poverty doesn’t mean indifference.  The parents desired better for their children then that which they had known.  I had parents who worked three jobs.  I had parents who lived on the street who could still, somehow, make it to a conference.  My husband and I shared a meal with a family in their one-room apartment, huddled around a pot with hard-boiled eggs, talking about their student in my class.  I picked up students on my way to school rather then see them walk by the gang members awaiting them on the next block.  These students and their families wanted to learn, knew it was a way out, and trusted the school to guide them.

I learned that the school district does not always have the student interests at heart.

I learned that a loud “No” received by official means, can be a quiet “Yes” when pursued in more creative ways.

I learned that a good BTSA mentor, when found, is a god-send.

I learned that collaboration with a like-minded educator is life-saving.

I learned that to have a successful class, you can’t shy away from the big issues.  On the morning of Sept 11, I wept my way to school, pushing off thoughts of my own father who was in Manhattan at the time, not knowing how I was going to talk to the students and not knowing if school was even in session.  When I got there, I looked at the faces of my students, not one my own ethnicity, and many from places at war with each other.  Everyone was scared, but nobody had facts.  I ran to a 2nd grade room to retrieve a little wooden United States puzzle, the only map I could find in the school, and we began by talking about where New York was, about what they Knew, what they Wondered, and then we began to Learn.  We rebuilt the Towers of Acceptance and Tolerance using art supplies plundered from a forgotten closet.  We learned how to ask questions about each others’ cultures in ways that weren’t accusatory, but rather, inquisitive. 

I learned that the job is not just to teach.  That doesn’t mean give up your own life over to other people’s children, but it means embrace the role-model and advisorship that goes hand-in hand with being an academic instructor.  You can’t ignore their home lives when their school lives are effected.  You can’t turn a blind eye to abuse or their inner confusion and still go home thinking you’ve done your job.  

But I have to break it to you.  This version of dedication eventually fades as your own life picks up its own speed.  And that’s OK.  If you don’t adjust with your own ebb and flow in life, if you insist on that level of giving for the entirety of your education career, you will definitely burn out.  After I got married and had my own child, I needed to find ways to be dedicated without giving out my phone number, and still feel that I was doing everything I could. 

It’s not that I don’t agree that more experienced teachers are better for the harder-to-teach class, it’s just that I think that we can’t dismiss the passion and newness and energy that new teachers bring to the table.  It is a legitimate pro in the face of so many cons.  They have the energy to be in an uproar about everything.  They have the energy to go back to the drawing board each and every day.  They have the flexibilty to try new techniques.  They have the drive to prove themselves to their students, their school, and themselves.  

We can’t disallow or frown upon new teachers in these harder classrooms, but we can support them more and give them what they need to swim.

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  1. Linda F
    May 28, 2008

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    I am nearing the end of my teaching career, and I know I simply don’t have the boundless energy of my younger years. Ideally, most schools should have a mix – the fresh new teacher, the old sages, and a good seasoning of middle-years teachers.

    In too many urban schools, the young teachers are there, and the nearing-retirement teachers (and few of those) – what is missing is the last group. Teachers still having energy to keep up with youthful antics, but experienced, as well. Bad administration is the major reason for the outflow of teachers.

    Too often, the support for the urban principals is not there. They WILL have more suspensions – get over it. They WILL have a need for more security – get over it. And, when a teacher or staff member isn’t doing his/her job, they need to be empowered to get rid of them (not just shove them off on another urban school). And, if not allowed to hold students to high standards (being pressured to pass more students, regardless of effort), they will look good on paper, but bad in the real world.

    How do you tell a good school? Downtown needs to go, unannounced, and walk around. 15 minutes of walking around will tell you more than all the paper reports in the system.

  2. heather
    May 28, 2008

    Leave a Reply

    Thanks for your comment, Linda. I agree that there needs to be a mix and along with it should come the respect due each groups’ contributions to a school. Administrators are going to need to figure out how to plug up the turn-around in our profession soon, because the onslaught of retirees is soon upon us.
    Thanks so much for your input and insight.
    Take care,

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