Ask any teacher and they can tell you a few stories about their first year teaching. More often than not we look back at the end of the school year and think about all thing things we could of done differently, better… That is what I love about this profession; you are always improving and striving to be your best. But sometimes being your best and doing what you love is not always valued or supported by the place where you work.
I entered the teaching profession after working for a “DOT COM” (technology start-up) where out of the box thinking and innovation was valued. As a teacher intern in an inner city school in Los Angeles I believed every moment mattered and I would be directly impacting the lives of those most in need.
At the beginning of the school year the principal announced at a staff development meeting that the budget would no longer be able to support the cost of a computer lab staff and therefore would be off limits and closed. His comments were met with silence and I immediately raised my hand to announce that I would be able to train and support all teachers in the computer lab. I shared that in my previous profession as a technical writer, I could provide technical support and would write a mini manual that would support all teachers in the lab.
My comments were met with silence by the principal and excitement by the teachers. However after the meeting the principal pulled me aside, not to thank me, but instill a sense of fear, he said “you know you are not tenured” I looked at him with shock? “What do you mean?” I replied. “You need to learn not to speak up at meetings”. You don’t have to be rehired here, and if you are let go no one else will hire you.”
You know that scene in the movie where the wild horse is beaten and finally tamed, well that is how I felt my first year as a teacher. I slowly learned how to “fit in” and “stay under the radar”. Of course this was not the only experience in which I was “tamed”.
What’s missing from teacher preparation, is the opportunity to “find your voice”. It’s the know-how to navigate successfully in a school culture and learn about the resources, support networks and mentors that are available to teachers tenured or not. It’s the experience of knowing we are more powerful together, we all need someone to lean on and we must support our colleagues so that “No Teacher Is Left Behind”.
The majority of students drop out because they are bored, not challenged or supported by the school. I would argue this is also true for new teachers; we could be losing our most gifted and talented who may have strong content and pedagogical knowledge but lack the tacit knowledge that is context embedded and personal in nature. Between 40% and 50% of new teachers leave within the first five years of entry into teaching and often site lack of support from school administration (Ingersoll, 2003).
When students drop out of school because of a mismatch between school and home culture they are considered “pushed out”. I wonder how many teachers were “pushed out” of their school because their refusal to align with the “status quo”. In every school that I have worked at and every teacher I have known, each has come into the classroom with unique gifts and talents. Ms. Shapiro brought a passion for dance, Ms. Call a love of language and literature, Ms. McCutcheon a voice for advocacy, and Mr. Olmos the gift of inspiring all learners.
Preservice teachers need to experience a variety of school cultures to understand the dynamics of a school setting and the resources available. They need to know that not all schools are created equal therefore they should strongly take into consideration the school culture before signing a contract. I often ask the preservice teachers I work with what are your “must haves” for a school culture and what are you willing to “give up”. Instructors need to find the unique talents and skills of preservice teachers and help them set goals for their work in the profession. These goals should be aligned with their skill set as well as used to identify areas for professional growth. If beginning teachers were equipped with a road map for what they should do in their first few years to be successful, perhaps the numbers who leave would reduce.
I loved working at a Title 1 school with a high percentage of English language learners, but this type school environment may not be for everyone. Finding a match between the teacher and school culture is imperative. As a teacher educator I know we can and should be doing more to close the gap between the university and K-12 schools. Perhaps fieldwork can consist of not just working in one school but a variety: charter, low & high SES, ELL, gifted etc. This way our future educators know what type of school environment they feel most comfortable in and can thrive. As Thomas Moore once said “Education is not the piling on of learning, information, data, facts, skills, or abilities–that’s training or instruction–but is rather a making visible what is hidden as a seed… To be educated, a person doesn’t have to know much or be informed, but he or she does have to have been exposed vulnerably to the transformative events of an engaged human life…One of the greatest problems of our time is that many are schooled but few are educated.”