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A Dirty, Little Secret in K-12 Education

Something that has troubled me for years in the field of education is the way in which new teachers are often treated. A loyal member of the profession, I don’t like pointing out issues with my colleagues; but this is something that has irked me for a long time and should stop.

Bluntly put: The teaching profession eats its young.

Teaching is probably the only profession that requires one to be fully capable on day one of earning a salary. For teachers, there is no paid training period. The day they hit the classroom, new teachers are expected to be as capable as a veteran. On day one, a teacher is given a full load of classes and a full load of students. They rarely, if ever, get any special attention or special assistance. The most veteran teacher in any school generally does no more than a teacher on the first day of the job. In what other profession is this expected?

That is not, however, the dirty, little secret I wish to raise here.  The requirement to be fully capable on day one is tough enough. The real problem is that in many schools, the newest teachers are given the hardest assignments. New teachers are commonly given the most challenging classes, the hardest schedules, and the most classrooms.

The Most Challenging Classes:  Often a school has particularly difficult classes to teach. These may be an especially tough group of students (as a result of classroom chemistry over a period of years), or a challenging set of issues (many students with special needs, English Language Learners, or transient students), or they may be the most reluctant learners. Veteran teachers–who have the skills and experience to address these issues–often choose to teach in less challenging contexts. As a result of seniority (and whatever else determines class assignments), the most challenging classes are often assigned to the least senior teachers: that is, the newest teachers. Even worse, new teachers are often given several different very challenging classes. Veteran teachers will often have 2 different classes (“2 preps”) in a day; new teachers usually have 3, 4, or even more preps!

The Hardest Schedules: Most teachers teach 5 classes within a 9-period day. There are often additional duties, such as homeroom, study hall, and/or lunchroom duty. The newest teachers often get the least attractive periods for lunch and planning. Wouldn’t it help if you could break up your day evenly with lunch and a planning period? Also, wouldn’t it be helpful if the newest teachers could be spared the most difficult additional duties until they get more experience? Generally, new teachers must accept the most difficult duties until they are senior enough to choose their preferences.

The Most Classrooms: Most new teachers must move from classroom to classroom for a number of years until they develop enough seniority to earn their own classroom. That generally means a new teacher doesn’t have the luxury of staying in one room all day; rather, they must move to a new room for each class. Just like a student, the new teacher must gather all their belongings, get themselves to a new class, re-organize themselves and be ready to start a new class once the bell rings. This would be challenging for a veteran teacher. But new teachers–dealing with all the trials of a new position in a new building with new colleagues, new students, new parents, and new curricula–get to deal with all this moving around, too.

I know there are exceptions. There are schools that provide excellent support for new teachers. In fact, I was lucky enough to be hired for my first teaching position at a school with a terrific mentoring program and I had a tremendously valuable first year at Columbia High School in East Greenbush, NY. I ascribe much of my happiness and success in the field to the launching pad I was fortunate enough to be provided. And, I share details of that wonderful experience in a this post. If only such mentoring programs were common now.

Unfortunately, from what I have heard, the vast majority of schools and departments work on a seniority model and provide little extra support for new teachers during what is professionally called the “induction” period. As a profession, we educators must do a better job of supporting our newest members. Rather than clawing for every perk of seniority, we should create scaffolding spaces for new teachers, to help them develop the skills and experience necessary for a long career as a teacher.

In many ways, the teaching profession eats its young. Those who survive go on to be successful veteran teachers, many of whom feel entitled to the perks they were denied as new teachers. We must acknowledge the folly of this cycle and turn it around.

I invite my colleagues to correct any mistakes in this post, and–even better–to provide counter narratives of induction in contemporary schools. I would be delighted to have my post proven wrong.

4 thoughts on “A Dirty, Little Secret in K-12 Education”

  1. Pingback: The First Year of Edukention – Edukention

  2. Pingback: The First Year of Edukention | edukention

  3. wordi2082

    You’re right that new teachers should be mentored more. The first few years are the most difficult and also the years in which yet-untenured teachers are most vulnerable. They may be afraid to ask for help. We don’t want to drive them away while they’re still getting to know the school and the students.

  4. David – I am a professor of English education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, father of five, author of five books.

    It’s true. There are many reasons to defend veteran teachers, and many reasons to castigate principals or politicians or the Department of Education and so on for the crisis in teaching, and why it is the average for teaching in many areas is 3-4 years, but part of the reason for that early drop out is teachers themselves, who don’t adequately mentor and support new teachers. That said, there are many amazing veteran teachers that mentor our new teachers into the profession. We place student teachers with often great teachers in the Chicago area. Also, what you say about 3-5 preps for new teachers was definitely true in 1975 when I started, though it is also true in my start at my second school in 1977 in Hudsonville, MI I was given Shakespeare, Honors electives; but that was the best teaching gig I ever had, too. And I lasted in part because of that.

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