Keeping New Teachers by Prudence M. Williams

During these two decades of teaching, I’ve seen many teachers enter the profession and leave the profession.

I’ve seen administrators crucify these new teachers who just didn’t know what to do and destroy their careers.

This week I will finish my 24TH or 25th year teaching (I lose count)! I am a career teacher! I graduated from high school went to college, majored in education, graduated from college, and I’ve taught since I graduated! I love the art of giving instruction, and I love young people; working with them and learning from them delights me!

During these two decades of teaching, I’ve seen many teachers enter the profession and leave the profession. I’ve also seen many enter the profession as classroom teachers and transition to other avenues in the field of education that are not in the classroom. I can honestly say that very few of my colleagues who started as classroom teachers with me have remained in the classroom, and that fact saddens me because this country’s young people need good experienced teachers.

During my early years of teaching, I was nurtured and encouraged by some great teachers. In fact, my two strongest mentors were my parents, both teachers. My mother taught for over 30 years and my father taught for about 10 years. They both shared excellent advice with me that I still carry into my classroom everyday! Along with my parents, I was blessed to work in schools that had really wonderful experienced teachers who reached out to me when I was drowning in new teacher issues, and these incredible teachers taught me how to manage my classroom, my gradebook, my lesson plans, my students, and myself as a teacher. I also was blessed to work under supportive and patient administrators during my early years of teaching. These administrators helped me when I considered quitting and leaving the field, they forgave me and when I made major mistakes in my classroom and taught me how to make bad situations right! I don’t know if I would have made it 25 years without these people on my side during my first four or five years teaching.

As the years have passed, I’ve noticed that new teachers are not getting as much support as I did. In fact, during the last decade or so, I’ve noticed that new teachers are getting less and less support. This situation is unfair and leading to the weakening of the teaching profession as a whole. Teacher recruitment is at an all-time low, and new teachers are leaving the profession at an all-time high rate. The continuation of this trend can only lead to the decline of the education system and that will hurt our whole country.

So, what can be done to encourage people to enter the field of education as classroom teachers and hearten new teachers to stay in the classroom? I’ve reflected on this concern and I concluded if new teachers are provided with sufficient support, proper training, and competitive salaries, the rate at which they leave the classroom would slow tremendously.

Sufficient Support

When I started teaching, experienced teachers reached out to me. Some of these teachers had 2 years’ experience; other had 20 years’ experience. All of them gave me what they could in terms of knowledge and support. They asked me if I needed help and when I said no, they gave it to me anyway! They helped me learn how to get 30 sixth graders organized daily, teaching me how to teach those sweet, chattering little people to open their lockers and keep up with their belongings. These veteran teachers showed me how to organize a parent contact log that would serve as documentation of my behavior, strategies, and communication efforts for years to come, quickly and effectively! They showed me how to manage a setting charts, fire drills, bomb threats, angry parents, and overly ambitious curriculums. Some simply invited me out for dinner and listened as I vented about the frustrations and fails I’d had in my classroom and I cheered with me as I celebrated the triumphs and wonderful experiences I’d had in my classroom. They were valuable allies for me and without them, I am certain I would not have made it through those years.

These teachers were my mentors. They were good co-workers who did what good co-workers do. It was great having them help me and that’s how mentors should function.

New teachers must have mentors! School systems must make organizing the availability of mentors to new teachers a priority, and they must make sure that the mentors are close in proximity to the new teachers, allowed time to work with new teachers, and not used to spy on new teachers!

A good mentor for a new teacher should be next door, across the hall, or at the very most, a few doors down. They should not be on another wing or hall of the building. Proximity is very important because much of what the mentor does is observed by the new teacher and learned though indirect instructions. The opportunity to watch an experienced teacher in action is invaluable! Watching an experience teacher manage and extinguish minor conflicts between students with humor and care helps new teachers learn strategies for managing situations that will arise in their classrooms. Seeing a good teacher clear a hallway quickly of overly social teenagers without creating resentment or hustling hundreds of kids through the lunch line without major chaos helps new teachers learn how to do things that college doesn’t teach. Those experiences are vital for the making of good teachers.

New teachers and their mentors must be given time to talk. A lot of time is not needed. Providing new teachers and their mentors a student-free lunch once every week would be sufficient. The time can be used to show new teachers how to enter grades, post grades, use online platforms, construct and tweak classroom management plans, demonstrate an effect parent call or email, or simply talk about issue that the new teacher many have or the mentor has observed of the new teacher. This time is valuable and can put more support under and around new teachers than most realize.

A good mentor should teach the same or a similar content area. Colleges teach content in general terms. Every state, every school system, and every school personalizes the general content into very specific packages called curriculum plans. These plans can be puzzling to new teachers. Most curriculum packages are vague and broad. They say things like “the student will understand the functions of the body system as they relations to the whole organism”. New teachers are often a little overwhelmed about what to teach, how much of it to teach, in what order to teach it, and what methodology they should use to teach it. It’s a lot to figure out because these terms can mean vastly differing things from state to state and county to county with in a state. Having a mentor can help new teachers learn to navigate curriculum plans. Mentor teacher in the same field have taught the content before and understand the information that state and local schools require be taught. They can streamline the content and assist new teachers in making effective instructional choices. To do this, mentor teachers have to teach the same thing or at least something similar content as their mentee. An English teacher offers very little content support to a math teacher.

Although school systems often set up professional learning communities to help teachers organize the curriculum, it is not enough. New teachers need a content specialist that they can safely and quickly refer to when they are actively planning and teaching. They need someone to answer questions based on experience teaching the same thing. New teachers need to able to ask without reservation, “Why didn’t this lesson work? I did it this way and it flopped.” They need to feel safe about saying, they are unsure about the content and it’s meaning. Professional learning communities are often micromanaged by upper managing instructional coaches and leaders and can prove to be very disconcerting for new teachers, especially if they feel any level of discomfort with their content.

Also new teachers need to be able to frequently and informally observe strong general teaching skills such as, how to set up hands on activities, how to manage students in groups, and how to work with a co-teacher. Working in close proximity to experienced teachers can provide new teachers with opportunities to see how great classroom work. When a new teacher works in a classroom next to an experienced teacher, the new teacher get to observe the subtle nuances of effective teaching that, if not mastered, are often classroom management and lesson killers. Simple things like passing out supplies and clean up can be observed and help new teachers improve their teaching skills. Although colleges provide best practices and accepted theory, these things are not directly taught in colleges, and mentors can often give the direction and guidance need to lead to success for new teacher in just a few minutes of discussion and observation.

The relationship between a new teacher and a mentor is important. A friendship should form from a mentorship. If the new teacher feels that the mentor is reporting to the administrators, a real relationship will not develop and the opportunity for the new teacher to really grow and develop into a strong teacher will be lost. Therefore, for mentorships to be truly effective, administrators must stay out of the relationship. As doctoral candidates are allowed to select their team, new teachers should be allowed to select mentors. Mentors should not have to report contact time with mentees to administrators, nor should they be given specific guidelines and procedures to follow in developing their relationship with their mentees. It is a relationship that the mentor and the mentee must feel comfortable with and this relationship cannot be imposed on new teachers or mentors.

Proper Training

I have had some very bad experiences with administrators who felt like I’d stepped beyond my boundaries as a mentor teacher with new teachers. I actively and loudly defend a new teacher when I believe they are being treated unfairly! New teachers know they love children! New teachers know they love their content area! New teachers know they want to make a difference! What new teachers don’t know are the unspoken rules and parameters of teaching. They don’t know how to handle difficult students who are rude and disrespectful and often threatening. They don’t know how to handle overly aggressive parents who demand too much. And when they make mistakes, breaking those unspoken rules or cross boundaries they didn’t know existed, I stand up for them and say to administrators, “If you’d trained them, they may not have made that mistake!” Most of the times, I just make my administrators mad, but at least they have to think about it. I knew that someone is going to hold them accountable for producing quality teachers!

We have to train teachers! Everyday new teachers mess up… they don’t enter grades the correct way, they fail to call a parent about a child’s behavior or failing grades, they lose their temper and say something they shouldn’t have. They mess up. Unfortunately, many administrators just throw them away. New teachers are not taught how to manage the overwhelming workload that comes with teaching. They are never given a demonstration of how to handle intrusive and often offensive parents. They are never taught how to manage 40+ children who don’t want to do what they are being asked to do. But they are punished like they’ve been trained to do all these things and more.

I started teaching when I was 21 years old. Originally, I wanted to teach high school and I trained to teach high school but then I stepped into a high school... I was still in college, working with a teacher in a classroom 2 days a week, preparing for my own classroom one day. On this day I taught a 12th grade World History class. I was 21, most of my students were 17 or 18, but the one who approached me as I dismissed the class was 20. I will never forget that day. The teacher was in the hallway talking to kids. I was at the door as the kid filed out. I was in a pretty floor length dress, wearing low sensible heels, and trying to be professional and impart great knowledge of the world on these young minds and make their hearts aware of their duties as global citizens.

I’ve seen administrators crucify these new teachers who just didn’t know what to do and destroy their careers.

As the class filtered out of the room, one male student lingered. It was the last class of the day, so no other students were entering the classroom, and when the classroom was empty of other students, this young man finally approached and said, “Ms. Williams that was a good lesson.” I was proud! He’d been touched! He’d learned! I thanked him and asked what he’d enjoyed the most about the class that day. Then it happened, he said, “You, standing up there looking all pretty,” and he licked his lips at me! I was appalled and stunned! I told him, “Young man, I’m your teacher and I’m 21!” He just smiled and said, “Well, teacher, I’m 20.” I truly was speechless, and I just walked away from him to the teacher in the hallway, hoping for a shield and protection from this child’s unwanted advances. I didn’t know students would be so aggressive and disrespectful, I’d never been like that as a student and I was very distraught about the situation. I told my supervising teacher what had happened after the halls cleared, and she handled the situation for me the next day when I wasn’t in the classroom. But I never quite felt comfortable teaching the class again. That student was always there, looking at me. He never approached me again, but I knew I was in a bad situation. I finished working with that class, and spoke to my college advisor and changed my major to middle school education.

Within a year, I had my own classroom and was a bona fide teacher. I was fortunate in this situation. I’d gone to my supervising teacher and asked for help. The student admitted to his wrongdoing. It all worked out for the best. As I grew and developed as a teacher, I look back and think of all the ways this could have been a major mess up for me. I’ve seen new teachers go through the exact same thing and mess up by not reporting it immediately because they didn’t know to report it or who to report it to. And unfortunately, I’ve seen administrators crucify these new teachers who just didn’t know what to do and destroy their careers.

I also taught my first middle school math class how to play modified poker. It was a great probability lesson. We used fake money, and they learned! Four suits with 13 cards each. If you know your hand and your partner’s hand and how many cards have been played, you should be able to make a good educated guess on the what’s left in the deck. We had a blast with it in class and I watched as my students’ scores went through the roof in probability! Then one of those little angels shared my lesson with the parent who was not amused and did not see how I was using a real life experience to teach a somewhat abstract concept.

I found myself in the principal office, accused of running a kiddy casino out of my classroom. My morals were questioned, and my judgement was questioned. Again, great administrators have made it possible for me to continue teaching and in this situation, I was blessed with a great administrator. He soothes the parents and protected me. He later privately reprimanded me for making poor instructional choices and helped me plan a better lesson for probability. I now know he was right; poker was not the best choice of lesson to give middle schoolers. The point is I was allow to mess up without losing my career!

Administrators and parents must remember that the bulk of what makes a good teacher good can’t be taught before the teacher enters the classroom. Mistakes are made. But most are not so bad that the new teacher should lose his/her job or even be place on probation. Reducing the number of mistakes that new teachers make can be done by offering more on the job training to new teachers. So much is involved in being a classroom teachers but so little training is given. No one is taking the time or the responsibility to show new teachers how to run conferences, manage classrooms, or even escort students up the hallway quietly, but new teachers are held accountable for the career skills of an experienced teacher.

Again, good mentors can help train new teachers, but more direct training is needed for new teachers to achieve success and grow into great teachers. This training can’t be a one-time thing, done hastily during the week of preplanning. Training new teachers must be ongoing and relevant to the needs of the new teachers, which means administrators must ask new teachers what they need to be successful and find ways to accommodate their needs.

I’ve seen too many new teachers ask for assistance in managing loud and rowdy students and being told to figure it out themselves. These teachers are often left to struggle with children who will not obey, spoil the learning of others, and are rude and disruptive. They leave work daily feeling inadequate and unsuccessful, watching their dreams of having inspired classrooms fade. Often these teachers mess up, stepping across those boundaries I mentioned earlier. Then they are harshly admonishment and often places on probation or fired, although they begged for help and were given none. It’s saddening and leads to many new teachers to walk away from the profession. Our society needs us to do better. Our children need us to better. New teachers need us to do better.

New teachers need us to do better.

Competitive Salaries

You get what you pay for… Our society pays teachers poorly. Teachers are required to have at least a 4 yr. degree. According to Money Magazine, the average starting salary in 2016 for college graduates with a bachelor’s degree was $50,556. The same magazine documents the starting teacher salary as $34,891. The discrepancy is glaring, but the student loan payments for all new graduates are the same. It’s not an honorable profession if you have to live like a pauper. It’s not even worth doing if you can’t afford the necessities of professional work, like a professional wardrobe and decent transportation.

I will not argue the importance of teachers; I think we know that they are important. I don’t want to hear about governmental budgets, not when I hear politicians prop themselves up on “our children’s futures” and what they are going to do for those futures during every election season. The foundation of those futures is anchored in the teaching force; and if new teachers continue to walk away at the rate they are now, those futures begin to dull. Simply put, pay teachers like they are professionals, pay teachers like their jobs are important, pay teacher a livable and competitive salary.

Prudence Williams is a veteran educator and writer. She has worked as a middle school teacher for 24 years. She is an alumni of The University of Georgia.

392 views8 comments

Recent Posts

See All