Teacher Renewal: Essential in a Time of Change

As the student population grows, Essential schools are facing critical issues of teacher preparation, turnover, retention, and leadership. Four new and veteran teachers talk here about their own experiences of building a professional life in this time of change.

They come from places as various as the earth itself, some still rough at their edges, some polished by the tumble of the machine. As different as onyx and quartz, ruby and amber, they make the linked chain that holds a school together, steadies it against the winds, inches it toward change.

And so they are more precious to their Essential schools than any gift of money, these teachers who spend their days and years doing what is perhaps the hardest job around for a person of ambition and intelligence these days.

In his landmark study Schoolteacher (University of Chicago Press, 1995), sociologist Dan Lortie described an occupation isolated by its workplace structures, and without a strong career trajectory to reward experience and skill. The teachers he surveyed, though they come across as conservative and even ambivalent in their attitudes, found their chief motivation and inspiration in the daily satisfactions of reaching and changing kids.

Almost three decades later, the statistics tell much the same story. The teaching profession today, stripped of its once reliable corps of educated females with few other job prospects, is staggering under the needs of a global economy and a burgeoning student population. Math and science teaching positions go begging as industry snaps up qualified graduates; and teachers for students with limited English or special needs are scarce as hens’ teeth. Urban schools lose teachers to the whiter, higher-paid suburbs. And when they look toward a career where they will make only a fraction of what their classmates do for comparable effort and skill, even young teachers with high ideals often decide instead on management, medicine, or law.

Yet Horace’s interviews with Essential school teachers around the country still consistently reveal the same motivations and satisfactions that Lortie found in his much larger and more rigorous study. Moreover, they suggest that even as schools’ social context has altered, a new and promising factor has crept into the professional lives of those who teach in Coalition member schools.

Again and again, these teachers speak of emerging from the isolation of their classrooms into partnerships, teams, and networks marked by collaboration among peers. Such initiatives have their tensions and costs, they acknowledge; and at every stage of their careers teachers require explicit supports to carry them out. But they also yield intellectual and personal rewards, which often renew their energy and commitment to continuing in a profession under siege.

Might this tiny sample of teachers’ voices-rookie and veteran, black and white, urban and suburban, older and wet behind the ears-actually signify an important shift in what we know about getting and keeping teachers in this time of stress and change? Rather than presume to make that leap, Horace here presents the voices themselves. *

Raised in North Carolina and with a degree from Kenyon College, David Ansbacher, 28 and white, plays guitar well enough to have had a career in music or anything else. But a post-college teaching stint in Namibia led him into a master’s program in teaching at Brown University. From there he took a job team-teaching English and history at Irvington High School in Fremont, California, a 1700-student urban school with a strong commitment to Essential school principles.

I went into teaching for the intellectual satisfaction-pushing kids into discussing things that they haven’t thought before, really thinking and challenging themselves. We are just finishing a unit on Vietnam in which the kids have worked to create a mural that portrays the different periods of the war across the entire back wall, with a continuous timeline on top. They had to explain it to each other, and we saw them come to understand a very complex topic in a deep way. We had veterans come visit, and the kids really knew what had happened. At those moments, the feeling is almost tangible of kids thinking in the room and being proud of their own thought.

What I didn’t expect was how quickly I was called upon to take a position of leadership in the school. In my third year I already have the responsibilities of a senior teacher, not just teaching in the classroom, but also a lot of whole school change, which I enjoy. I coordinate our “family teams” for ninth and tenth grades-several teachers who have the same students for three periods-and that puts me in the center of a lot of things. Coming out of graduate school you’re not really sure how respected you should be, and it’s great when you’re given responsibility; you rise up to it and it makes you want to stay.

When I first got into teaching I thought I would eventually be an administrator, but that’s changed-even though I like a big-picture job, I wouldn’t take it without having classroom interaction with kids. I enjoy the challenge and chaos of administrative work, but it doesn’t give me peace. Being in a classroom gives me peace; I walk around smiling and having a great time.

The year before I was hired, the school had a big retirement buyout and 30 percent of the staff was new. I was hired the next year, with not quite so many new teachers; and now this year we’ve had a lot of new ones. All of the nine “families” in the school have at least one new teacher, and some have two or three. And we’re looking at a big retirement next year. Also, because we have so many young teachers we have a lot of turnover as they make changes in their lives. This year four teachers are getting married and leaving, or going to graduate school, and five older teachers are retiring either by choice or by incentive.

The biggest thing for me about teaching in an Essential School is working in teams with other teachers, which goes hand in hand with knowing kids well-partly because there are fewer kids to know and partly because you get the benefit of what your partner notices about the kids. I am on two teams, which can be problematic; I share 60 kids with another teacher in the same classroom for two periods, and I’m also part of a ninth grade family, where kids have the same teachers and we have a common prep but don’t share a classroom.

New teachers in Essential Schools need models from other teachers. The school is not a simple place; there are an overwhelming number of catchwords and different programs and things to understand. It’s really hard for new teachers, who are overwhelmed anyway and being called on to be on this or that committee and be responsible for outcomes. We need support from a teacher or administrator whose job is to work only with new teachers and acclimate them. We need time for reflection. We had a new teacher support group, but it met sporadically-and there were fifteen teachers, which was too many, and we had too many needs, and it was not focused enough. New teacher meetings should revolve around topics and norms, like the critical friends groups we’ve started here since then. Now we have only seven people and a topic we focus on each week, and a structure set up to support people.

My best preparation for teaching was the Summer High School at Brown’s graduate school program. We taught as part of a team all morning, and then directly we met with the cooperating teacher and our professor. It was overwhelming, intense, and darn good practice for the real world. We needed to feel blown away, because that’s what it’s like; and it got us used to the difficulty of team teaching. In the midst of the hecticness we had to debrief every day-even when what we just did stunk and our immediate reaction was to run. It got us used to debriefing as support, inquiry, and reflection, and I still do that debriefing with my teaching partner every day.

I never think of doing anything else but teaching. I do think about starting my own school. I’d like to make a place where size does not inhibit the things that should be working; where the district doesn’t restrict academic freedom; where you can require teachers to share work and be open about what goes on, so you can have a common understanding of standards; and where all teachers can meet for a discussion about kids and not fill a huge auditorium.

Until she was a junior in college in 1968-none of five black students at Yankton College in South Dakota-Rhenette Preston aimed to become a doctor, but a summer job tutoring low-achieving high school students in her home town of Chicago changed her mind. The daughter of a teacher and a police officer, and with masters degrees, from Governor State University and Roosevelt University, she has a 30-year career in several Chicago schools behind her. Though she has been both a counselor and an assistant principal, she now teaches and coordinates science at Lindblom Technical High School, which serves grades seven through twelve.

The summer tutoring job I had in college was my first time being close to any children who were active in gangs. I had a reading group with several gang members-ninth graders who were reading on a third-grade level. I saw those guys achieve that summer, helped them to get into reading by playing simple games with them, and by the end of the summer they had finished the eighth grade. Most gang members don’t take to strangers that way but they were really receptive with me. My worst student became one of my best students; later on I found out that he graduated from high school and became a police officer. My senior year I decided to come home and teach before going to medical school. That was 1969, and I never went back.

At first I thought teaching would be like glorified babysitting-an easy job for easy money. But as I went in I found I could not sleep at night thinking about some of the problems the kids had and what I could do to help them. I knew those kids had the potential to be achievers and get straight As, and I was constantly encouraging them, spending money on trips-I definitely feel that kids learn by doing, and the Board of Ed was not supplying money for them.

Coming up at a time when teachers had to have seniority, I was bumped around quite a bit-South Side, North Side, the gang-infested schools of the inner city. I had a chance to teach children of all races, including a lot of students whose parents were not citizens. Some of them would take turn wearing shoes to school, and so I bought them shoes, socks, clothes, coats. If they know you care about them, all children are receptive to whatever you want them to know.

God sent me here to Lindblom just as I was getting quite discouraged, not feeling that I was able to give to students in the capacity I was in. I had been an assistant principal in an elementary school, having to evaluate teachers who lacked creativity or who were burned out. I was helping teach science classes where we couldn’t “do” because we had no lab equipment, and I was buying things myself, and bringing in “kitchen chemistry” from home.

As a mentor teacher here at Lindblom, I work with three brand new teachers right out of college. Teachers should do their student teaching in many different settings, I think-not just eight weeks, and not just observation hours, but the whole four-year gamut in actual schools. When I kept getting bumped from school to school I thought it was the worst, but it actually was the best thing for me-it gave me a sense of what teachers really were about, the good side and the negative side. I could interact with all types of teachers and that helped me tremendously.

Networking is one thing I like about Essential schools that I like-both within a school and between schools. It’s definitely a support when you can feel comfortable with people who are not there to evaluate you but to help you unwind, tell your fears, your ideas, without repercussion. This is my second year as a mentor but I have always helped new teachers. And I get help, too-my mentees come in with fresh approaches I may not have had as a student, new philosophies, new ideas. I see them working in their classrooms and I have tried some of their techniques and found them really helpful. Also I go to other schools and talk with other teachers and administrators, through the CES critical friends group that I coach. And the CES workshops at Fall Forum are very important to me.

I keep teaching because children are depending on me for their success. If I am going to help them succeed, I’ve got to be there. I make a contract with my students that they can and will achieve in my class. We have no failures; they’re going to learn something from each other as long as they come to class. If they don’t make a passing grade, it’s because they chose not to work. I let them know I too am learning from them; they’re giving me ideas I can pass on to the next class, more ways of restructuring their classes. They evaluate themselves after they do oral presentations; they discuss their findings with their groups, and then other groups evaluate them. Nothing is a failure unless you did not do the experiment.

I thought administration was something I wanted to do, and I was motivated by money. But I found that you can’t do both teaching and administration; you cheat your kids. So I took a pay cut and went back to teaching. I’m not so much dissatisfied with my occupation as a teacher, but with society. We lost a lot when we began to not require students to achieve the best, giving excuses like “these kids have a reason for not achieving.” That’s not so. But the political side of education has put so many demands and paperwork in the game of teaching that we don’t have enough time in the day to do all that we’d like to do in order to achieve; and the social problems with drugs, alcohol, and gangs put so much pressure on our students. In the old days teachers lived right in the neighborhood, and knew the parents-it really made a big difference. Now it’s rare for a teacher to live in the neighborhood.

A 25-year-old African American, Mike Harrison decided to go for a Harvard masters degree in teaching mathematics after graduating from Brown and working for a year and half at an engineering firm in Florida. He chose a two-year option in which he would combine his studies with a three-fourths time teaching internship at the Parker School, a new Essential school in central Massachusetts. Working with a teaching partner who specializes in science, Mike teaches seventh- and eighth-graders in a multi-age heterogeneous classroom that combines math, science, and technology in two-hour blocks four days a week. This is his first year in the classroom.

During college I did community service and tutoring with kids, and I coached a swim team, which I still do. I got hooked in by the feeling that I could somehow push the right buttons for the kids and trigger some moment of discovery, or a great performance in swimming, or even just a smile. And I recognized I had the ability and desire to make teaching my career.

Teaching is incredibly challenging, even more than I expected. Tutoring was definitely not as difficult–you’re working one on one, or maybe with two kids. Now it’s leading the class through difficult material and making sure that everyone is with you along the way-which may mean explaining it in different ways, or structuring the classes so they can do hands-on investigation, so the kids are psyched on learning.

Classroom management has not been what I expected, either. It’s a whole new experience managing a class, shifting from activity to activity, asking the right kind of open-ended questions to get them to plunge deeper, having tricks in your back pockets. What do you do when a class is more or less comatose?

In other ways it’s better than I expected. The kids have surprised me by the things they come up with in activities, or when they are given the opportunity to take something home and play around with it and investigate. My style fits well with an Essential school, because inquiry is very important to me; it’s how I learned engineering. I like to put math in context, where kids solve real problems that may be of personal interest, or maybe begin to inquire on their own about things they see every day around them.

Now that I have had an advisory group, wherever I taught I would want to know my students better and in a different setting, so I could get to know their behavior and support them better in class. Performance is also important to me-mastering something and showing what you know. Being a generalist is not so important to me right now.

New teachers in Essential schools would benefit by first being coaches in some situation. Ultimately the athlete is the one doing the work-you monitor them, you motivate them. I had to be there for the kids, and I had a set structure for how I wanted my training program to be, how the season should progress. And I had to deal with kids’ emotions going up and down-things like “I don’t like swimming, I don’t wanna be here, my parents are making me.” I had to learn from watching and listening to them what they needed to work on.

I think new teachers in Essential schools need more professional training in issues of adolescent psychology. Many of these kids are dealing with tough issues. We need to be aware of it and identify warning signs of trouble, to help find out what is the problem and recommend the next step.

Also, new teachers need more professional development in inquiry teaching. It’s very difficult and time-consuming to structure your curriculum for that; we need resources, summer institutes, any help we can get. Also, we are working on creating an integrated math-science curriculum, which tries to come out of the science curriculum at the same time that it covers all the necessary math concepts. In some ways we’re on a ship that can’t see the horizon from day to day, and that can be frustrating.

My colleagues have helped me tremendously. We meet for two hours a week and talk about the next week’s curriculum, share ideas and brainstorm. I talk with my teaching partner throughout the week about how math and science are going to come together, and I get feedback from her and other colleagues that helps if I have a problem not understanding something I’m about to teach, or I’m not clear on how to assess a piece of work.

That’s in contrast to a more frustrating thing, which is how many hours we spend in whole-faculty meetings when we could be planning or assessing in our domains. I value having input, but I don’t always see where that input fits into the picture. Maybe faculty doesn’t need to be in on so many decisions.

I try day in and day out for students to become confident learners. Someone has to swing the pendulum for it to move, but my goal is for them to eventually initiate their own movement, take it and keep going. I’m never satisfied-but I’ve learned a tremendous amount about kids, and about mathematics. I haven’t even taught for a year now and I feel that it’s been a natural progression from my previous profession.

I do wish to teach in a more diverse community. A mostly white school is a disservice to kids whose images come mostly from the media or the mall. And that’s going to cause some pain down the road for them and for the people of color they run into. Our curriculum does address issues of racism, and I try to do whatever I can do. But until people’s eyes open to these issues, you feel pretty unsupported.

Raised in Southern California in a Latino family, Christelle Estrada began teaching humanities at Pasadena High School six years ago after a 20-year career in Catholic schools and a stint as a teacher educator. Through coaching a critical friends group at Pasadena, she soon took on a mentor position; and this year she agreed to act as an assistant principal, as a “stabilizing force” in a period of administrative changes. She holds a graduate degree from the Claremont School of Education.

I was very influenced by the model of really excellent teachers in my early school years. Based on that, I expected teaching to be about helping kids become independent thinkers, to love learning, to question the social order. For many years, I’ve used the essential questions “How can the individual change the community they live in?” and “What is political leadership?”

Teachers coming into any school need several kinds of preparation. First, they need help questioning their own assumptions about the relation between how students learn and how teachers teach. Teacher education has to make that connection between our teaching and students producing results-if the results are not good work, we must adapt our practice based on how students are learning.

Second, new teachers need help looking at content in a very broad way, so that they can honor the prior knowledge of student and bring it into the classroom. A classroom is not an isolated environment where certain kinds of knowledge get transmitted, but rather a place where the experience of the learners themselves, and the resources of the community, are brought to bear to apply that knowledge in the world.

Third, they need to understand the relation between structure and creativity. Children need a safe place to develop the skills of creative and independent thinkers-well-established routines that help them feel a measure of comfort and less anxiety. It could be simply the clear expectation that when class starts everyone is ready, because time for learning is precious. Or that when students speak you listen actively, take them seriously.

Teachers also need the support of ongoing, consistent, and coherent professional development. For me, the critical friends group is the best example-teachers inside the school working collaboratively to focus on how to adapt their teaching. But we also need other opportunities, provided by a professional development academy or a district office.

My most influential experiences have come from working closely with colleagues-whether though peer observation or talking about what’s happening in classrooms and planning classes together. I have continually sought out opportunities to do team teaching, and I’ve always been given the opportunity to do innovative things with other people that would help student learning. Also, getting feedback not just from colleagues but from students and parents has been very important. I always get evaluations from students throughout the semester, not just when it is over. And I take parents’ questions as a way to reflect on my practice.

My own critical friends group does two things more and more consistently. We observe each other-two peer observers in one person’s class. We have a common inquiry question, about how students use evidence. For example, three science teachers are gathering data on what our students do well in biology lab, and how they use evidence there to understand it as scientific evidence. They get the data, and then they get the student work, and then they work on how to adapt their teaching based on what they see, through this common experience they have designed.

I just moved into an administrative position, which has its unique challenges and is sometimes very discouraging. An administrator has to focus on incredible amounts of detail that impact large groups of people-counselors, department chairs, even the whole student body-decisions about curriculum and instruction, and how to teach adults with very different roles how to work together well. Adult learners aren’t as open and hopeful as kids are. They have a whole history, and they frame the way they see things in a particular way, thinking they aren’t possible.

But as a teacher, I am extremely satisfied. Even though kids may be influenced by their parents’ values and by teenage norms, they are very interesting thinkers, often more open to thinking in different ways than adults. It takes a long time-in the beginning young people are set in their ways-but a classroom is more of a controlled learning environment. You can actually do things to create a place where people are safe to explore new ideas.

I would be more satisfied if communities and state and federal governments would fund public schools so there’s a teacher-student ratio that creates an actual learning community in the classroom. Forty kids in a classroom is too many. But people won’t do that until the media stops focusing on negative things, when only five or ten percent of young people do destructive things. My students are going to make a huge contribution-to do interesting, innovative things, to achieve great things for other people.

Let Us Hear Your Voice

You can lend your own voice to the Essential School conversation about teacher renewal, by going to the CES Web site at http://www.essentialschools.org There you will find not only the text of this issue, but additional interviews with teachers; helpful resources on teacher recruitment, retention, and renewal; suggestions as to how to use this Horace as a tool for further discussion with teachers and the public; and even the opportunity for an electronic conversation with other teachers about the issues raised here.

For Discussion: What made you decide to work in schools? What keeps you coming back? What preparation would you suggest for a new Essential school teacher? What additional supports do you now need in order to do your job better?