Ask the Experts
Like any professional seeking an ideally balanced work situation and personal life, educators are no exception. Teachers must be able to make a reasonable living in order to meet the challenges of their positions. To propel the discussion, we asked a panel of experts to weigh in on teacher-related issues and offer advice to both job seekers and local policymakers.
Dianna Gahlsdorf Terrell
Assistant Professor of Education, Saint Anselm College
What are the biggest issues teachers face today?
Teachers are sometimes held solely responsible, and unfairly so, for the quality of education in America. If students don’t perform well internationally or nationally, within their state, their district or the school, Americans want to know where to put the blame, and it often falls on teachers. Of course to some extent the classroom teacher plays a significant role, but there is a host of other reasons for the uneven performance of American schools. So there seems to be a real undercurrent in the discourse that holds teachers accountable, and wants to evaluate a teacher’s quality on the “value” they add to students’ standardized tests scores in a single academic year. This is a considerable, and as I mentioned, rather unfair burden to bear for a novice teacher just entering the workforce.
Relatedly, the amount of support a new teacher receives in his or her job is extraordinarily variable. That is to say, some teachers get a great deal of support through induction and mentoring programs in their schools, while others are left to “sink or swim” with little to no support for improving their teaching skills. We know that the quality and quantity of support in the induction years plays a large part in terms of whether a teacher decides to stay in or leave the profession. With half of the teaching force leaving the profession in the first five years, attrition from the teaching career is a significant concern. So, a school’s mentoring and induction program merits a second look when a teacher is considering a job offer. They should ask the question, “Who will be my mentor and how will I be supported in my first year?”
Finally, I would say the variability in students’ “preparedness for school” – shorthand for the skills, knowledge and behavior students bring into a classroom – can be a real shock for teachers. A new teacher’s capacity to differentiate their instruction for an exceedingly diverse student body is a crucial skill for new teachers and an issue on the national stage just as much as it is at the district level.
How can local officials make their states more attractive to the best teachers?
Local officials should investigate whether new teachers and teachers transferring from other states are provided with the appropriate training and incentives to move to their district. This can be done easily by making sure local officials are current on state policies for certification, and making sure there is a clear link between teacher preparation programs’ expectations for their graduates, and state or district expectations for teacher credentialing.
An easy way to connect schools in a community with high quality novice teachers is to form relationships with particular teacher education programs in the area and to open classrooms of current teachers to pre-service teachers enrolled in those programs. Pre-service teachers can then be “trained up” within the culture of the specific school and gain a better sense of the school and community culture. Local districts that have learned how to do this enjoy the benefit of having “first pick” from a pool of qualified graduates. These are students who already have a great sense of the school and the broader community, and will require less in the way of orientation in their first year of teaching.
There also needs to be greater emphasis for teacher education programs to work with building leaders/principals in local schools to make sure teachers are being trained for the realities they will face in the classrooms in different districts and across states. Higher education institutions are trying to do this by creating networks of pre-service teacher education programs to be sure their programs are responsive to the needs of PK-12 schools, and state and local officials can support these initiatives by simply asking how they can make the “PK-20” alignment more seamless.
Another way to recruit high quality practicing teachers or career changing teachers into the community is to offer incentives like reduced costs to “tuition into” the district. In some cases, the strongest teachers live in a community outside the community that is trying to recruit them. With private schools, teachers are often offered a significantly discounted tuition rate. With public schools that allow people from other communities to “tuition in” to the school, it seems a good and simple budget-line investment would be to reduce the cost for the teacher to tuition his or her children into the school. When you have a high quality teacher who wants to bring his or her children into the district, reduced tuition costs are a win-win, as the school is showing an investment in the teacher and the teacher, with his or her children now in the districts’ schools, has the added investment of creating a better educational reality for his or her own children.
Are unions beneficial to teachers? What about to students?
Yes. Unions get a bad rap, but in some communities signing on with a union is a requirement of signing a contract with the district. In other words, if you’re not represented through the union the district will not extend you a contract. In my experience this is a good thing, because the union provides representation for novice teachers while they’re primarily focused on developing their practice.
In my second year of teaching, a student’s parents threatened to sue me and the district if I did not reexamine a grade I had issued to the student. You can imagine this is a terrifying predicament for a new teacher, but a reality in our highly litigious society. My union membership allowed me free access to counsel so I could continue to hold students accountable for the quality of their work, and to teach ambitiously knowing that, even without tenure, I would not be cast out to pasture when a true problem arose.
In the sense that unions protect ambitious teachers with high standards, unions are good for students. Of course, it makes a much better headline to show all of the unethical conduct that teacher unions appear to condone and even defend – and in those cases it’s clear that teachers unions aren’t always working in the best interests of students. What gets lost in that portrait of unions are the many teachers, like myself, who have tangible experiences that provide evidence of the fact that when unions support good teaching they’re also supporting student learning.
What tips can you offer young teachers looking for a place to settle?
The interests of a typical, young 20-something teacher are quite different from the interests of a family person, a veteran teacher or a career changer, so it’s difficult to offer advice to all of these different subpopulations entering a school as a teacher. The population with whom I have the greatest experience are the “young” teachers you reference in your prompt.
Most times, teachers are just looking for a job – this is true in particular certification areas like Elementary Education and secondary history and English teaching where the candidate pool exceeds job opportunities. In those cases, my best advice is just to find a classroom teaching job, and know you may be working in a community in which you do not see yourself long term. They also must understand that just because they’re in this position now, doesn’t mean they’re bound to that grade, school, district or even state long-term. Classroom teaching experience is preferred to non-experience, and they’ll be able to trumpet the skills they built in those initial years in their next job search. At that point, it’s more appropriate to be looking for a “place to settle.”
In any case, the best advice I have is that teachers should know that if the first job doesn’t feel like a “fit” that does not mean that the career is not a “fit.” They should understand that it may take some time before they find the right school community and culture – a place where they feel at home. Hopefully, that place will have a building principal or curriculum leader who has the development of his or her faculty at heart, and who can see the young teacher’s potential may not just be in the classroom, but could be with a different role within education. This speaks to an earlier response where I noted that a teacher looking for a job should ask the question, ““Who will be my mentor and how will I be supported in my first year?”I would add here “How will I be supported in my career?”
The preceding is an excerpt from an interview I did in 2014 with WalletHub. For the full story by Richie Bernando, WalletHub Contributor, including ratings of each state based on WalletHub’s methodology, please follow this link.