Classroom Lessons for New Teachers December 2012
Averel Wilson earned a degree from an Ivy League school, raised three children and worked for years as a banker. But when she switched gears two years ago to become a schoolteacher, Ms. Wilson knew she wasn’t equipped to handle a classroom alone.
Rather than pursue a conventional master’s degree in education, Ms. Wilson, now 57 years old, opted to enroll in San Francisco Teacher Residency. The program is one of several in the Bay Area that mesh the typical academic preparation for would-be teachers with months or longer of intensive mentoring or classroom time side-by-side with veteran teachers.
Modeled after physician residencies, San Francisco Teacher Residency this year is putting about two dozen future teachers through its program. The residents, who get a financial stipend from the U.S. government’s AmeriCorps program, can emerge in a year with a teaching slot in the San Francisco Unified School District.
Ms. Wilson logged five hours a day for most of the school year with Cathy Perez, a longtime math teacher at James Lick Middle School in San Francisco. Ms. Wilson absorbed how Ms. Perez planned lessons and picked up her seemingly small classroom tricks, like praising students who are doing what they are told as a stealth way to spread the behavior to misbehaving ones.
“Teaching is so humbling,” says Ms. Wilson, who is now teaching math and science to sixth- and eighth-graders in her second year at San Francisco’s Roosevelt Middle School. Without time to ease into the role and advice from an experienced hand, Ms. Wilson says, “I know I wouldn’t have been able to survive last year.”
Grooming effective and lasting teachers is a daunting challenge nationwide as rookies flood into the profession. And while teacher-training programs are a staple of many U.S. school districts, and California mandates professional development for each beginning teacher, the Bay Area is particularly rich with these efforts, say education experts.
Apart from the San Francisco Teacher Residency program, the region is home to New Teacher Center, a 14-year-old nonprofit that started teacher mentorship programs locally and now has sparked a miniboom nationwide of school districts developing their own education efforts. New Teacher Center has helped set up mentoring or teachertraining programs in dozens of U.S. school districts, including in New York City and Chicago. Some of the programs, including in New York City’s public school system, were disbanded because they proved too costly or ineffective. Bay Area teacher development programs also benefit from the expertise of local universities such as Stanford and financing from deep-pocketed local foundations and technology companies.
“There is some credibility to the view that California, and perhaps the Bay Area in particular, has approached this in a more serious way than many,” says Richard M. Ingersoll, a University of Pennsylvania education and sociology professor who researches the teaching profession.
More than 200,000 new teachers start nationwide each year, up from 65,000 new teachers a year a generation ago, according to an analysis of the most recently available U.S. government data by the University of Pennsylvania. Researchers say the boom in novice teachers in part reflects overall growth of the teacher workforce and lower costs to hire new teachers, compared with experienced ones.
Roughly 40% to 50% of new teachers quit the profession within five years. The proportion of teachers who quit in their first year on the job has increased steadily since the late 1980s, according to Prof. Ingersoll’s research, which also has shown teachers’ turnover rate is higher than that for nurses, lawyers and architects, but lower than child-care workers’ and paralegals’.
Advocates of teacher-training programs say one reason for the relatively high dropout rate is the traditional teacher education, which they say relies too heavily on classroom theory instead of arming newcomers with practical tactics to cope with a packed classroom of students with divergent abilities, language barriers or difficulty sitting still for 30 minutes.
“We talk about kids having opportunities-to-learn gaps. Teachers do, too,” says Kitty Dixon, senior vice president at New Teacher Center, which is based in Santa Cruz. “It starts them down a downward trend to get them looking for other work.”
At William C. Overfelt High School in San Jose, New Teacher Center last year helped design an extensive teacher collaboration program for veteran and novice teachers from different subjects to work in groups on classroom lessons and individualized improvement plans for students. New Teacher Center also helped line up donations from Applied Materials Inc., a tech company based in Santa Clara, to cover what Mr. Chiala says is an $18,000 cost of the program.
“It became a schoolwide reform,” says Vito Chiala, principal of Overfelt, where 92% of the students live in households earning less than the federal poverty threshold. Mr. Chiala says that to his surprise, experienced instructors have learned as much from novices as the other way around. He also says math and writing teachers working together means they “talk about students, not about subject matter.”
Back in Ms. Wilson’s classroom at Roosevelt Middle School, the walls are plastered with students’ work on ratios and algebraic equations. To encourage group discussion, Ms. Wilson rearranged her classroom desks to seat groups of four, pairing stronger students with weaker ones.
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