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Answer Sheet
Posted at 04:00 AM ET, 05/04/2011

The myth of the superstar novice teacher

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This was written by Jennifer Smith, a French teacher and union steward at an urban public high school in Miami, Florida, and a blogger on education issues.

By Jennifer Smith

I came into teaching through the Miami Teaching Fellows in 2006, and I credited the program — a branch of Michelle Rhee’s national New Teacher Project — with helping me enter the classroom without having to go back to college to take a bunch of education classes (and spend a bunch of money). Still, I had the gnawing feeling that the program had a political agenda that my own experience in the classroom had taught me to disagree with strongly. So I had mixed feelings when I learned it had fallen to the mighty budget cut axe.

The New Teacher Project (TNTP) was founded by Rhee much in the model of Teach For America (TFA). The main differences between the two programs are that TFA expects its participants to leave teaching after their two-year commitment, and TNTP encourages its participants to make a career out of teaching critical shortage subjects in high-needs schools locally.

TFA also recruits fresh-out-of-college graduates for their two-year stints, while TNTP tends to have a somewhat older population of career-changers. Perhaps because of their very localized approach, they attract (whether deliberately or otherwise I’m not sure) adults who are often attached for one reason or another to the city where they are applying, and are looking for a permanent career change that will allow them to stay in that city.

Besides those differences in recruitment and retention, however, the programs seem to operate on the same basic agenda—not surprising, since Rhee is a TFA alumnus.

The basic tenets of TNTP (as I understood them through relentless repetition, not necessarily how one will find them spelled out on their website) are as follows:

*The achievement gap (determined by standardized test scores) exists in large part because of teachers who have low expectations of those students.

*An enthusiastic new teacher with high expectations of her students can be more effective at increasing student achievement (again, determined by standardized test scores) than an experienced teacher.

*Having a background in education (or in the content area one teaches) is less critical to being a good teacher than having a sincerely-held belief that all students can learn and reach the same standards (determined by the county and state and gauged by standardized tests).

*It is possible to dramatically raise your students’ achievement (determined by standardized test scores) in a single year or less through your hard work, dedication and intransigent belief in their abilities to learn.

What my experience once in the classroom taught me, however, was something else entirely.

The idea that jaded, overly comfortable tenured teachers are to blame for the achievement gap plays right into the old familiar teacher-scapegoating routine so popular among education “reformers” today. Rhee, of course, is best known for “cleaning up” D.C. schools by “sweeping out” hundreds of teachers based on test scores. (She is also gaining some less welcome attention because of suspicions that there was extensive cheating on tests at D.C. schools under her tenure as chancellor.)

But the reality is much more complicated, and there are far, far more people (and institutions) to blame than the teachers, most of whom work their tails off every day for very little reward (forget money—we don’t even get respect).

The theory assumes that teachers work (and students learn) in a vacuum. It assumes that all students come in on equal footing from day one, and that where they end up depends almost entirely upon the teachers who work with them. If only that were the case!

Even if we only look at the schools themselves in a vacuum, the math does not add up. While the program makes it sound like worn-out veteran teachers are the problem within the schools, the reality is that inner-city students are far, far more likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers (and teachers teaching out-of-field) than suburban kids. And the turnover rate of new teachers (50% within the first five years nationwide) is far higher in urban schools, as frustrated teachers either leave the school or the profession.

Education policy should be seeking ways to bring more highly qualified, experienced teachers into inner-city classrooms rather than to replace them with even more new rookies—no matter how high their expectations.

I entered my Title I English and Intensive Reading classroom super-enthusiastic and ready to break the cycle of low achievement. I took to the kids instantly and they took to me, too. I worked really hard, cared a lot, gave it my all and kept my expectations high—at least as high as the experience would allow, given that most of the kids didn’t study, didn’t do their homework and many had major attendance issues.

The truth is, none of that really mattered, and none of it made me a good English or reading teacher. Sure, the kids liked me, but the kids liking you does not automatically make you Teacher of the Year.

Why was I not a great English or reading teacher? I had the enthusiasm, the expectations, the six-week summer crash course in writing lesson plans and developing classroom management strategies (most of which flopped completely within the first week and had to be retooled or scrapped altogether)—which TNTP had taught me was all I needed to be successful.

Two things I did not have:

1) an educational background in pedagogy or English

2) experience.

I had no real curriculum to work with and did not have the educational background to build my own, at least not a very solid one. For the reading classes, I did not even have a textbook to use. I figured I’d have no problem teaching kids how to underline important sentences or process-of-elimination strategies for taking a test, but I had not a clue how to help kids who had serious problems decoding, or vocabularies that consisted almost entirely of one- and two-syllable words.

Since I had studied French literature in college, I realized that I had a very basic knowledge of English-language literature—let alone any knowledge of how to teach it well. While I consider myself a good writer, I struggled to teach children who couldn’t spell four-letter words how to write a solid, coherent, intelligent essay.

My kids’ scores on the Florida Comprehensive Assessement
Tests, the state exam required for graduation and which will henceforth be used for determining teachers’ evaluations, did not really improve. I was crushed. TNTP had taught me that all my dedication, effort and dynamism would result in soaring student achievement, years of gains on the FCAT. It was not my case. Nor was it the case of any of the other Teaching Fellows with whom I spoke.

During my second year as a teacher, my school prinicipal started having me teach French. By my third year, I was teaching nothing else. I was pretty confident teaching French my second and third years, mostly because I had two degrees in French, had lived in France, had taken courses in teaching methodology of foreign languages and language acquisition in grad school, and had taught French at the college level while doing my Master. It was something I felt ready to do.

Nonetheless, I was a much better French teacher my fourth year, and better still my fifth (and current) year. And I already have a complete list (in my head) of improvements I will make next year—if budget cuts allow me to keep my job. I have a long way to go to Teacher of the Year, but I have learned from every year, and every year has made me a more competent teacher.

TNTP taught me that neither a degree in the content area I was teaching nor experience was necessary for me to be a good teacher.

It turns out that both were crucial.

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