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First-year teacher: 4 things that prepared me for my job

What are the key things that first-year teachers need to know to be successful? Kate Miller, a first-year physics teacher at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va., explains the four that worked for her.

By Kate Miller

In recent years, much time, effort, and money has been spent attempting to address one of the key challenges facing our schools: preparing new teachers to be effective in the classroom from day one and continuing to improve over time.

On December 30th, I read a disturbing and evocative description of one Texas teacher’s experience who worked with two of the nation’s education organizations: Teach for America and KIPP. This particular teacher describes realizing how unprepared she was for the work of teaching, how unsupported and isolated she continues to feel, and how she is already, in her second year, feeling burned out. Most upsetting to me is how ashamed she feels that, as a beginning teacher, she can’t single-handedly engage and transform the students in her classroom in the way she’s been led to believe she should.

Amidst all the vitriol about the failure of American education, the “failure” of teacher preparation, and the explosion of so-called alternative routes into the profession that effectively skip preparation altogether, we need to stop and listen carefully to teachers about their experiences as they enter the profession. Essentially, this Texas teacher singled out five things she didn’t expect from her experience as a new educator—unpreparedness for the classroom, lack of focused support, isolation, shame, and burnout.

I know it doesn’t have to be this way. From my experience as a first-year teacher at Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, Va., I see how a more holistic approach to teacher support is explicitly designed to address some of the very issues this anonymous Texas teacher describes.

I realize that my experience, while more hopeful, is just one of many, no more or less valid than any other teacher’s. But I want to share it because it provides a vision of how things could be and offers some ideas about how to get there.

I was definitely nervous when I stepped into the classroom for the first time.  I think that my initial lack of confidence was really due to the fact that I had wanted to be a teacher for so long, worked so hard through education graduate school, and really put a lot of pressure on myself to be perfect. But in large part due to my graduate credential program at the University of Pennsylvania, I felt incredibly prepared. Penn structured their program to ease me into teaching via observing, teaching a warm up, teaching one lesson, and eventually teaching the whole class. From the first day of school all the way through my own graduation in May, I was in the classroom as a student teacher with a great deal of support from university-assigned mentors, veteran teachers, and my graduate cohort.

Just before I began my credential program, I was very fortunate to be awarded a Knowles Science Teaching Foundation (KSTF) Teaching Fellowship. This fellowship gave me the opportunity to connect with experts in math and science education and a national cohort of highly talented high school math and science teachers. This experience gave me an extra ‘I am qualified. I can do this.’ boost as I entered the classroom.

I am now fortunate that the support I receive extends far beyond my school. Along with daily planning and collaboration with peers in my building, I am also in close contact with KSTF staff and Fellows. I received a mentor grant to work with another Fellow who previously taught in my school, and I also work with a regional collaboration involving IB physics. This wide-ranging network of highly experienced science teachers has proven to be invaluable both in improving instructional design and implementation.

Through Google Hangouts and other online tools, I regularly connect with STEM teachers from California to Philadelphia. I enjoy collaborating on curriculum development and even discussing broader topics such as gender in the sciences. Perhaps what I find personally to be the most valuable is the vast amount of emotional support I receive from these teachers. The feeling I get after a lesson bombs or a student fails a test is completely disheartening. But to hear that I’m not alone, to talk to teachers who have had their fair share of bad days and are willing to remind me of all the good stuff too, that’s an instant pick-me-up.

When I reflect on my experience thus far, I see some crucial factors that serve as food for thought as we think through the challenges of preparing educators.

First, I had the benefit of a full year of intense preparation that provided me with support and gradually increasing responsibilities to and with students. Though I felt prepared to begin teaching, one of the things I learned as a student teacher was to recognize how much more I constantly have to learn. I have been given regular opportunities to engage in extended professional learning both with teachers in my school and with my cohort of KSTF Fellows nationwide. The professional development is extremely valuable to me as it is ongoing, driven by relevant needs, and leaves me feeling empowered once I return to the classroom.

Second, the networks of teachers who provide me with support and mentoring, including my peers in the building, the group of local IB physics teachers, and the national network of KSTF Fellows, were all developed by teachers seeking to connect with others to develop their skills, not formed through a top-down mandate. They are authentic professional learning communities formed to address the needs that teachers like me identify.

Third, as a young professional, I recognize that I have been fortunate to work in a collaborative and well-supported environment. I have not been thrust into the most challenging high-needs schools which, in addition to being under resourced, are too often are staffed by the teachers with the least experience. While I sometimes feel I should be working in a school that has a difficult time getting and keeping teachers, I realize that I need to put time and effort into building a strong foundation, and assess my own readiness, before I would be successful in that role.

Most significantly, the broad spectrum of support and opportunities to grow professionally both in the classroom and beyond have helped me remain engaged in my teaching, and made it much more likely I will stay in the profession. According to KSTF, over 80 percent of the teachers that have had these opportunities over the past 10 years are still in teaching. A decade from now, I hope to say the same for myself.

Through the opportunities and communities from which I have benefited, I have an optimistic outlook on my teaching career. I wish that the anonymous teacher in Texas—and all teachers—had similar support and resources. Imagine what the teaching profession would be like if every new teacher, each year, received the same kind of support—and then imagine how education in this country might be transformed as a result.