A month or so ago, I went to visit my friend Alex in Memphis. Alex is a second-year teacher who entered the classroom through Teach for America and is signed on to stay for at least a third year, which puts him in the minority. Another thing that puts him in the minority is that he is a really, really good teacher. I know the word "good" is very subjective, but I spend a lot of time in a lot of classrooms, and I very rarely see them working the way Alex's does. His second grade students love him. I mean, they're obsessed. They will do anything he asks them to do in the time it takes for a pin to drop. They laugh; they solve their own problems; and they all read. I don't think I've ever been in a Teach for America classroom before where every single kid in the room can pick up any book in the room and read (and understand) every word in it. I asked one of the kids who her hero was, and she said earnestly and without hesitation, "Mr. K. And, I guess, Barack Obama." Frankly, it was a little weird. I wonder if he drugged them or something.
I should mention that I'm also a statistical improbability. I'm completing my fifth year of teaching. Teach for America aside, more than half of all teachers who enter the classroom today quit within their first five years. The first time I read that statistic, I was shocked. How could that be? After all, all my elementary school teachers, middle school teachers, and high school teachers stayed in the same position for all twelve years I was in school. A young teacher leaving the classroom in Portland is basically unheard of. Retiring merits a big celebration, with a sheet cake and a gigantic bouquet of flowers. Maybe even a karaoke machine.
I didn't know it then, but now it's obvious to me that the likelihood of a teacher leaving a classroom raises exponentially when the teacher works in a low-income school district. Teacher turnover at the school where I work is easily half year-to-year, and we have a comparably good retention rate for a charter school in New Orleans.
This morning, The New York Times' "Sunday Dialogue" was about the art of teaching, and the importance of keeping teachers around for longer than two years. It was such a great letter that I want to reprint the whole thing here:
What makes a great teacher? Not every college graduate is cut out to teach, regardless of his or her innate intelligence, G.P.A. or previous career success. Only those with specific talents and training become gifted teachers who, working with a talented mentor teacher and a variety of tools and learned techniques, can motivate students to want to learn.
As a former mentor to Teach for America corps members, I have seen their tears, anxieties, heartaches, successes and achievements. Unfortunately, the latter are far fewer. I have seen novices train novices to follow simple, formulaic scripts. They can do so much more if better prepared.
Corps members should intern for a year under the supervision of a talented mentor teacher, then teach for at least four years, not two. That may discourage some. Good. We want career teachers. A “temp” work force does not improve education or erase the achievement gap. Rather it helps to create havoc in schools desperately trying to gain stability, a key factor in any school’s success.
Teach for America has changed since its inception as a Peace Corps for American education. Then, I was in support of its efforts. Not now. Today’s Teach for America has morphed into more of a leadership institute. It describes itself as a “growing movement of leaders, nearly 28,000 strong, [that] works at every level of education, policy and other professions, to ensure that all children can receive an excellent education.”
Seasoned professionals know what works: being creative, independent, spontaneous, practical and rule-bending. Often it is the least orthodox teacher who most engages and excites students. Scripts and rules and models strictly followed cannot replace what the best teachers have: practical wisdom. In our anti-teacher world and scripted teaching climate perpetuated by corporate reformers, what room is there for the teachers we want for our kids?
Hartsdale, N.Y., April 29, 2013
Note this part especially: "Corps members should intern for a year under the supervision of a talented mentor teacher, then teach for at least four years, not two. That may discourage some. Good. We want career teachers. A 'temp' work force does not improve education or erase the achievement gap. Rather it helps to create havoc in schools desperately trying to gain stability, a key factor in any school’s success." Teaching is not a service project you do right out of college so you can assuage your white guilt a little bit before you become a lawyer or graphic designer for a yoga company. Teaching is a career.
Really, we should consider it the most important career that there is in the world. After all, teachers are the people who get spend the majority of the waking hours with the world's future citizens. If we want to live in a world where people are more peaceful, thoughtful, caring, giving, and compassionate than they are now, we must model that kind of world for children. Otherwise, they'll have no idea that it could possibly exist.
I loved Mr. Greene's letter, and a lot of the responses. Mary Ellen Levin wrote that four years of teaching service is not enough, and that rather, teaching jobs should only go to people "who have chosen teaching as a career and will be working in the profession for 40 years." But I want to add to the reasoning behind all this rhetoric.
Two years ago, I wrote a letter to my second grade teacher. Her name is Mrs. Johnson and she taught second grade for forty years before settling into a well-earned retirement. I wanted to tell her that I was a second grade teacher, and that everything I did successfully was flat-out stolen from her. She wasn't just my second grade teacher, after all. She went to my birthday parties. When I went into sixth grade and had to go to middle school, I stopped by her room every Wednesday on my walk home to show her my homework. She was the one who told me that Nate Clair didn't know anything about girls if he didn't have a crush on me back. Two years ago, Mrs. Johnson wrote me back. Of course she remembered me. How was I? Could I send pictures? When could I have coffee with her?
She's not the only teacher I'm in touch with: a lot of the high school teachers who changed my life are still in my address book and get phone calls when I'm in town for the summer. Those are the people I look up to. Those are my heroes. I think that's true of almost anyone you talk to who went to school in an upper-middle class, functional school system. The bottom line is that the relationships we have with those teachers are probably some of our most functional relationships.
Relationships are important. In many ways, they are what make us human. When we go through periods of great suffering, all we have to fall back on are the relationships that matter the most to us; the people who know us well enough to know how to take care of us; the love we have spent time and energy cultivating. These relationships are our basic life force. I'm not just babbling here: there have been dozens of studies on the importance of relationships, and they all confirm the same thing: healthy relationships are "vital to the development of social and emotional competence." Why, then, have we built a school system which blatantly deprives children in specifically low-income communities of arguably the most important basic human need?
The charter school model in partnership with "school choice" makes it so that kids all over the country switch schools as often as they change their clothes. And it doesn't really matter if kids do get to stay in the same school year-to-year, because principal turnover is almost as high as teacher turnover, so a school is never really consistent year-to-year. Teach for America says you only have to teach for two years and then you've done your part. You can leave your relationships at the door with the phonics posters you made but didn't bother to laminate and your book of Doug Lemov strategies.
Let's revisit Alex's classroom (remember him?). Why is Alex a comparatively good teacher when it's only his second year of teaching? He doesn't have any of the supplies that have been held up as The Latest Great Solution to the achievement gap problem. No Smart Board with interactive technology. No computer lab with personalized learning stations. There's no fully integrated content-based art class at his school. He doesn't have interventionists or strategists in and out of his room all day collecting data and adjusting and changing everything. He doesn't have twenty-minute-long instant recess breaks implemented by an outside "Play Coach." He doesn't even have very many books. But Alex taught these kids for first grade too, so here's what he does have: relationships with each and every one of them, and their families.
Now, granted, Alex is burning himself out building those relationships so quickly and thoroughly, and he's going to loop up with those kids and teach them in third grade too, which is not going to be easy. Learning a new curriculum should be a full-time job for a teacher. What he's doing is not sustainable. But a lightbulb went off for me when I was in his classroom. All his kids know his idiosyncrasies and they know the ins and outs of his jokes, and they have spent a lot of time learning how to trust this guy. Likewise, he's spent a lot of time learning how to trust them. Relationship-building takes time. They play this game called "Mario" where Alex sings the Mario theme song and they all run in place and grab coins and make sound effects and whir and buzz and act like kids, and then go right back to work. This would be CHAOS in a first-year teacher's classroom on the first go. I know from experience that they had to do that a million times before they figured out how to make that game work and not be dangerous about it. They had to fail at it a bunch of times, just as you do with everything.
Relationship-building is a skill just like anything else, and you learn it in time. What would happen if teachers had the time to not only learn curricula and data management and reading strategies, but also the strategies to build lasting relationships? What if we had classrooms where kids in fourth grade could go visit their kindergarten teacher if they were having a bad day? What if your first grade teacher also got to be your little sister's first grade teacher and your baby cousin's first grade teacher and maybe even YOUR first kid's first grade teacher? Imagine the world we would live in if he had the time to learn how to trust each other.
This is my last year teaching. I feel exceptionally guilty about that. The thing is, I didn't want to be a teacher. And Teach for America told me that was OK. They said that I could make a difference in just two years; that that was all it was going to take, and I'd be able to move on with my life. They didn't say, "You might fall in love with the families you get to know. You might realize that the relationships you make with kids will become more important than any other relationships in your life. And if you come, and then you leave, the truth is that you really are likely going to do more harm than you do good." They also didn't tell me I was going to take the job of a veteran teacher who was invested in building those relationships and communities.
We owe it to children, families, and young people out of college to make this message more clear. However you color it, we MUST understand: Teach for America keeps children from having sustained, reliable longterm relationships with adults. That's a bitter pill, but this country would benefit a great deal if we swallowed it. Let's take the time to heed Mr. Greene's word and making "teaching [...] a lifelong career worthy of those we want to teach."