December 23, 2007

Be Not Deceived?

I am not sure of the exact statistic, and I am sure its different for different areas, but I’ve heard that a large number of new teachers quit the profession before applying for their clear credential after five years on the job. While I’m not surprised that some people don’t figure out that teaching is not for them until after they have spent time in the classroom actually teaching, I am concerned for the well-being of our students and I do not want quality teachers prematurely leaving the profession.

A handful of my university students were hired as teachers at my high school campus this year. Two have full-time contracts, one picked up a single semester, another a long-term sub, and one more was hired as an assistant coach. I’ve been checking in periodically with them to see how things are going, what are their major obstacles, and if there is anything I can do to help. For the most part, everything has gone great for these bright young warriors, and I couldn’t be happier for them.

I am always surprised at how new teachers are often given a raw deal when it comes to the schedule of classes they teach, or the length of contract they are offered. My first year at this high school I was given four different English preps. Ouch. But I muddled through as most new teachers do. New teachers will often accept temporary contracts for single semesters or partial work days just so that they can get their foot in the door. A smart move to show administrators just how talented and ready a new teacher is for a full-time contract. But it can be frustrating for both teacher and administrator when a truly outstanding candidate lands one of these assignments without somewhere else to be placed next when the abbreviated contract expires. This is the puzzle that one of my former students and our administrator are now deciphering. Two weeks after we return from winter break a wonderfully talented and able teacher will be released from our staff if the principal cannot find an open second semester teaching assignment to fill. Pity.

The long-term sub stepped into a messy situation. The contracted teacher took ill shortly after the start of the school year. A series of short-term subs then tried to take control of the classroom until the ill teacher’s diagnosis was confirmed. Then after nearly an entire quarter had passed, my former pupil stepped into the catastrophe and began the process of trying to set these students straight on course and bring some order and introduce some learning to what had yet to be a productive classroom. I’m pleased to report that after a diligent commitment to success the long-term substitute teacher has transcended his substitute title, righted his ship’s heading, and is currently experiencing outstanding success with a population of students who most veteran teachers would agree had been already lost at sea. No one knows for sure the length of the long-term assignment; but the longer the better for the kids now learning in that classroom.

Young teachers have to battle not just inexperience, but also their youth among the young. Some of the new younger teachers are struggling with inappropriate overtures from some of their immature students. Inappropriate comments or suggestions by any students toward a teacher of any age is simply unacceptable but especially from older teenaged males directed at younger adult female teachers in the classroom. Unfortunately, it seems like every exposed inappropriate teacher/student relationship gets national attention (and no inappropriate teacher/student relationship is ever acceptable exposed or private). The pressure this puts upon teachers entering the profession in their 20’s is creating and environment where some are becoming overly sensitive to any type of appropriate relationship with their students, and that will ultimately have a devastatingly negative result on their effectiveness as educators.

Without question the largest challenge for young teachers is overcoming the realty shock brought about by facing students in the classroom daily. It’s one thing to study, ponder, and discuss what it might be like to mold and shape the minds of tomorrow. It’s another thing to actually work 35 blobs of clay day after day, week after week. And if you teach middle or secondary the 35 blobs are multiplied by the number of times the bell rings. It can be frightening. Plus, no blob can be left behind so… It’s tough even for the hardened veterans. But of course children are not blobs of clay, they are instead eager young learners who are hungry to discover and improve their world. Right?

Wrong! The shiny appeal of a 2:30 dismissal 38 week schedule change-the-world crusade quickly dulls when the un-stimulated, under-prepared, unmotivated, unimpressed fill the seats of your castle of knowledge disbursement center. All the best lesson plans and scaffolded learning experiences can be quickly derailed by a smart aleck sophomore who asks the teacher out loud in class, “Is beer good for you?” How do you recover from that one? But recover we must and recover we will because we, the teachers, are often the last hope for young people who are struggling to find and make their way in the world.

Some students use their class work to communicate just how desperate they are for some positive human connection. While teachers are not therapist (and should never assume the role of any other professional) we do have the opportunity to refer students to those who can help them when we cannot. Kids often see their teachers as safe confidants they can trust when needed, even if the students do not always show the teachers the respect that all adults deserve. When some of the most challenging and distant youngsters find themselves in difficult times they will often turn to a teacher who once showed them kindness and compassion for help.

So be not deceived my fellow educators. Those little darlings are worth your best efforts and your long-term commitment.