I was a fairly mediocre teacher when I first started. Sometimes I look back on my first few years and wonder why my students didn’t walk out on me. My old slides look atrocious; my handouts were too wordy; my instruction was completely teacher centered: me talking, me explaining, me doing some weird dance.
There were some long, sad, doubt-filled nights my first few years of teaching. I thought frequently about moving into law. For the first several years of my career, every spring, I would thumb through an LSAT prep book and browse law school catalogues. It wasn’t until my seventh year that I didn’t get that “ritual spring itch.” That’s when I knew I had hit my stride.
I am now eleven years in and I think I have things kind of figured out. In my classroom my students do most of the talking and a fair amount of the teaching. They tweet articles from the National Review and the Atlantic to me and to each other in the evenings. I have waves of students in college and they almost always report they felt prepared. I have sharpened my craft. I have grown and progressed.
But I wonder what might have been for me and for others in the career field? Roughly half of the teachers who started this fall will be gone from the career field in five years. Nearly ten percent will bounce before the year is up. For many of them, that’s for the best. Teaching isn’t for them or they aren’t especially good at communicating complex ideas or building relationships with students and their colleagues. But also in that 50% are some phenomenal educators who will never get a chance to hit their stride.
Teaching is hard. The early parts of our career are harder. Being a new teacher in a high-need school, without the appropriate supports is the hardest. It breaks strong, smart people, but it’s the most important work imaginable.
We know from research and I tell audiences every opportunity that I get that the number one in-school factor impacting student achievement is the effectiveness of the teacher in the classroom. The constant turnover of teachers, particularly at high-poverty schools, creates a revolving door that robs our neediest students. Year after year, they have earnest, good hearted, but green teachers who are still sorting things out. Our neediest students deserve our best; instead far too often they get whoever is available.
For the sake of their students, we owe new teachers meaningful supports:
- We owe our teacher candidates intentional placements with effective mentor teachers.
- We owe our new teachers effective, successful mentors who can support them in their professional growth.
- We owe our new teachers meaningful and timely feedback that gives them specific areas for improvement and growth.
- We owe our new teachers a salary commensurate with the gravity of their work.
- We owe our new teachers assignments that set them up for success—rather than failure.
I’m the teacher I am today largely because I stuck it out and learned from my early career failures and missteps. Too many who enter our ranks depart too soon. We owe them better, better preparation, better mentors, and better support.
In his eleventh year of teaching, Nate Bowling is veteran of the United States Air Force Reserves and a graduate of the Evergreen State College. He was a 2014 recipient of the Milken Family Foundation’s National Educator Award, the 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year and was one of four finalists for 2016 National Teacher of the Year. He blogs about teaching and educational equity issues at natebowling.com.
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I remember when my 6th grade teacher challenged my class to read a 1,000 page novel—something I knew even then was well beyond what most 11-year-olds were usually asked to do.
At the time, I grumbled about why Ms. Soberman was making our class work harder. Later, when I became a teacher myself, I realized that by assigning such a challenging book, it was Ms. Soberman who was working harder. By raising the level of expectation, she was increasing the likelihood that each of us might struggle – and that she’d have to figure out how to help each of us with our particular challenge.
I’m reminded again of Ms. Soberman when I hear U.S. Department of Education Secretary John B. King, Jr., an early co-founder of my organization, Uncommon Schools, talk about what are often called “no excuses” schools. In June, at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ annual conference, Secretary King rightly explained that “no excuses” never referred to not accepting “excuses” from students. Rather, as Secretary King said, “It was always about ‘no excuses’ for ourselves as educators—no blaming parents, no blaming neighborhoods—and asking ourselves, ‘What could we, the adults in school, do differently to change outcomes?’”
Ms. Soberman made no excuses for herself—she was determined to get each and every one of us through that novel no matter our circumstances or challenges.
And now we are applying that same “no excuses” approach to discipline in our schools – we are relentlessly seeking out the right solutions and thinking through the right adjustments that best ensure teachers can teach and students can learn in a safe, supportive, and loving environment.
We agree with Secretary King that those of us in public education must work with urgency to innovate around discipline and lead the way on equity for our most struggling students. We are proud that he highlighted Uncommon Schools for our work to rethink discipline.
We are tackling this in the same way we have tackled questions of how to generate academic improvement: through supporting our educators with the best professional development, by studying innovations to figure out what’s working, and then by sharing those best practices immediately with our other schools for their own implementation. When we have done this with our academic programs, we have seen improvement in student achievement across our schools, and we are seeing the beginnings of a similar outcome for our discipline practices.
This work was evident this past August, when all of our school Deans got together for professional development around discipline. The PD was led by our Uncommon Schools Teach Like a Champion team, who are experts in studying and codifying what effective educators do in their schools – in this case, emphasizing how the best Deans proactively avert the types of discipline issues that can easily derail a school day for a student.
Our schools are innovating in this area. For example, one of our high school principals developed and runs a weekly seminar with the students who are most struggling behaviorally to track their work habits and use data to change their performance. As another example, our deans have been collaborating on what it means to be a ‘public dean’, one who is proactive and not just reactive and whose mindset is consistently focused on supporting teachers and building relationships with students and families.
And it’s working. Uncommon has seen its suspension rates come down by 24% over the past three years, and we are committed to continuing to do even more to strengthen the guidance, professional development, and resources that we provide our team of educators. The drop in suspensions, by the way, coincides with huge growth in our enrollment, underscoring families’ desire to send their children to our schools. Over the same three-year period, Uncommon’s enrollment increased by 44% to 14,371 students in 2015-16. Our organization is evolving, as all great organizations must do.
As you can see, none of this is rocket science, and nothing that hasn’t been done before. It’s simply a product of the deeply-held belief by our team of dedicated school leaders and teachers that we must meet the needs of each of our individual students behaviorally as well as academically. We’ve been making a sacred promise to our families for 20 years, one we intend to keep – their child will attend a safe, rigorous, and joyful school where students can learn and teachers can teach.
As the chief executive of a network of 49 schools and 16,000 students, I’m proud to work with so many educators at Uncommon who believe in the power they have to change the lives of children. Like Ms. Soberman, and countless educators around the country, they don’t make excuses and they are focused on creating safe, rigorous, positive learning environments that work for all students.