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.