Professional development isn’t on the list, but wine is.
Last month Mrs. Smith had an observation by her administrator and was told she needed to refine her small group instruction. It is October, and it is Mrs. Smith’s first year teaching.
Since I’m the literacy coach, I was called in to assist.
Mrs. Smith and I met that morning during her prep time, discussed data, and planned a flawless small group lesson for a group of English Learners. She knew where she was falling short in her instruction and asked for help figuring out how to make the lessons work for her students. This sort of self-reflection is all that we can ask from new teachers.
That afternoon I knocked on the locked classroom door.
I watched through the narrow window as a student sprinted across the room and leaped over a desk to be the first to open the door.
What I encountered was pure pandemonium.
Juan hadn’t had his ADHD medication in a week because mom had run out, and there wasn’t more until the end of the month. He had flipped over a desk and was now crying because he didn’t mean to throw a desk. He wasn’t sure how to control his hands and feet.
Audrey had taken a toy from another student who was crying hysterically, begging for its return.
Jace just wanted to read his graphic novel in peace, but the deafening roar in the classroom made that impossible, so he had laid his head inside the open book on his desk.
Axel was coloring on the desk that Jace was resting on.
Yadrielys, the new student from Puerto Rico, was sitting with her hands folded on her desk, waiting for a direction that she understood.
Jose was bent over, head on his desk because he was hungry. He had gotten to school too late to eat the school-provided breakfast, and the staff at the school had been told that snack time wasn’t permitted because it took away from instructional time.
Mrs. Smith was attending to Andre, her non-verbal autistic student rocking in the corner. His paraprofessional had quit the week before, and with the district shortage, it may be another month before a replacement was found.
I walked over, placed my hand on her shoulder.
“I leave here every day feeling like a complete failure,” She sighs, tears in her eyes.
Reflecting on my time as a classroom teacher I responded, “It’s not that you’re a failure, it’s that this system is setting you up to fail.”
Mrs. Smith didn’t need coaching on literacy practices, and she certainly didn’t need an administrator tying her professional evaluation to her performance after a month in the most difficult profession. She needs training and support, and time, and grace.
A little wine wouldn’t hurt either.
As a Literacy Facilitator in an urban district, I have coached many new teachers. Mrs. Smith’s experience is the norm, not an exception. It’s not because she doesn’t care about her students, and it isn’t because her students are disadvantaged, even though many of them are.
What have I learned? We need to do a better job of supporting, not coaching, or evaluating novice teachers.
Mrs. Smith was hired 2 days before new teacher orientation. She was oriented in two days, spent another two in full-day professional development sessions, and spent the weekend preparing her classroom as best she could despite the peeling, cuss word-graffitied walls.
The students showed up on Monday morning. Mrs. Smith, like so many other new teachers, is hungry to refine her pedagogy. She is coachable, she is invested in her students, and she is flailing in the chaos.
Sure, she needs instructional coaches like me and our very qualified STEM coach. Sure, she needs data team meetings, and staff meetings to become acquainted with the routines and processes of the school.
Perhaps, though, all of that could wait a bit?
What she really needs is someone to guide her through those first, ever-important first weeks of school. The weeks where relationships are built and classroom communities develop. She needs to learn how to set up her space so that it works well.
She could also use some money to purchase supplies for that space, rather than use her meager savings to tackle it on her own.
She needs to know how to set and enforce classroom procedures so that she doesn’t spend an hour putting the classroom back together after school each day.
She needed paid time before the school year started dedicated to preparing for the young people she cares so much about.
So, on that Tuesday, I set our flawless lesson plan aside, I reigned her class in, sent her to the bathroom, and to grab a snack since she had used her lunch period to level the books for her classroom library.
I read a story about a mouse to a group of 8 year-olds who sat (mostly) criss-cross-applesauce on the rug.
I gave her a moment to breathe.
Then, the next morning we set about arranging her furniture, and creating routines and classroom jobs. We can’t expect students to learn if they don’t feel safe, both physically and emotionally. If we don’t develop structure and routine first, no one will learn how to read this year. We’ll get to that small group lesson another time.
The help I was able to give was appreciated and made some impact, but it isn’t enough.
Without funding for a new paraprofessional, Mrs. Smith is going to spend most of her day tending to her high needs students, leaving those who are ahead of the pack to grow restless.
Without a fair salary, Mrs. Smith will continue putting herself in debt in order to further her education, and provide the necessary resources for her students. Unfortunately, her district is in a pay freeze for at least the next three years.
The pressure to push curriculum and perform well on standardized tests will prohibit Mrs. Smith from engaging in rich, deep discussions with her students.
Instead, it will feel like a race against the clock to cover the prescribed amount of content in a very narrow window of time before the next assessment
Without the appropriate training, Mrs. Smith’s lessons will be lackluster and unengaging. The days of stand and deliver education are long gone, but teacher preparation programs have yet to catch up.
In 2017 President Trump signed a bill overturning a rating requirement for teacher preparation programs. Teacher-prep programs now have no system of accountability to ensure that they are properly preparing teachers for the realities of the classroom. They are falling short.
In addition, The current administration has limited funding for education reducing or eliminating many programs that support teachers such as The Supporting Effective Instruction State Grants program, the Corporation for National and Community Service, that trains and supports teachers.
New teachers will not be getting the proper training, and instructional resources they need to be successful, at least not until the funding for such things is reestablished. If our teachers aren’t supported, our students can’t learn, and the conversation about how to improve instructional practices is moot.
They still need the wine, though.