I recently sat down with a teacher after her three years in two different elementary schools. One was a high-performing suburban charter, and the other was a turnaround school in an urban community. She had been one of my students back in our seventh- and eighth- grade English class over 10 years ago. I think the world of her. I was not surprised by her passion and honesty as she answered my questions about her teaching experience. I'm sure she doesn't speak for most teachers, yet I believe her perspective deserves a broader audience. As you read the following, you hear some of the frustration voiced by a number of young men and women in their 20s who thought teaching could be the right career for them but now aren't so sure. If her views on the nature of the teaching profession surprise or upset you, I hope you realize she isn't alone. The unnamed teacher was quick to say: “There’s so much I don’t know. I’m uninformed about a lot of this.” You might agree, on reading her words. But all of us have good cause to worry about the quality and quantity of people joining the teaching profession.
Teaching in a Turnaround School
The old staff had been at the school in question between 8-10 years when it started to decline. So it wasn’t the principal’s fault (her new principal was the fifth since 2007), and you couldn't blame the kids either, since they were different during those 8-10 years. The only thing that hadn't changed was the staff. By her second year, the new principal had helped remove all but 4-5 members of the old staff.
PETER HUIDEKOPER (PH): Some say one of the reasons low-performing schools are so hard to turnaround is the old culture is “in the walls,” impossible to remove, hindering any major change. Was it difficult to decide to work in a turnaround school? TEACHER (T): I was given a tour of the school and saw a classroom where there was mass chaos, and I felt I could really do something here. I felt needed. My mindset was—I wanted to help.
PH: Will the school make it? Will its turnaround efforts succeed? T: I think they have a great shot.
(She thinks very highly of her principal.) If (the principal’s) hands aren’t tied, she can. If she has control over who teaches. But there is so much that holds them back.
Whether the turnaround succeeds, she indicated, depends on the adults. As for the students, she told me: “The kids can do it.”PH: Would the school be better off if it had the freedom of charters? T: I think so, if it had the right kind of charter freedom. You could throw out the crummy curriculum and do what works for your kids. Just because the material from the district says “Common Core” on it, that doesn’t mean that it’s appropriate for your class. My kids were capable but they needed steps to get them there. They had gaps that needed to be filled.
(The year before, when her students had been in second grade, they hadn't made a year’s progress.) I never worked with such gaps before. I felt insufficient. It was frustrating; I knew what they needed but I didn’t have the skills to meet their needs.
Building trust and classroom management
T: The first month or so—there were six or seven kids whose behavior was a real challenge.
PH: Why? T: They didn’t trust me. When they would yell at me I would pull them aside. I would talk with them and try to show them how much I cared about them, that I cared too much about them to talk to them or treat them in that way. Once we got through that (and we had established trust), we were ok. It took time, but I think by November they cared for me. One special education student responded so well to praise—even if was for just sitting still for five minutes—that was an accomplishment!—and he got better and better.
[pullquote position="left"]I want them to feel loved and accepted. I want them to feel that they are safe.
(But then when her class went to another part of the school for “specials,” such as art, music or gym, where they might be with a particular teacher once or twice a week who hadn’t established that trust, she said her students would behave badly.) They didn’t feel safe, loved, protected in that room. Or like me, that teacher needed more tools to make them successful.
Making It Through
PH: You survived the year. How? T: Several teachers left after the first few months. One colleague hadn’t taught in a few years; she meant well, but the third graders ate her alive. After shifting her to a lower grade for a while, she left. There were many days I thought about quitting. It would have been really hard if you didn’t have support. My colleagues were a huge life support. I could talk with them. I could say: “I’m exasperated with this kid,” and they were quick to say, “How can we support you?” You can have the greatest intentions to do good, but just loving the kids was not enough—you need the tools. I needed so much more. I would not have made it through without my faith. It was key to handling situations. I think the Lord equipped me, for example, to have the perseverance. It helped to remember every child—in spite of what they were doing or going through—is loved by God. There were definitely mornings that started out with dread and fear when I wondered if I was I was going to make it. I got there thanks to prayer. When I knew I wasn’t meeting their needs—one reason to make me feel I might quit—I knew there were bigger reasons to be there. I reminded myself to ask—did I fill them up today?
Peter Huidekoper is an Colorado-based education consultant and the coordinator of the Colorado Education Policy Fellowship Program. Since 1998, he's written and published the Another View newsletter.
Huidekoper also previously taught English for 18 years—at the middle school, high school and community college level.