The Crash and Burn Model
As a new teacher adviser, I have been fortunate to come across some of the most productive and committed teachers in my 15 year career, many from the Teach for America program (TFA). In their stints at our school, all varying in length from 1-5 years so far, I have been impressed with their drive and motivation to improving students’ learning.
But at times, they have worried me. They would show up at new teacher support meetings with bags under their eyes, from their 12 hour workdays, staying up late to lesson plan when they got home, and coming back to work early to do it all over again. Had they been on a traditional career track, I would have advised them against such a strenuous schedule; they do the students or themselves no favors if they burn themselves out. But these teachers were not necessarily going to be career teachers. There was a good chance they would leave after two years. Knowing this, I tried to monitor their mental and physical health like a mother hen, and let them proceed with their plans (with careful oversight.)
I appreciated the difference between a TFA teacher and a regular long-term substitute, the latter which my students used to get regularly before TFA’ers became available. Teacher turnover in urban schools is still an issue. Like the Peace Corp, these teachers are sent to schools like mine to serve the community, and in many cases, they are making a difference. But in the era of education reform, many are pointing to an endless (mythical?) fountain of young, energetic teachers as the solution to improving public schools today.
Is a school full of rookie teachers with caffeine in their veins the answer to all of our problems? I do not believe so.
Teaching is an art that can only be mastered with time. There are simply many things that cannot be learned in an eight week boot camp over summer vacation. While TFA teachers are quick studies, most of them will tell you they encountered more failure in their lives in their first year of teaching than at any other time before or after. While many young teachers show great promise, it takes years, if not decades to hone your teacher radar, the purported “eyes on the back of your head” that allows you to truly gauge your students’ strengths, weaknesses, and penchant for mischief.
It is unethical to use and abuse young teachers just because you can. Paul Vallas, Superintendent of Public Schools sees nothing wrong with churning through young teachers. “I don’t want the majority of my staff to work more than 10 years. The cost of sustaining those individuals becomes so enormous,” he says. There is something very wrong with a model that is contingent upon the stress, the sleeplessness, the pressure that these young teachers experience. Burning through teachers as a modus operandi gives cheap labor a whole new meaning, and creates a host of other physical and social problems for these teachers.
Students need stable figures in their lives, people committed to their schools, the community, and to the profession. Students in the most challenging schools often have difficult backgrounds. It makes a world of difference when they know an experienced educator is at the helm. They know they will be safe in that class, that the teacher is not just there for a short run, and that the teacher had enough respect for them to make teaching a career, not just a note on their resume. There is a world of difference between a second year teacher and a 25 year veteran. Only with time, does a teacher get to master not just their content, but their method of delivery. A new teacher does not know what they do not know, and all of the good ones will tell you that themselves.
It is easy to fall in the trap of over-generalizing the merits of veterans vs. new teachers. It is not that simple. Teachers are human beings. Like workers in any profession, there are talented ones and struggling ones in all phases of their careers. Teacher retention programs should be an integral part of any new education reform, because healthy, qualified, and experienced teachers are good for all students, good for everyone’s future.