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How Can Urban Schools Retain Young Teachers?

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Despite incentives such as college-loan forgiveness for top students going into teaching in urban schools, many cities are still plagued by a low retention rate for new teachers. After finishing my undergraduate degree at Harvard University, I was excited about the chance to work with needy students in a beleaguered, economically depressed city in Massachusetts. But within months I was burnt out, an isolated newcomer in an unwelcoming staff, frustrated by a lack of administrative support and overwhelmed by my students' behavior and the responsibilities I faced during a typical day. Now that I have made a happy transition to teaching in a suburban high school, I look back upon my original expectations and wonder not only what happened but also what the school might have done to make my experience more positive.

Burnt-Out Faculty. Many of the teachers in my first school found little joy in their jobs, having been beaten down by a history of discord between the central office and their union; morale had never recuperated from a strike organized several years beforehand. Most had been on the staff for over 15 years, having survived the layoffs of the early 1980s. During this time, the city population had shifted dramatically from middle-class factory workers to immigrants and welfare cases. Students coming to the high school were no longer coming from stable families, and instead had a host of complex personal problems to deal with. Teaching was no longer fun; some faculty members openly acknowledged that they continued teaching only because they needed the money for their mortgage or their children's college tuition.

Discipline Problems. Having gone to a private high school, I really had no sense of how bad discipline could be in an urban school. During my first few months, students threatened me, swore at me, and hurled every insult imaginable at me; the students were so hostile and my classes so large that it was hard to become comfortable with more than just a handful of kids. To monitor students, the large school had its own police force, and I often saw students being escorted past my office in handcuffs. Also, teachers were given walkie-talkies and assigned hall duty to break up fights and monitor students in the halls. Students needed a pass to go anywhere or do anything in the school; it made sense that administrators wanted to know where students were, but it meant that I had to spend a good amount of class time writing passes for students going to the bathroom or other destinations. Perhaps the worst part of the discipline code was that the administrators were inconsistent in enforcing it; one assistant principal would take the hard line, doling out many suspensions, while another would take a friendly approach, warming up to the kids, meting out only minor punishments for infractions.

Classroom Learning. Officially I was a Spanish teacher, but many of my students could not write or read basic English and had trouble even sitting and paying attention in class. Many of the lower-level students in this school took Spanish I and II twice in order to pass; a good number of my students planned on returning during the summer to pass the course (when it would be taught by an uncertified teacher who might not even know Spanish). Our outdated textbooks were in tatters, but I still tried to make my lessons as creative as possible, developing interdisciplinary projects and using the limited computer technology we had available. But most of my students were not very interested in school, and it was almost impossible for them to come to class and put aside their overwhelming personal problems. Absenteeism made it difficult to progress with my curriculum; students were often absent, sometimes in court, often suspended. But with 30 or more students in each class, even having a handful absent did not reduce my workload very much.

Since I was one of the only young teachers on the staff, I was isolated and did not have anyone with whom to share my frustrations. Some of my college classmates were already making nice salaries at consulting jobs, while I was coming home discouraged every day and making only $26,000, less than the cost of a year's college tuition, wondering what happened to my plans to help needy inner-city students. Instead of using after-school time to tutor students one-on-one, I often found myself processing the bureaucratic paperwork that had accumulated during the day. The school could have chosen from a number of different options to improve working conditions for new teachers such as myself, ranging from smaller class sizes to cleaner working conditions, but it seems to have missed the effective and relatively cheap solution of having a strong, well-organized mentoring program.

A good mentoring program pairs energized veteran teachers with new ones, organizing meetings not only at the beginning of the year but also throughout the year to monitor new teachers' problems and devise solutions. My department could not solve many of the administrative and bureaucratic issues I faced, but it could have done much more to make me feel like a member of the community.

Administrators need to build a team image; generally they touch upon this theme on the first day of school, but they must be consistent in acknowledging throughout the year that we are working together toward a common goal. This is not easy in an oversized urban high school, but it should be recognized as a crucial step in inducting new faculty members. And the important role of the mentor teacher should be recognized by providing a small stipend rather than a few token points toward recertification or a simple "thank you." Schools have tried hard to attract qualified recent graduates to education, and they should not neglect to put the same effort into welcoming new teachers, involving them as fully as possible in the school community.


James Kelleher currently teaches Spanish at Wellesley High School in Wellesley Hills, Mass. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in education at Boston College.

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