Although charter schools have been on the education scene for scarcely two decades, they have spread rapidly across the country. More than 4,200 charter schools serve more than 1.2 million students in 40 states and Washington, D.C., according to the Center for Education Reform. With their rapid growth and their diverse academic programs, charters can offer unique opportunities for some teachers and administrators.
In an interview conducted by phone, we recently asked Fernando Goulart, executive director of the Atlantis K-8 Charter School in Fall River, Mass. about what charter schools look for in teachers and what they can offer.
What characteristics or qualifications do you look for in a teacher?
I look for a passion for teaching, a passion for working with students, and passion for the content area in which you want to impart knowledge. Then the state requires that teachers be eligible for certification but doesn’t require them to get certified.
What’s distinctive about teaching in a charter school?
There’s very much a desire to go beyond what most teachers are either willing or able to do in a regular school. We have a longer school year, longer school days, and greater involvement with parents. Our philosophy is that we have to court and cajole the parents. We go to great lengths to communicate with them, even as far as having teachers call parents before school starts. And teachers make themselves available via phone or e-mail so parents believe that their contribution is important. We try to make parents understand that when children see them involved in education, they will perform at a higher level.
How do charter school faculties differ from those in traditional schools?
I tell teachers all the time that many teachers are born teachers. They have the innate ability to get up in front of a class and engage students—but those people are few. What I’m looking for in new teachers are teachers who are willing to learn. I’m looking for teachers who are willing to bend, fold, and be flexible, and follow our unofficial motto, “whatever it takes”. There’s no such thing in our school as “he’s not my student,” or “I don’t deal with him.” There are no excuses. We must do whatever needs to be done to ensure that every child reaches his highest level of achievement. It’s everyone’s responsibility—from the custodian to teachers to me—we must all do our part and be aware of the specific needs of each child.
What are some unique challenges to teaching in a charter school?
At times it becomes difficult because of the long hours, especially for young teachers who are starting families of their own. There’s stress that goes above and beyond the jobs that are available to them where they might leave at 2:00. Our students leave at 3:30; some days they stay an extra hour or an hour and a half. Some days teachers don’t leave until 5:30. Also, many charter schools don’t have facilities that are state of the art, but teachers make it work. And most charters don’t have salaries as high as regular public schools. The annual salary is comparable, but with extra days and extra hours it doesn’t add up to be as much.
What sort of compensation and benefits do teachers receive?
The salary structure at the entry level is similar to the local school district. Our starting salary is $37,000 and the maximum is $63,000. What teachers make from year to year depends on what we receive from the state and how well the teachers perform. There are frequent evaluations, which are reviewed by me and principals, and a self-evaluation. Last year, salary increases ranged from three to seven percent. Teachers determine the increase from year to year.
What factors should teachers consider before applying for positions at charter schools?
If you’re looking for an easy job, this is not it. This is definitely not it. Having been someone who worked in a district that was unionized and having a contract that says you will leave at 2:47 and have three minutes to do something—flexibility is key. You cannot have a motto that says “whatever it takes” and have those constraints. Teachers need to understand that things change all the time. We’re basically the new kids on the block. That requires teachers to adapt and accept changes and change usually takes a long time to happen. There’s a lot of red tape to implement change. If someone has a new idea, we discuss it and implement it. But it might be anytime during the year—we don’t have to wait. That’s what charter schools are about—innovation. Sometimes things don’t work but you don’t know until you try it. It’s critical for teachers to be able to adjust to those changes and give feedback on what works, versus saying “I’m used to things a certain way, and I don’t like this.”