Opinion
Education Opinion

Expect more, get more

By Jessica Shyu — June 19, 2008 4 min read

“It is ridiculous to think that teachers can become proficient in this very complex experience, called teaching, in a few years. To think otherwise de-professionalizes the profession.”

This comment was left on a previous entry a couple weeks back, and I feel compelled to respectfully disagree-- in a very long blog entry. I spent the past four hours writing it not only because I have a deep sense of conviction for this idea, but because of all the amazing first- and second-year teachers I’ve had the honor of working with this year. They showed their students, their communities, their peers and me just how much first- and second-year teachers can accomplish in a very non-magical, dedicated and long-lasting way. This is to all of you and the incredible work you’ve done this year with the children of the Rio Grande Valley. Honor your kids no matter where you go.

I have to respectfully disagree that it takes many years for teachers to become proficient. I do not deny the invaluable experience that time in the classroom adds, however, I don’t think it should take many years for teachers to be proficient and attain strong results-- in fact, I think we need to start expecting those things of first- and second-year teachers. More importantly, we need to change and improve our support structures to help them get there. With even better preparation and ongoing support and training, many of our first- and most of our second-year teachers should be able to achieve great results.

Controversial, perhaps, but I don’t think the skills from seniority necessarily guarantee effectiveness in the classroom or at the administrative level. In my short time in the field, I have worked with excellent teachers who have 35-years of experience as well as excellent teachers in their first year. These teachers inspire students, constantly improve their instructional skills, analyze what’s keeping their students back, and work so, so hard to make every second count to lead their kids to reach high results on an absolute scale. These excellent teachers I’ve worked with-- whether novices or veterans-- share similar attributes in their thinking, planning and teaching that are concrete, learn-able and teachable. At the same time, all of us also know teachers who widen the achievement gap regardless of time in classroom. I genuinely think excellent teaching proficiency can be learned through coaching and collaboration-- quickly.

I don’t think the number of years in the classroom is the primary driver of student success. Nor do I believe this conviction de-professionalizes the profession. To the contrary, I think it makes it more professional. What other certified field allows their first- or second-year professionals to barely meet the mark? While years of experience will make you a stronger, faster, sharper teacher with a bigger and smarter bag of tools and ideas, we should expect first-year teachers to help their students reach at least a year’s worth of growth. All teachers already receive trainings, classes, coaches and mentors-- not all of which is used or useful. By improving this process through direct and critical coaching and making these support structures more targeted to individual teachers’ developmental needs, I believe we can create a system that allows all novice teachers to reach the kind of gains we expect from more experienced ones.

In my first year of teaching, my colleagues kindly assured me that it was all right for me to be not so good my first year because it takes several to see a real change. While assuming that it takes more than one or two years to become “just OK” recognizes the incredible challenges in teaching, it nonetheless lowers our expectations. Consequently, our professional development tends to gear toward these lowered expectations across the board for novice teachers. In addition to the love and care we have for kids, it takes high levels of critical thinking, data-analysis, and skill development to be a great teacher-- quickly.

Sure, I’m biased-- this is my work and passion. But it also gives me a unique perspective in seeing first and second year teachers and their students succeed. Seventy-five percent of my first- and second-year teachers made the equivalent of one year of growth or more in this past school year. That is astounding, but after seeing their work this year, it’s not surprising. They work in under-resourced schools where most students are more than one year behind academically. In their first years of teaching, most are leading their departments and schools in student achievement, and they are department heads, team leaders, content leaders and more. I am super proud, but not surprised.

That fantastic 75% demonstrates that the equivalent of one-year’s worth of growth should be the bar for novice teachers. The sobering counterpoint to the 75% is that 25% of my teachers failed to reach that mark. While many factors kept those teachers’ students from reaching one or more years of growth, I do not believe it was a failure of teacher or student ability. Rather, it was a failure of the coaching and support they received and the way the teachers used it. A humbling thought, but also an empowering one, because that is something we can change-- quickly.

The opinions expressed in New Terrain are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.