It was time for dismissal. I did my best, organizing my class of 23 1st graders into a line with partners. It’s what I was taught to do. Some of them stood still and quiet, listening, while others bounced around, chatting and giggling with each other.
I led them in two lines across the schoolyard to the dismissal area, where they would shake my hand before leaving for the day. I stopped at our “spot” and turned around, expecting to see 23 pairs of eyes focused upon me. But I did not.
The front of the line was intact, as was the back. But the middle chunk was gone. It looked like someone had scooped up a group of my students and thrown them around the yard. They were everywhere, running, playing tag, or rolling around on the concrete in fits of laughter, backpacks tossed midstride. Frustrated and embarrassed, I yelled after them, but my voice landed on deaf ears. I abandoned the line of kids who had walked with me and ran across the yard to chase the others back over.
By the time I returned—my shirt unbuttoned, undershirt damp—my other students had dismissed themselves. What had gone wrong? My principal looked at me, half laughing, half serious, and said, “You’ll get the hang of it.”
The question I had was why, during two years of graduate school, including a year of student-teaching, didn’t anyone tell me how to avoid a problem like this? Moving a classroom of kids from one place to another was just one of the many practical aspects of the teaching profession that I had to learn on the job, along with how to be prepared for a new student to walk in the door on a Wednesday afternoon halfway through the year, or how to organize and run a parent-teacher conference.
What would it take to teach these skills in teacher-preparation programs alongside those all-important theories and curricular skills? Is it really necessary for new teachers to reinvent the wheel every September?
We all know the statistics. Twenty-four percent of teachers leave after two years, and nearly 50 percent leave the profession within five years—a burnout rate that costs our nation’s school districts more than $7 billion a year in turnover. Why do only half of teachers survive the learning curve?
New teachers enter the profession scared. There are many reasons for the feelings that paralyze them, but one issue stands out beyond the rest: They are not prepared to deal with the many practical aspects of running a classroom. So they teach scared. And when people are scared, they don’t rely on the skills they know. They feel shaken and their self-esteem is low, which doesn’t help them to teach well or be effective.
Effective teachers rely upon far more than just a strong theoretical background and an understanding of the material they’re supposed to teach.”
Most teacher-preparation programs assume the practical skills will be absorbed when teachers are in a student-teaching position, if the programs even require that. (Some don’t.) Although very important, student-teaching is an inconsistent practicum. There are many dedicated cooperating teachers who do all they can to show the new teacher the ins and outs of running a classroom. But many student-teachers are paired with a so-called veteran master-teacher who has already implemented most of the routines needed to run the classroom smoothly. The student-teacher helps with some daily planning and teaches a few lessons, but doesn’t have the opportunity to fully understand what makes that classroom run, beyond seeing that the teacher is “really good.” These veteran teachers are often too busy to take the time to reveal what it is they do that makes them effective. Then the following fall, the new teachers are expected to hit the classroom floor running, ready to go.
Effective teachers rely upon far more than just a strong theoretical background and an understanding of the material they’re supposed to teach. Their secrets of running a successful classroom are pragmatic things, such as knowing how to set up desks for easy traffic flow and leaving a spare set of clothes in the closet so they can change out of wet pants when an art project goes awry.
I have spoken to hundreds of preservice teachers and those new to the career, and they all say the same thing: “I wish someone would have told me how to ... fill-in-the-blank (with a practical skill).” Many teacher education programs turn their noses up at skills-based teaching because it isn’t “academic,” but any teacher will tell you it’s these very skills that save them, day in and day out, and allow the breathing space for them to successfully educate their students.
New teachers should feel excited and anxious to start this amazing career that involves making a difference in the lives of young people. But because they are plagued by so many unanswered questions, such as how to set up a field trip or prepare for an observation, or how to stay on their principal’s good side, the first years of teaching are a frightening time.
Until teacher-preparation programs begin to take this issue seriously, we will continue to send new teachers into the classroom with a boatload of theory and an understanding of curriculum, but no idea how to implement any of it because they are too busy being bombarded by parent requests and student needs that have nothing to do with the academics they are required to teach. Teachers need to be taught these practical skills to feel more confident and self-assured and to be more effective.
It took me a year and a half to learn how to keep my students in a line. I tried different ideas: walking in one line, two lines organized by height, three lines, no lines, but nothing seemed to work. Finally, I figured it out. I remembered as a kid watching a covey of quail navigate their way across the road. The quail-in-charge would establish herself in the middle of the road, stopping traffic, while the others crossed the street safely. The flock would wait until every bird had crossed, and then the quail-in-charge would catch up and join them, leading the pack once again. Why don’t I try that?
I adopted the “quail strategy.” I told two kids at the front of the line—the “line leaders"—to stop at a physical landmark, such as a parking meter or an exit sign. While the leaders led the group to the next destination, I walked up and down the line, talking to the kids as we made our way, making sure they stayed in line. It worked far better. I never had to chase a kid or remind one to stay in line again. It saved me time, energy, and my voice. I felt confident, which had a positive effect upon my teaching. Most importantly, I was successful. But why couldn’t someone have just told me?
The 200,000 new teachers graduating this spring don’t need to learn a trick from the birds to make them better teachers. Incorporating practical strategies and skills into teacher-preparation programs, alongside curriculum and theory, would make the first years in the classroom infinitely easier and help teachers feel more prepared and confident, and in turn more effective.
A version of this article appeared in the June 12, 2013 edition of Education Week as ‘You’ll Get the Hang of It’