Teaching Profession Opinion

Why Do We Treat Newer Teachers So Badly?

By Sara Mead — March 02, 2011 3 min read
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I’ve been increasingly struck, over the past few weeks, with how terribly our educational system treats the youngest and newest (not always the same thing) teachers. Consider the following:

  • Due to seniority-based layoff policies, the youngest/newest 5-10% of teachers are essentially guaranteed to bear the full brunt of any layoffs, while their older colleagues are protected from them.
  • We all know that teach pay is tied to years of experience, so novice teachers make less than their more veteran colleagues. But what’s less well-known is that many teacher salary schedules backload salary bumps linked to compensation, so that teachers in their first few years of their careers are getting very small year-to-year salary increases,* with larger increases kicking in only after several years of experience. This despite evidence that nearly all the improvement in teacher effectiveness linked to experience comes in the first several years of teaching.
  • Because we privilege seniority in teacher assignment as well, young teachers frequently end up with the “least desirable” or most challenging assignments.** Moreover, because they’re getting assigned the leftovers no one else wants, new teachers often end up with more preps or with frequent changes in their assignments from year to year, which increases their workloads and prevents them from reaping the gains of increasing expertise in a particular assignment.
  • Salary schedules that link pay to higher education credentials and backload experience-based raises mean that if newer teachers want to increase their pay, they have to spend time at nights and weekends taking higher education coursework--even though this is expensive and there’s little evidence in makes most of them better teachers. Moreover, certification policies in some states actually require teachers to complete a master’s degree within a certain number of years if they want to keep their jobs. We’re demanding that the newest teachers, who already have a ton of work on their plates just learning how to do their jobs and doing them, also spend a ton of time on pointless coursework, rather than things that actually make them better than their jobs, or, you know, having a life.

Is this really the way to recruit and build talent in a profession?

Folks like Diane Ravitch and LInda Darling-Hammond frequently bemoan the fact that a high percentage of teachers leave in the first 5 years (which is somehow TFA’s fault, even though the numbers don’t possibly add up to support that notion).*** I think there are a lot of reasons to question the idea that the teaching profession should be composed of individuals who commit to staying in the field for their entire careers. But as long as the basic structure of our systems for teacher compensation, retention, and certification treat new teachers poorly (and treat them particularly poorly relative to other teachers) and/or make their jobs/lives harder than they need to be, no one should be surprised if a high percentage of newer teachers decide it’s just not worth it.

*One salary schedule I looked at recently had annual raises of around $300 and $400 for first year teachers--after taxes and averaged out across 12 months of pay periods, that’s such a minute change in a person’s paycheck that it seems almost pointless)

**Note: I find this a little unpleasant to talk about because it assumes that all teachers assign equal desirability/challenge to the same assignments, which I’m not sure is true, and it also reflects certain (potentially racist and classist) assumptions about the desirability/difficulty of working with certain groups of students. But it’s impossible to deny that in most schools and districts there is a, hierarchy of assignments, and new teachers tend to get the ones at the bottom of the heap.

***Note that lots of people leave any profession in the first five years, particularly people who are in their first jobs right out of college. College students are not actually that great at predicting what they want to do for the rest of their lives.

UPDATE: There is a fair amount of conversation about the types of induction and support that new teachers need--that’s good, although the quality with which this stuff is implemented is highly varied and often not particularly helpful. But it doesn’t make any sense to invest in support for new teachers while still retaining a set of policies that treat them more poorly or make their jobs more difficult than necessary. So often in education, good things we implement are forced to swim upstream against existing systems, structures, and policies that people are unwilling or unable to change.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook 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.