Samantha Laney was a recent college graduate with a theater degree when she decided to become a teacher. She enrolled in a graduate school program for education with a fellowship model that involved serving as a school building substitute teacher in a K-8 charter school in Boston. Sixteen days into her stint as a sub, the school’s theater teacher quit and Laney was asked to take over her kindergarten through 8th grade classes—permanently.
“I was horrified at the fact that they gave me a provisional teaching license,” said Laney, who at that time in 2017 had never led an entire classroom on her own. Suddenly, she was responsible for teaching art to upwards of 32 students per class.
There’s no avoiding a steep learning curve at a new job. But teaching isn’t just any job. When teachers struggle, so do their students. Ineffective teachers generate up to six months less learning per school year than high-performing peers, according to TNTP, a nonprofit teaching-training and policy group. They’re also far more likely to quit.
One study reported that 10 percent of 1,900 public school teachers failed to return after their first year, a conservative estimate compared to other statistics on the subject. That was before the COVID-19 pandemic, which exponentially complicated the role of teachers and led to significant surges in stress levels among educators according to extensive data, including results from the RAND Corporation’s 2021 State of the Teacher survey.
Education Week spoke to education professionals to learn more about the struggles facing new teachers—historically, and since the pandemic—and ideas for better preparing people to enter the teaching profession.
Classroom management often feels like the deal breaker
Many new teachers simply don’t feel prepared to lead a classroom.
Laney, now a fifth year inclusion and English-as-a-second language teacher at Holmes Innovation School, a public elementary school in Boston, compares the plight of the typical first-year teacher with that of an adult left alone to supervise a birthday party of 25 8- or 9-year-olds, but worse.
It’s unlikely, says Laney, that anyone would expect parents to willingly leave their children alone with a single adult for even a few hours at a birthday party, when kids generally are doing activities they enjoy—let alone for the entire day, when the adult is asking students to do things they don’t necessarily want to do. Throw an inexperienced adult into the mix, and the result is not likely to go well.
Curious to know how other first-year teachers perceived their own level of preparedness, Laney conducted graduate-level research on the subject, surveying 1,200 teachers.
Most reported being comfortable with theoretical knowledge around topics like educational philosophy and childhood development. But when it came to practical matters, like communicating with parents or managing classrooms, the results were starkly different.
“Everybody was floundering,” she said.
More practical experience needed
There’s probably no single reason why new teachers struggle. But some data suggest that most teacher-preparation programs fail to adequately prepare future teachers to lead classrooms. An examination of 1,100 college-based teacher-preparation programs by the National Council on Teacher Quality evaluated 4 out of 5 as mediocre at best. Insufficient student-teaching experience is a commonly identified weakness of teacher-preparation programs.
The length of student-teaching requirements varies by program and state. Ninety-nine percent of traditional teacher-preparation programs require a minimum of 10 weeks of full-time student teaching, according to the National Council on Teacher Quality, which tracks the data. Typically, minimum requirements for student-teaching experiences are set by individual states, said NCTQ’s spokesperson Nicole Gerber.
NCTQ statistics from 2017 show a range of requirements among states, from eight weeks in Wyoming to a full semester in Wisconsin. A handful of states have no set requirements. Recently, some states have revisited the issue. In 2019, the New York State School Boards Association revised its certification requirements for the first time in nearly two decades, increasing the student teaching minimum from 40 days to 70 days.
Some teacher-preparation programs design much longer classroom immersion experiences.
Michigan State University’s College of Education, for instance, offers a five-year program. After receiving a bachelor’s degree, enrollees engage in a fifth-year “guided teaching internship” in a public school, said Gail Richmond, director of the teacher-prep program at Michigan State. In the internship, student teachers receive regular guidance from two experienced educators, Richmond said.
Ongoing and new challenges require ongoing support
More practical experience can only better prepare teaching candidates, especially given the current environment.
“The problems we see [as a result of the pandemic] are not different. They have always existed. The pandemic has elevated them to an extreme,” said Richmond, pointing to dire issues like food and housing insecurity.
But the pandemic’s impact also has seeped into even everyday issues like classroom management, as countless students haven’t been around peers in person for several months. Further, during the absence, many have suffered with family trauma and even deaths of loved ones to the COVID-19 virus. These complicated circumstances call for an increase in attending to students’ social-emotional needs.
“The SEL [social-emotional learning] standard components have been in the teaching profession of colleges of education for quite some time,” said Jacqueline Rodriguez, vice president of research, policy, and advocacy for the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education. “Now we realize that it’s as important as a teaching discipline.”
It also means that new teacher support is, perhaps, more critical than ever.
“The greater the network, the greater opportunity to thrive,” said Rodriguez, pointing to supports like induction programs, mentor teachers, and on-campus advisers as ways to assist new teachers as they confront these challenges.
Laney has her own ideas about how to improve things for all teachers, as well as their students. She believes class sizes should be much smaller; in many cases, halved. And she thinks all students would benefit from individual weekly counseling sessions, especially post-pandemic.
“What we’re seeing this year is really the culmination of a lot of cracks in the system,” Laney said. “The majority of my job right now is socio-emotional work.”
It’s exhausting work, acknowledges Laney. And it can feel like it’s never complete. Hence, she offers this advice to new teachers.
“Set boundaries, time-wise. You’re going to be a better teacher if you spend time away.”