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Cepeda: Short-time teachers may teach us something

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Esther J. Cepeda
August 31, 2013

CHICAGO -- When I started my teacher-training program a decade ago, I thought I’d be teaching for the rest of my life. Full of hope that I could make a difference in the lives of my community’s neediest students, I couldn’t imagine ever wanting to walk away from such a lofty goal.

 Yet, like so many others, I did—after a mere two years in the classroom.

 There are many who disdain teachers who “drop out”—and have an even lower opinion of those who enter teaching knowing that it’s only for a short time.

 It’s no surprise, then, that education circles are aflame because a recent front-page New York Times story trumpeted the main criticism of charter schools: The teachers don’t last long, sometimes by design.

 The article described some graduates of teacher-immersion programs such as Teach for America, which gets ultra-bright college grads into high-poverty schools after a short summer training period, as career climbers. They calculate that a few years in the classroom will be both personally fulfilling and a steppingstone to more financially rewarding opportunities.

 This is anathema to those who feel the only good teachers are the ones who see it as a calling worth devoting a professional lifetime to. But that’s shortsighted. Let’s consider that short-term teachers can be as effective as veterans, and maybe even better, in certain situations.

 During the opening all-staff assembly at my first teaching job—where I was to instruct very low-income, non-English speaking first-graders—the principal made a point of asking the veteran teachers to be as supportive to the newbies as possible.

 “Never forget that the energy and enthusiasm that our new teachers bring to their students more than make up for their relative lack of experience,” he said, giving a nod to the fact that his school had hired the best teachers available for more-challenging-than-usual jobs.

 In my case, and in the case of other teachers who had chosen to work with high-risk students, that energy and enthusiasm encompassed a whole world of actions and sacrifices that no lifer would purposely undertake.

 Foremost is the deliberate decision to teach the lowest-income, highest-need students in the most troubled communities for salaries commensurate with what school districts on academic watch lists can afford to pay.

 Teachers with little experience but loads of missionary zeal generally end up giving more of themselves to students and their families than other teachers.

 For one, they know they aren’t as experienced so they devote whatever scraps of time they have when they aren’t in the classroom to reading the latest education books, articles and teacher blogs.

 And their workday rarely conforms to the school’s bell schedule. For me and other idealistic new teachers, a typical day meant getting to work before the sun came up to catch up on planning before attending ongoing before- and after-school new-teacher training sessions.

 It also meant being up late into the night and working through weekends creating specialized activities for students who needed heavy remediation or alternative teaching methods.

 But there was also the forking out of personal, nonreimbursable cash for class supplies for students who couldn’t afford to bring in their own materials.

 Add to that the time spent making frequent calls to parents, going on home visits, finding donations of food and clothing for families, and fielding calls to personal cell numbers when students needed extra help or experienced serious personal emergencies—including biggies such as homelessness and abuse—with no one else to turn to.

 These are the teaching experiences that some unseasoned educators take on because no one else will—at least for a few years while they can afford it and before disillusionment sets in. Should we look down on them for not being willing to give that much of themselves throughout a quarter-century career?

 I don’t think so.

 Teacher turnover is never optimal. But on the whole, isn’t it better to provide students with the ultra-enthusiastic best and brightest for a few years than to give them long-tenured teachers who couldn’t possibly keep up such an exhausting pace through decades of dealing with heart-numbing poverty?

 Esther J. Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.



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