Opinion

The first year of teaching doesn’t have to feel like a fraternity hazing

How prep programs can support those who want to immediately lead their classrooms

If my Washington D.C. metro bus crashes right now, how much functionality and which body part am I willing to forego for an undetermined amount of time?

Anything to avoid the four concrete walls of my classroom. For instance, a leg would yield a lengthy hospital stay, but the mobility factor detracts from this proposition.

I intimately studied these scenarios as a first-year teacher. I knew that my colleagues were doing the same, but we hesitated to speak our truths, instead resigning ourselves to silence with the half-hearted wisdom that all first years are supposed to be painful and difficult. Yet as educator preparation programs are redefining the ways in which they train teachers, this type of circumstance no longer needs to be the norm.

A recent series of articles in The Hechinger Report chronicle the journeys of three teachers during their first year in the classroom to consider how well preparation programs provide educators with the necessary tools to be effective practitioners.

Related: The first year of teaching can feel like a fraternity hazing  

One such narrative highlights Michael Duklewski, a first-year educator whose attempts to navigate the complexity of the classroom often complemented the experience of a fraternity hazing. In one instance, Duklewki’s efforts to implement a punitive system of management proved futile as students continued to exhibit the same disruptive behaviors during his lessons with seeming indifference to any repercussive actions.

Duklewski’s trial and error approach yielded sparks of success as he transitioned to an individual rewards system that praised positive behaviors. While Duklewski believes that on-the-job training is the most efficacious way to develop management skills, I believe preparation programs should offer comprehensive behavior management coursework designed to support teachers who want to immediately lead their classrooms  instead of engaging in a crude game of educational roulette throughout their first job placement.

Related: The exhausting life of a first-year teacher

This sentiment is echoed in a report from Hope Street Group, a non-profit, non-partisan organization that connects people together to promote sustainable economic  solutions in three sectors: jobs, health, and education.

Serving as a Hope Street Group National Teacher Fellow, in the fall of 2015 I worked with 17 other educators from across the United States to conduct a peer research project on issues relating to teacher preparation. Reaching nearly 2,000 teachers via focus groups and surveys, respondents shared their opinions on the current and future needs of the profession.

In collaboration with the U.S. Department of Education and the American Association of Colleges for Higher Education, Hope Street Group released “On Deck: Preparing the Next Generation of Teachers”, which presents specific recommendations for improving preparation programs.

Related: What happens when teachers spend more time in a classroom — before teaching?

One finding suggested a need for additional training in classroom management as well as child development courses to better understand the needs of the whole child. A respondent emphasized that “[m]ost of the new teachers I have met are struggling with discipline and behavior problems. The next generation should come with a strong understanding of how to motivate students.” These preservice opportunities would allow teachers to align their expectations and strategies to the needs of their schools and communities.

However, simply introducing teacher candidates to various pedagogical frameworks  is not enough.

Teachers need to be placed in authentic contexts that hone their instructional skills because, as one participant stated, “[e]xperience is the best teacher. Having the opportunity throughout my whole teacher prep program to be in classrooms as much as possible was the most beneficial.” On Deck cites high quality clinical experiences as another potential solution to mitigate first-year struggles.

Creating the means to explore both theory and application may contribute to more educators having the capacity to cultivate safe, respectful learning environments that value student voice and autonomy as soon as that first morning bell rings. Imagine the impact these adaptations could have on students as well as teachers who, instead of exuding a sense of fear, internalize validation during their accident-free morning commutes.

Cody Norton is a first-grade teacher at the Marie Reed Elementary School in Washington D.C. He is also a Teach Plus Turnaround Teacher Themes fellow and a Hope Street Group national teacher fellow.

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