Teacher Preparation

The first year of teaching can feel like a fraternity hazing

Does it have to be that way?

Michael Duklewski leads a lesson in his second-period English language arts class. Duklewski is a first-year teacher who graduated through a traditional teacher preparation program.

This is the first story in a three-part series about teacher preparation and whether programs are doing enough to prepare new teachers to take over their own classrooms.

MIDDLE RIVER, Md. — On a chilly November morning, Michael Duklewski stood outside his seventh-grade classroom as students filed in, some shoving each other playfully, others still half asleep. One by one they took a piece of paper from a bin by the front door and made their way to their seats.

“Good morning!” Duklewski, 33, said in a loud and confident voice over the classroom chatter. He closed the door and paused. A wad of paper flew through the air.

“I’m warning you man, the next time I see someone throw something, it’s lunch detention,” Duklewski said sternly, looking at the student who had thrown the paper.

As students in this second-period English class began to work on their warmup drill — to define the terms “setting” and “mood” in literature — the chatter continued. Duklewski walked over to the chalkboard in the front of the room where he was tracking the points for good behavior that each class had earned. Next to “second period,” he erased the number 14 and changed it to 13.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I already took off a point,” he warned. He waited as the conversations slowly died down, before launching into his lesson for the day on the play “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Duklewski, one of a growing number of career-changers who enter the teaching profession each year, switched from political lobbying to education after volunteering at an after-school program in Baltimore. This school year is his first.

It has been even tougher than he imagined. In the second week of September, reality hit. “I was like, ‘Oh God, I don’t know what I’m doing here,’ ” Duklewski recalled.

Duklewski is one of three teachers The Hechinger Report has followed over the course of their first year to look at how training programs prepare new teachers for the classroom — or don’t. As the American education system faces a drumbeat of criticism for its stubborn achievement gaps and lackluster performance compared to other countries, education schools are under attack.

Traditional education schools are trying to reinvent themselves, and alternative fast-track routes are popping up to offer shortcuts to the classroom. Both models seek to help new teachers deal with rising standards, increasing diversity, new technology and, inevitably, the gauntlet of spitballs, note passing and, these days, illicit texting.

While aspiring teachers now have more choices than ever before when it comes to launching a teaching career, new teachers continue to leave the profession at an alarming rate, suggesting a breakdown in training and support. At the same time, there is little evidence to show which education programs are graduating the most successful teachers or what kind of support is most helpful for rookie teachers.

Duklewski chose the traditional route to becoming a teacher. In 2015, he graduated from Towson University, a state institution that has been training teachers for more than 150 years and graduates nearly 700 new teachers each year. He selected the school because of its strong reputation. It helped that his mother earned her own teaching degree there in 1972. His course of study took two years, including more than 20 classes and 16 weeks of full-time student teaching — typical for traditional programs, which provide more in-depth pre-teaching training than most alternative programs.

Such traditional teacher preparation programs typically begin with at least a year or two of coursework followed by a semester or two of student teaching, although requirements vary greatly by program. A 2013 federal report found that most traditional programs require 600 hours of student teaching. In Maryland, the number of hours ranges from 0 to nearly 1,200.

Related: Data on teacher prep grads will soon lead to consequences for some programs

Unlike many first-year teachers, who may train in a suburban school only to end up working in an urban school, and vice versa, Duklewski had a leg up when he started his first year of teaching last fall. He was hired to teach seventh-grade English language arts at the same school where he completed his student teaching experience. He was familiar with Middle River Middle School’s administration and policies and already knew many of the nearly 900 students in the sprawling, single-story brick building, located in a suburb of Baltimore.

Though Duklewski said surviving the first year hasn’t been easy, many first-year teachers are so traumatized they don’t come back at all. Although data on new-teacher attrition varies, studies have found that anywhere from 17 percent to 46 percent of new teachers quit within their first five years. In 1988, the typical teacher in a public school had 15 years’ experience. By 2008, the typical teacher was a rookie, according to a study by the University of Pennsylvania.

If teachers were trained better, more might stick around, experts say.

“We’ve gotten into a habit of accepting that we treat the first year of teaching like a fraternity hazing,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality (NCTQ). “People say, ‘I just don’t think you can learn this ahead of time.’ Well, you need to set up those conditions ahead of time,” she argued, adding that education training programs aren’t doing enough to help first-year teachers not only survive, but succeed.

Is it possible for teacher programs to prepare teachers with everything they need to know on Day 1? The three teachers we followed said maybe not everything.

Amit Reddy, a first-year middle school science teacher in Washington, D.C., said there are certain things that could have been front-loaded more, like additional guidance about how to work with special education students. Meghan Sanchez, a first-year prekindergarten teacher in a D.C.-based residency program, said spending a year co-teaching with a mentor teacher — which goes beyond the typical part-time student teaching experience in most programs — has been critical in preparing her to take over her own classroom next year.

As for Duklewski, although he’s struggled at times with unruly students, he’s not sure what else his teacher education program could have done. There’s no better way to learn how to teach, he argued, than just jumping in and doing it.

Keeping it positive

Back in second period, Duklewski, wearing black dress pants and a blue polo shirt, continued to give directions for the next part of the lesson: using evidence from the “Raisin in the Sun” script to draw a diagram of the set.

As he ran the discussion he moved constantly around the room, stopping the lesson abruptly — and frequently — as students talked to their neighbors. He kept an even tone as he threatened to call parents and reminded students that one of the class rules is “don’t talk while others are talking.”

Four minutes in, second period was down to 10 good behavior points.

“Don’t draw on your arm,” Duklewski told one student. He ignored a student hitting himself in the face with a red folder. Duklewski stared down a chattering group of students until they started working again.

It was now 10 minutes into the period. Duklewski stepped up to the overhead projector in the front of the room and counted down from three. The class fell silent. “Our purpose is to find details about the staging of the Youngers’ home,” Duklewski said, referring to the family in the play. “What rooms are there? What things are there?”

Students opened their books as Duklewski read from the beginning of the play, looking for mentions of furniture and rooms. Some students raised their hands, but a few boys continued to talk to each other, or, in a couple of cases, to themselves.

“Ladies and gentleman, I’m literally asking you to do nothing when other people are talking,” Duklewski said in a calm and assertive voice. “We’re going to practice being silent for fifteen seconds. If we can do that, I’ll put a point on the board. If not, I’ll take two off.”

Duklewski set a timer for 15 seconds. Four seconds later, a student started talking.

He changed the points on the board from 10 to eight. The students were silent.

Less than three months into his first year of teaching, Duklewski exuded the confidence of a more experienced teacher. But his second-period class was difficult compared to the other four classes he’d been teaching, a difference he attributed to several strong personalities and too many students — 33, far bigger than his other classes.

“A lot of my attention goes to a few individuals who are disrupting class,” Duklewski said. “I don’t get to spend as much time with all my students.”

For the worst behavior problems, his chosen strategy is keeping students after class for a one-on-one talk instead of addressing them in front of other students. “Some teachers come straight at a student when they have an issue with them in class,” Duklewski said. “I found that doesn’t work with them, especially not in a classroom full of their peers. They get yelled at enough.”

The ability to manage classroom behavior is one of the top concerns for every new teacher and can often lead to the undoing of a rookie. A 2014 report by the nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education found that trouble managing student discipline is one of the many reasons teachers leave the classroom. Poor classroom management can also get in the way of learning, said Arthur Levine, president of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation and former president of Teachers College, Columbia University. “If a teacher can’t manage a classroom, nothing they’re going to do will be successful.” (The Hechinger Report is an independent unit of Teachers College.)

Related: What high-performing countries have to teach us about teacher training

Although classroom management is one of the most important topics for new teachers, it is one of the least taught in preparation programs, said Kate Walsh from NCTQ. “Programs swear up and down that they teach this stuff and when we go in and actually look at what [students are] being taught, there’s little evidence that they’re being taught it,” Walsh said.

A student works on a reading assignment in Michael Duklewski’s English language arts class.

In fact, a 2013 report by NCTQ found that many teacher preparation programs fail to teach certain aspects of classroom management. Of 122 programs examined by NCTQ, the majority focused on the setting up of routines and rules in classrooms, an important skill. But 74 percent did not teach teachers how to use praise in their classrooms to reinforce positive behavior or other day-to-day tricks to keep classes focused and get unruly kids under control.

For Duklewski, talkative students can be irritating, but they’re not enough to make him quit teaching. He credits his grit in part to his preparation program and what it taught him about middle school students, as well as to some helpful advice a Towson graduate gave him before he started teaching: “ ‘It’s not about you.’ And, ‘be the adult in the room.’ ” Duklewski said, “I try to do that every day; to realize it’s almost never about me. Don’t take it personally.”

Brand-new teachers don’t often seek out jobs that will involve the raging hormones and emotional outbursts of middle school. In fact, states have reported difficulties finding middle school teachers for years. But Duklewski wanted to teach history, and the only option at Towson related to history was a middle school track that would give him a dual certification in social studies and language arts.

That track means wrangling “extremely social” preteens, Duklewski said, and understanding that middle school students tend to be narcissistic. “Your instruction, the way you manage your class, the basis of everything was understanding that middle level learner … everything tied back to that age group, what their needs are, and how they learn best,” he explained. In lessons, tapping into students’ interests is “a big part of making something more engaging.”

He also learned about the physiological changes that adolescents experience during the middle school years. “They’re completely unpredictable. They have major mood swings. Their interests and friends will shift week to week, day to day,” he noted.

“The problems I have with them are relatively minor compared to the issues a lot of other teachers have,” he said. “I generally don’t have students walk out of class or flip desks or jump up and swear … I think that goes back to understanding who they are both as a group, and as individuals.”

Experts say the focus of Towson’s middle grades program is ideal. “The more specific a program can be, the stronger it generally is,” said Arthur Levine, of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation. “The reality is, kids in middle school are really different than kids in high school.”

Molly Mee, associate professor in Towson’s department of secondary and middle school education, said the goal of the program is to prepare teachers to become specialists in grades 4-7, rather than dividing their attention. “We want them to really understand the developmental stage of this age group,” Mee said.

By December, Duklewski’s second-period class was getting better. During the fall, he had started giving students the chance to earn the right to come to his classroom during lunch and watch cartoons on Fridays. (He nixed the cartoons before winter break.) He moved one particularly energetic student to the back of the classroom where he could sit on a window ledge, stand up or move around without distracting other students.

His class points system, however, had fallen apart. Right before winter break, Duklewski switched to an individual point system to reward students for independent behavior. Students could earn points by being on-task, finishing the class warmup first or answering questions correctly. They could then earn small prizes, like pencil sharpeners, or larger prizes, like “renting out” his classroom for lunch with friends.

Related: Teachers colleges struggle to blend technology into teacher training

He also switched from pointing out negative behavior to pointing out positive behavior. Sometimes he found that just announcing what students were doing — “Jimmy is working on his warmup” — made a huge difference. Like magic, students instantly started working on their own assignments.

Only a few weeks into the new system, Duklewski said that the changes were both improving student behavior and his own sanity.

“I’m just happier, because I’m saying good things all the time instead of harping on bad things,” Duklewski said.

Supporting new teachers

Happiness is relative for a new teacher. Since Duklewski took over his own classroom last September, it’s been nearly impossible to balance his workload with his personal life, a problem many new teachers experience.

Every morning Duklewski wakes up by 5:30 and he tries to be in bed by 9 p.m., although he often stays up late preparing lessons. He saves time by not eating breakfast in the morning and has 35 minutes to eat lunch — 15 minutes of which is taken up by hall duty or checking on students in the cafeteria. After 13 to 15 hours at school each day, he drives home, eats dinner, watches a little television and packs his lunch for the next day. His weekends are mostly filled with grading.

The incessant work hours are necessary, Duklewski pointed out. “If I got here right before school and left afterward, there would be no grades in the grade book and my students would be doing a stupid worksheet,” he said.

Moving from a role as a student teacher to a full-time classroom teacher was a bigger jump than he had expected. “There’s still so much your mentor teacher is doing in the day-to-day of a classroom,” Duklewski explained. He realized after his first week that there were many things he didn’t know, like the exact procedure for a fire drill. Or how to balance teaching with noninstructional duties like communicating with parents, filling out attendance and responding to each day’s barrage of emails.

“When it’s all resting on you, it’s just that much more exhausting,” Duklewski said. “Some of it you just figure out as you hit the ground running.”

On a rainy January day, Duklewski stood in front of his fourth-period class having already downed several cups of coffee to keep up his energy. At 10 p.m. the night before, he had thrown out his lesson plan on monologues, and then stayed up until 1 a.m. reworking it to include video examples.

The next day, students were transfixed. After watching monologues from “The Lion King,” “Harry Potter” and “The Incredibles,” the class discussed the purpose of a monologue. Duklewski then instructed them to write their own, using point of view and voice. On a worksheet, students answered questions about who they would be, why they were talking and who they were talking to. Kids erupted into excited chatter as they began to plan and write their monologues.

“I’m myself, talking about sacking Tom Brady, to myself,” one student explained. He read his first line aloud. “Ohh I’m gonna sack Tom Brady!”

Another student proudly recited the premise of his monologue: “I’m a Dorito talking to a football coach about why the Vikings lost.”

Related: Effective teacher training critical to success of Common Core math

When the class ended, students filed out still chatting about their monologues. “That actually went really, really well,” Duklewski said as he sat down at an empty student desk and rifled through his lunchbox for a snack. Another bonus of an engaging lesson, he added, is that students stay on task and he doesn’t deal with as much misbehavior.

Duklewski typically gets help with his lesson plans. Every Monday, he meets with another, more experienced English language arts teacher. But he still spends hours outside of school overhauling lessons to meet the needs of his individual students and focusing on skills he’s trying to improve in his own teaching, like asking more challenging questions.

Nationwide, little support is available for first-year teachers, and that support often varies greatly by state and by district. Twenty-nine states require schools to provide support for new teachers, and 15 require that teachers be supported during both their first and second years, according to a recent report by the nonprofit New Teacher Center. The nature of that support can vary — for example, by the amount of time teachers spend with their mentors and by whether they are observed and receive feedback or simply meet to talk about teaching at various times each semester.

Duklewski was assigned a consulting teacher who observes him every two weeks. After those observations, he has a chance to discuss the lesson and receive feedback, such as on his classroom management approach or his use of tests.

“It’s fantastic because she sees me far more often than the administration for the formal school evaluations,” Duklewsi said. “She has a much better picture of my strengths and weaknesses and a better understanding of my students. Her feedback is extremely useful.”

Ideally, a new teacher would meet with a mentor teacher weekly during the first year, said Arthur Levine. By doing that, “we’ve learned you can reduce attrition among teachers,” Levine said.

The mentoring and a high level of support from his school have helped Duklewski keep a positive attitude, he said. “I feel the freedom to take risks, mess up and experiment because I don’t feel pressure. If I screw up, I screw up. They’ll help me fix it.”

On his mid-year evaluation, Duklewski was rated “effective” on a scale that included the ratings “developing,” “effective” and “highly effective.”

Next year, he wants to do a better job using student data to plan lessons that touch on the skills students are lacking. This year, for example, he said that with all the other demands of his classroom and the hours he’s spent each night planning the next day’s lesson, he’s rarely had a chance to analyze data from all the smaller quizzes his students have taken. He also wants to get better at long-term planning and making sure he knows the end goal for his students before he plans a lesson.

And he’s learned from his challenging second-period class that it pays to set up better rules and classroom procedures from the beginning of the year.

As spring break approached, a series of snow days and holidays threw Duklewski’s students off track. He increased the number of phone calls home to parents and doubled down on his positive praise. “I think we’ve come to some sort of understanding about how we’re all going to get along in class,” Duklewski said. He was also getting the hang of balancing his schedule, and had cut his work hours down — to less than 12 hours a day. It helped that he was seeing academic growth. On standardized writing assessments, the class average had gone up by about 50 percent in most of his classes. On reading tests, scores were also rising steadily.

On a blustery early spring morning, with state tests fast approaching, Duklewski announced he would be using the state writing test standards to grade an activity in which students would identify the central idea of a text and then provide supporting details for their claims. As students got to work in groups, Duklewski stepped outside to search for two boys who had left to use the restroom ten minutes earlier and still hadn’t returned.

After he’d found the boys and they filed back inside, Duklewski began to circulate the noisy room briskly, checking on the groups of students as they worked together. He stopped at the front of the room and counted down from five so he could get the students’ attention and explain the next part of the assignment, but several students continued to talk.

“If you’re talking over me, you will not know how to do it,” Duklewski warned. “I’ll wait.”

The students quieted down.

“What’s one of our central ideas?” Duklewski asked. He pointed at a student who was eagerly raising his hand.

“The free African society is …” the student trailed off as conversation at another table picked up.

“The next person who interrupts somebody will be joining me for lunch today,” Duklewski said sternly. He waited as the talking stopped and motioned for the student to continue with his answer.

A few minutes later, as students shifted to an individual writing assignment, Duklewski shouted out the students who were doing what they were supposed to. “Jasmine is writing right now.” A few kids looked at Jasmine and quickly began to write.

“You have another eight minutes, ladies and gentlemen. Let’s make sure we’re not talking, because when we’re talking we’re not focusing on our writing.”

A box of books fell off a table in the back of the room. Duklewski kept circulating. A student jumped up to put the books away.

“Next year, I expect it to be much, much easier,” Duklewski said after class. “I’ve already done everything once. I’ll have stuff to fall back on.”

Although he’s starting to plan his summer vacation, including work as a counselor at a summer camp, he still has one final goal for his students as the year winds down.

“By the end of the year, they will not talk over other people while they are talking,” Duklewski said with a laugh. “If I teach them nothing else, they will learn that skill.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about teacher preparation.

Reproduction of this story is not permitted.

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Jackie Mader

Jackie Mader is multimedia editor. She has covered preK-12 education and teacher preparation nationwide, with a focus on the rural south. Her work has appeared… See Archive