Opinion

My first years of teaching: How hands-on training helped me hit the ground running

The importance of pre-service practice in urban classrooms

WASHINGTON — I’m a second-year special education teacher in District of Columbia Public Schools’ Eastern Senior High School, but unlike many teachers who struggle in their first few years, I’ve felt prepared running my classroom since my first day.

I was able to engage my students and positively impact their learning while facing minimal behavior issues. I attribute that to my training with Urban Teachers, a rigorous alternative certification program, where I spent an entire year working in urban classrooms and practicing effective teaching techniques before I become responsible for my own class of students. This was accompanied with hours of individualized, targeted coaching and mentorship to ensure my craft was improving and my kids were getting the education they needed.

Only 19 percent of D.C.’s eighth graders are performing at or above proficieny in math and reading. Many of our students come to us from low-income neighborhoods and need teachers that are prepared to improve their learning every single day in the classroom. It’s an excellent education that can propel them to succeed beyond high school.

Unfortunately, too many teacher-training programs throughout the United States focus on theory, history and methods of teaching, without giving teacher candidates abundant and valuable field experience, particularly in high-need schools. Without prior experience teaching in a high-need school, our teachers enter unprepared to handle the realities of a K-12 urban classroom, and as a result, end up leaving their job. This teacher turnover creates unstable school cultures, which further contributes to declining student achievement.

Related: Leading by example: Black male teachers make students ‘feel proud’

As a nation, we are not going to be able to elevate the status of the teaching profession when so many new teachers are set up for failure. Without extensive support and preparation – beginning with pre-service training and continuing with on-the-job coaching and professional development – teachers will not have long, successful careers in schools that need them the most.

Knowing that I wanted to teach, but realistic about the challenges facing new teachers, I did my homework on teacher prep programs. I was a savvy consumer of my own education and training. I sought a program that would give me the content knowledge and in-school experience needed to accelerate student learning in my first years of teaching. I did not want my students to experience another year without the quality education they need to be successful in college and beyond.

Related: The Every Student Succeeds Act includes some new ideas on how to train better teachers

I can tell other new teachers wish they had the coaching and practice my teacher preparation program provided me in my residency year. Most have had to learn their teaching style and techniques on the fly. I was able to develop mine before taking on my own classroom. And while it is rare for a high school to hire a first year teacher in D.C., Eastern felt confident in my ability because I had spent a year as part of the school community.

My experience should not be the exception. All aspiring teachers should have this same opportunity — to be able to rely on their training program to ensure they will improve student learning from their first day in the classroom.

The TeachStrong campaign, a coalition of more than 40 diverse organizations that have come together to modernize and improve the teaching profession, gives me hope for my future teacher colleagues, as well as for students everywhere. TeachStrong not only seeks to bring the best and brightest into the profession, it strives to make in-classroom experience and support a part of all teacher training.

Related: Is the first-year teacher in your life crying in the car? Here are five things you should know

There is no denying that teaching is hard. From personal experience, I know that coaching and robust classroom experience has prepared me to thrive as an urban teacher.

Unlike many new teachers struggling to stay afloat during their first years, I continue to feel secure in my ability to improve my students’ achievement.

The TeachStrong campaign will amplify conversations about teacher preparation to ensure aspiring teachers have the skills and confidence needed to stay in the profession for the long haul, and most importantly, that our students get the committed, effective teachers they need to succeed in life.

Sarah Fitzpatrick is a teacher at East Senior High School, Washington, D.C.

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Sarah Fitzpatrick

Sarah Fitzpatrick is a teacher at East Senior High School, Washington, D.C. See Archive

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