NEW ORLEANS — As they walked in the door last spring, fourth grade students grabbed wrapped breakfast sandwiches from a milk crate on a table, then strolled to their desks in the sunny, ground-level classroom in Harriet Tubman Charter School in New Orleans.
Their teacher, Nicole Molière, knew that some of the children don’t always get enough to eat at home at night. When there were extra breakfasts, those children usually asked for seconds.
Though it was just her first year of teaching, Molière, 49, was already an expert at motivating students, who raised their hands high in the air and vied for her attention, then beamed when they got it.
Early in the day, Amyrié, 9, began working on a math problem. Her answer was incorrect. “Some teachers might just mark it wrong with a big check,” Amyrié said. “But Ms. Molière was really nice about it. She told me that I’d made a simple mistake and showed me where it was.”
All around Amyrié, her classmates were gripping pencils tightly and adding columns of numbers. Their pencils moved to the left as they shifted from the ones column to the 10s, to the 100s. Molière was watchful, walking slowly down the rows of desks, looking to catch small mistakes in action. Here and there, she would lean in, put her hand on a child’s shoulder and make a small correction.
With children, she’s learned that patience fosters learning, Molière said. “You shut kids down when you shame them.”
In New Orleans, the schools that teach the poorest children are facing dire shortages of teachers, especially those like Molière, who are both culturally connected to the city’s kids and committed to the profession for the long haul.
Nearly four of 10 of New Orleans’ public school teachers have three years’ experience or less, according to a new, year-long analysis that will be published this fall by the Greater New Orleans Foundation, NOLA Public Schools, W. K. Kellogg Foundation (the Kellogg Foundation is among the many supporters of The Hechinger Report) and Baptist Community Ministries. Clustered in high-poverty schools, the most inexperienced teachers don’t last: More than a quarter of them leave teaching each year. This year-to-year instability leaves the city’s most vulnerable kids with fewer familiar adults who know the children and their families.
Similarly, across the country, shortages of credentialed teachers are more acute in high-poverty schools, according to a recent report from the Economic Policy Institute. “The fact that the shortage is distributed so unevenly among students of different socioeconomic backgrounds challenges the U.S. education system’s goal of providing a sound education equitably to all children,” the report concludes.
Though Molière is brand-new to teaching, she brings layers of other experience to the job. That means she understands the basics of what children need to succeed, having already raised a son of her own and worked for seven years with local schoolchildren in after-school programs and summer camps.
Molière also grew up in the New Orleans area and was educated in its public schools. And, like 84 percent of public school students here, Molière is African American, which can be an advantage, she said. “A lot of times, it’s nice to look up and see a person who looks like you that’s teaching you. It gives you a sense of security, a sense of trust.”
That used to be standard in New Orleans. Before Hurricane Katrina, nearly three-quarters of public school teachers here were black and most were committed to the profession, with an average of 15 years’ experience. They were fired en masse after the storm, as state-led school reforms were ushered in. Now, black teachers make up less than half of public school teachers in a highly fluctuating teaching force. Research shows that black children are more likely to succeed academically when they are exposed to black teachers.
Molière is also a standout at connecting with parents — another necessity for school success — said Tubman principal Julie Lause. “I’ve had a couple of occasions where I was dealing with a real tangled-up situation with a parent, an angry parent or whatever it was — and because Nicole was walking past me in the hallway, she joined me to chat with the parent,” Lause said. “Not many first-year teachers would feel confident doing that — jumping into a conversation with their principal and a parent.”
Typically, those hired to fill vacancies are newcomers to the profession: Roughly 38 percent of all New Orleans educators have three years’ experience or less, according to the Greater New Orleans Foundation analysis. Such teachers are concentrated in one-third of the city’s schools where more than half the teachers are novices, GNOF analysts found. A majority of those schools serve a student body that is at least 90 percent black and 90 percent economically disadvantaged.
And New Orleans’ new teachers have a high attrition rate — 28 percent, twice as high as other comparable cities and increasing steeply since 2010, according to the analysis, which was shared with The Hechinger Report. “Early career attrition is often driven by more than just compensation; teachers often feel unprepared and burn out quickly,” the study says.
From a workforce perspective, the high turnover creates a vicious cycle in which new teachers start, get overwhelmed and leave, forcing schools with the greatest challenges to spend precious time and resources hiring and training replacements.
To foster better teacher retention, especially in schools with the worst churn, local academic leaders recently launched several new initiatives. In 2017, the National Center for Teacher Residencies gave a $13 million SEED grant to local training programs. The grant described the need for new teachers as a crisis: “In New Orleans, building pipelines to meet the demand for excellent teachers is perhaps the most pressing citywide challenge we face.”
One of the SEED grants helps to pay for the innovative teaching residency that put Molière in the Tubman classroom. The residency program aims to stabilize high-poverty schools with excellent, committed and culturally competent teachers.
Molière felt ready. But after the first few months of school, the sky-high level of unmet student needs in New Orleans left her feeling overwhelmed, despite her level of experience and roots in the city. “I had to leave and cry,” she said. “You can’t truly understand the need unless you’re right in the midst of it.”
More than anything else, Molière yearned to do right by the children she met. “Maybe, even more than the subject matter, it’s my job to make sure that they’re validated as human beings, that they know that they’re seen and heard and loved,” she said. “A part of me knows that under the right conditions they’d be stars.”
early 40 years ago, when Molière was in fourth grade at Jefferson Davis Elementary School in eastern New Orleans, she was screened and found eligible for the district’s gifted and talented program.
The nearest school that could serve a gifted student was two miles away. Molière joined a class of unfamiliar children and immediately felt inferior. “Imposter syndrome was born really early in me,” she said. “I wondered if I was really gifted, and did I really belong there? And because of Ms. Janie Malveaux, I knew that not only did I belong, I could be a star pupil.”
Malveaux was Molière’s fifth grade teacher. She embodied what it meant to be an educator. “She taught in a way that you could tell that she wanted you not only to retain this for a test but for a lifetime,” Molière said.
In Malveaux, Molière found both affirmation and a role model. Her parents were young renters raising her in a duplex apartment while they worked long hours, trying to find their way in life. Malveaux was an accomplished African American teacher who owned a home in a nice subdivision called Academy Park and lavished her students with love and attention.
At the beginning of every quarter, Malveaux set a specific goal for her class. She’d plan something special for students who met the goal. One magical evening still stands out in Molière’s mind. “After taking a small group of us out for pizza, she purposely took me home last so that she could meet my parents,” Molière recalled. “Because I loved her, that was so special to me.”
In Molière’s home, Malveaux told her parents that they had a remarkable child. “Make sure she gets what she needs,” Malveaux said.
After fifth grade, Molière’s parents moved the family to a nearby New Orleans suburb where she excelled academically, bolstered by the confidence of her fifth grade teacher. “Of course, I never forgot her,” Molière said.
A few decades later, Molière returned to her hometown after living elsewhere to raise her son and work a range of jobs, from Fortune 500 companies to state agencies. In suburban New Orleans, she landed a job working with children in after-school and summer-camp programs. There, tutoring and leading games with children, she felt like she’d finally tapped into her passion. Her work was helping students get the extra boost they needed.
Then she saw an advertisement for the Norman C. Francis Teaching Residency, based at Xavier University in New Orleans, a historically black college. Because many of her family members had graduated from Xavier, she knew the Xavier philosophy, “The idea is that we’re all responsible for each other, that we rise and fall as a group,” she said.
Enthusiastic about extending the Xavier philosophy into public school classrooms, she applied and was chosen to join the residency’s second cohort.
Like all first-year residents, Molière was placed in a classroom with a mentor teacher — in her case, Charlie DePietro, a seasoned educator at Harriet Tubman. She also had to complete 36 hours of academic coursework at Xavier, by attending night and summer classes rooted in the ideals of equity, justice and anti-racism. Molière and her Xavier colleagues committed to the two-year residency and three additional years of teaching within high-poverty schools in New Orleans.
At Tubman, Molière immediately noticed that many of her students arrived with little in their backpacks. Louisiana falls at or near the bottom of nearly every indicator of child well-being when compared with other states, and at Tubman, a pre-K through 8 school, 93 percent of students are economically disadvantaged.
She began to keep supplies at the ready: spare pencils, crayons, erasers, little snacks.
But other needs were less easy to address. “Much of what I see is emotional need: the need to feel seen, heard, valued,” Molière said. “It’s difficult. Seeing children who are sad. Hearing children cry. And there’s very little you can do as a teacher besides being calm and steady.”
One student in particular caught her eye. He clenched his fists. If he was looking at a worksheet, he might growl or give a loud, exasperated sigh.
She would later discover that he had a beautiful big smile, with dimples. But first, all she could see was his frustration. “He’d throw his papers on the ground, flip a desk, do anything to take a break,” she said.
Molière learned that the boy’s family had been homeless on and off for a few years running. Though he was a bright student, he had missed a chunk of school because of his family’s situation — and he’d slid academically.
“That exasperated him because he is a sharp kid. He’s not special ed by any stretch of the imagination. He was just behind. And he hated being behind,” Molière said.
Though Molière and DePietro had 30 students to juggle, she deliberately devoted one-on-one time to this child. “He absolutely thrived off personal attention,” she said.
Still, there were challenges.
“He would cling and push, cling and push, cling and push,” she said. “When I was working with him, I’d have to constantly tell him, ‘You’re fine; it’s okay.’ He was very fearful about not knowing. So rather than feel that vulnerability, he’d just act out.”
Molière was no stranger to trauma: As part of her classwork at Xavier, she was screened for Adverse Childhood Experiences, or ACEs. “I scored really high,” she said. “So, I understand these kids. I’m driven by that. But I also know I can become overwhelmed by it.”
hough Molière often started her lessons in the front of the room at the smartboard, an electronic blackboard, she preferred to stand among the desks, within arm’s length of the children. One morning, as the other children worked on math problems, Molière put down her smartboard marker and gravitated to the desk where the child with the dimples sat. She saw that his first answer was incorrect and tried to get to the root of the mistake.
“What’s 7 times 7?” she asked.
“51,” he said.
She told him to re-think it, counting by 7s to show how 7 became 14, then 21, 28, 35, 42 and 49. But it seemed like he couldn’t hear her as she explained. All it took was one wrong answer to shut him down.
“Even if he gets nine answers right and one wrong, it deflates him,” she said.
At such times, she tried to explain that he had to build up his skills. “Take it a step at a time, kiddo,” she’d say. “But he didn’t want to hear that: He is an all-or-nothing kind of kid. He doesn’t want to build up; he wants to be on a par with his peers immediately.”
To others, the boy might come across as a behavior problem. But Molière saw his potential and didn’t want to see it wasted. “You’re not supposed to want to save people. God knows that I know this,” she said. “But it doesn’t stop me from wanting to swoop in and help.”
Molière admired the work of her lead teacher, DePietro, who arrived at school thoroughly prepared for the day’s classes. “I always felt confident that I was in good hands, that my mentor had my back,” she said.
But she saw that her students were far less prepared. Some students had quietly admitted to Molière that they couldn’t read, or that they didn’t know basic multiplication tables. Soon, she realized that a significant proportion of the class — maybe even half of the children — were lagging badly. “For the first couple of months, I was in shock at how far behind the students are. I could see it in their eyes; they wanted to be on grade level. But they were nowhere close,” she said.
By the end of the school year, Molière was spending her morning drive running through the day’s challenges in her mind. How could she help the quiet little girl who was embarrassed because she hadn’t learned her multiplication tables beyond the number 4? What about the boy who had seen so much violence in his life that he scanned each room for threats?
She would arrive by 8 a.m., as the sun poured into DePietro’s classroom from the large, carefully restored windowpanes of Tubman’s blue, Craftsman-style building.
As she walked past the rows of desks, Molière could see that her students were making daily progress — but they still fell short of state standards. Some schools use smaller intervention classes to help floundering children get back on grade level. But two-thirds of DePietro’s class qualified for intervention, which made it difficult for Molière to provide much individual attention during the designated intervention periods. She knew from her classes at Xavier that other residents were having similar struggles. “In most New Orleans schools, resources can seem egregiously inadequate,” Molière said.
The Greater New Orleans Foundation report shows just how thinly stretched schools are: Its analysts conclude that current resources — provided by the school district and its nonprofit partners — can only supply academic support for, at most, half of the K-8 students who need it, and social-emotional programming for, at most, one-third of children who need it.
And even though state and local education officials agreed to provide federally required special-ed assessment and support to New Orleans students after a 2014 lawsuit, many needs are still unmet: By the GNOF report’s calculations, there are only enough resources in the city to support one-fifth of the students who need it.
Those statistics don’t surprise Molière, who knew that she had few outside options to help her students, particularly for the frustrated child she’d grown to love. But, one morning, another homeroom teacher told Molière, “You have to see his work today. It’s unbelievable.”
Molière walked over to look and felt a wave of pride. “He’d written five complete sentences. He’d done the multiplication that he couldn’t do in September. It was just perfect,” she said.
She put her hand on his shoulder. “I said, ‘This is fabulous. I’m so proud. Do this every day. You have it in you, if you would just calm down and allow yourself to do what you can. And for the things that you can’t do, ask for help.’ ”
He beamed a dimpled smile in response, while trying to play it cool. “He acted like, ‘I’m a tough fourth grader; I don’t really need your praise, but boy, it feels good to hear it,’ ” she said.
Victories like that kept her going, Molière said. “You know that it’s in them. You know that you can get them there. You know that if you give a child what they need — which is what equity is — they will perform.”
As Tubman classes started this fall, Molière entered the blue building to begin her residency’s second year in an official Tubman teaching position, as a fourth grade math teacher.
She had looked through the school rolls about a week before, but hadn’t seen an important name, that of the boy she’d taken under her wing.
She heard that he might be at a nearby school. Then, on the first day, she saw him, in a teal-colored fifth-grade shirt. “I was ecstatic to find out that he’d stayed,” she said. He was a little taller. “And he looked a little bit more content. He didn’t look like he was trying to escape, like he was last year.”
On the third day of school, when Molière had a chance to visit him, she found out why. An assessment last spring showed that, like 25 percent of Tubman’s children, he had a learning disability that required an individualized education program. That made him eligible for Tubman’s resource classroom, where he will study English and math in a much-smaller setting, with a class of about a dozen other children.
She feels like the smaller size will allow for the hands-on attention he needs. He felt the same way. “He told me that he feels like this year will be really good,” she said.
Molière gave him a quick hug. “You know I’m rooting for you, kiddo,” she said.
As she left, she reminded him that, if he needed anything, he knew where to find her. “I’m not going anywhere,” she said.
This story about teaching in New Orleans was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.