At “Meet the Teacher” night at the beginning of this school year, one of the parents shook my hand and asked: “How long are you going to stay?” With my best attempt at confidence, I said that I’d be there all year. “That’s good,” she replied, “because my son had five different math teachers last year.” Throughout that night, other parents told me that their child had always struggled with math and asked with a quiet urgency if their kids were going to be all right.
I was the new pre-calculus teacher in a school that serves primarily low-income Latino students in Weslaco, Texas. Many of my students used the previous year as an excuse for why they wouldn’t do well in my class, saying: “Other math teachers weren’t prepared to handle us.” When I asked a math question, some would simply shrug their shoulders in defeat. On one occasion, a student stormed out of my class and screamed, “I hate math and I hate you!” There’s nothing wrong with my students. When teachers leaving in the middle of the year is a regular occurrence, it’s not surprising that students would lose interest in the subject, lose faith in their teachers, and lose belief in themselves.
In an effort to gain their trust, I hosted their families for breakfast. I wrote a personal note to each of my students to highlight what they’ve done well and to remind them that I believe in them. I used pedagogical tools I learned in graduate school and two years of teaching to address my students’ skill gaps. Though we are making progress, negative attitudes about math persist.
No student should go through the disruption of having five math teachers in one year. While policymakers are gathered for the 2017 Texas legislative session, a discussion about teacher preparation, which directly affects teacher retention, is of critical importance. To help students gain belief in themselves and the subjects they’re studying, teachers must be prepared to manage their classrooms and give all students the tools to access challenging material — especially students who have been let down in the past. I believe that our state should consider the following when looking at teacher preparation programs:
Are prospective teachers’ programs aligned to the challenges of the specific areas and schools where they will teach?
Schools that serve areas with high concentrations of poverty have a set of pressing needs. The stresses associated with poverty, such as childhood trauma, have tangible, serious effects on children’s ability to learn and often manifest into what adults see as bad behavior. To untrained eyes, it appears that these children don’t want to learn and are impossible to teach. Prospective teachers need tools and strategies to handle situations where students act out so that they can offer effective support.
Do prospective teachers have enough hands-on experience in real K-12 classrooms?
New teachers need real-world experience engaging with children of the same population they are going to serve. Many of today’s teacher training programs, especially alternative programs, emphasize workshop-style training that takes place away from real classrooms and is light on real practice. Verbal or written descriptions of the day in a life of a teacher in a high-poverty school cannot make up for actually being there.
Have prospective teachers experienced student-teaching alongside master teachers?
Prospective teachers should write lesson plans alongside master teachers who can provide feedback. They should give lessons to real children under the supervision of master teachers to gain experience before receiving the keys to their own classrooms. Learning to teach is like learning a sport; studying a sport, no matter for how long, is no substitute for practice.
Too many beginning teachers welcome their first students into their classrooms without understanding what they’re getting into. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that our students have prepared teachers to guide them. I still cringe when I think about my first year of teaching and feel the need to apologize to my students for not being better prepared. We must address teacher preparation now. Our students’ faith in schools and their entire future are at stake.