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On Reading “What We Know About ELA Teachers”

Scherff, Lisa, and Debbie L. Hahs-Vaughn. “What We Know about English Language Arts Teachers: An Analysis of the 1999-2000 SASS and 2000-2001 TFS Databases.” English Education 40.3 (2008): 174-199. Print.

Using data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) School and Staffing Survey (SASS) and the subsequent Teacher Follow-Up Survey (TFS), the authors seek out what causes nearly 50% of beginning and novice teachers to leave the profession by the end of their fifth year (175). The discussion that follows traces potential causes and draws a few potential conclusions. The data are old because more recent results had not been released as of the publication of this article.

  1. Novice teachers rarely encounter conditions for which they’ve been adequately prepared. Specifically, novice teachers will generally be given heavy teaching loads with difficult populations. Instead of following best practice recommendations of easing novice teachers into more challenging assignments, most schools assign those challenges to first year teachers as a right of passage. If schools will not provide support as needed for novice teachers, then teacher educators need to educate their students about “real” conditions on the ground in most schools.
  2. Teacher educators need to ask schools and teachers what they need in terms of professional development for novice and experienced teachers, and they need to develop programs that will meet those needs. This may take the form of traditional degree-earning programs, but may just as likely take the form of noncredit or non-degree seeking professional development opportunities. But these need to be planned around the teachers’ needs, not around the teacher education institution’s strengths or existing programs of study.
  3. Men and teachers of color are needed. The majority of teachers are Caucasian, which does not reflect the diversity of the student bodies served in most districts.
  4. Additional support may be required for all teachers, and especially for novice teachers, at schools where over 20% of students qualify for free or reduces lunches. The socioeconomic background of the students in the school affects teacher retention; this needs to be addressed explicitly.

This all rang true for me. I had an ugly first year, and I struggled with minimal support from my “mentor” (who appeared to define mentoring as sharing outdated transparencies from her 20+ years of teaching). I learned more about teaching from my girlfriend (who became my wife) and the large number of young teachers in my cohort than from administration or mentoring. And I was totally and entirely unprepared to teach any kind of composition or writing – the best professional development I received was an optional workshop offered by the school division on teaching writing to 9Y (below average ninth grade) students. And it was so completely basic and foreign to me that I laughed aloud at its simplicity – until I realized this target made up 4 of my six classes in my first year. I floundered. I recovered with help and support from fellow colleagues, and by getting involved in school activities and events, but it was a considerable struggle that had me in tears many times my first year, convinced I had chosen poorly.

I ultimately left the profession not because I was particularly unhappy, but because I wanted more in-depth study of literature for myself. And I had funds set aside to help (or completely) pay for my graduate studies, so it seemed like a good idea. And then, upon completing my graduate students, I got a job in gifted secondary education administration as director of a summer residential governor’s school program. So my tenure in secondary ELA teaching was statistically correct – I left after my fourth year.

[Creative Commons licensed image by flickr user David Muir]