I was reading the Melancholy Math teacher’s plaint to planning at 1 am, and am reminded that there are two sorts of new teachers.
First, you have the stereotype, Type I, which the Melancholy Math teacher lives up to nicely: well meaning, dedicated to helping the community, and generally stunned to discover that kids weren’t just one good teacher away from success. In fact, they are shocked to learn of the depth of the gaps in their knowledge. Even more difficult to accept is that many kids were not in search of a great teacher, and in fact are just marking time. Some of the kids are simply uninterested in school, except as a social activity. Others work hard and get nowhere, while some of the biggest troublemakers have excellent skills. In short, everything they thought was true about school turned out to be wrong.
These new teachers are also characterized by their insane attitude towards working hours. They start by putting in 16 hour days, and go up. They talk about planning, while other teachers wonder what the hell is so hard about planning? They are ever in search of the mythical perfect lesson, the one that will engage students and move them towards success. In fact, these teachers confuse engagement with learning time and again.
Finally, these teachers are terrible at classroom management, in part because they never really anticipated the possibility that their students wouldn’t be hanging on their every word, enthralled and excited by the first teacher, ever, who cared about them. But also in part because their social class doesn’t allow them to exercise authority, and it takes them a year or so to figure out other methods of keeping control.
It’s easy to spot this type in the Teach for America blogs. Here’s one, and here’s another, both of them pulled from the front page at random when I went to the site for this piece. Gary Rubinstein noted TFA critic, often says he was such a teacher his first year.
Teach for America pulls from a population that’s almost doomed to be Type I, since they start from the premise that schools are broken, that teachers don’t care, that kids fail because they’ve never had good teachers. But it’s certainly not unique to TFA.
Stanford’s STEP program which, like all elite schools, pulls from much the same population as Teach for America, puts all of its teacher candidates through an entire year of student teaching, both at the middle school and high school level–20 hours a week, every week. Like all ed schools, they have trouble finding enough schools with low achieving populations that also have teachers embracing the ed school’s constructivist, heterogeneous philosophy as well as teachers willing to “cooperate” with a student teacher. But the year-long dose of reality gives its teacher candidates a far better chance of starting the job as Type II teachers.
Type II teachers have far fewer illusions. They might even be called cynical, but only by people who don’t know better. They want to help students, they want to improve academic outcomes. They just don’t kid themselves.
It may or may not be significant that many of the “born” type II teachers I’ve known are either working class or spent a lot of an otherwise privileged childhood in an economically diverse environment. They know better than most that not all kids are interested in learning. Some Type II teachers were the smart kids being ignored or bored in out-of-control classes and aren’t interested in repeating the pattern. But others just entered the profession with a good idea of what they could and couldn’t achieve.
Type II teachers are clearly different on two vectors: classroom management and working hours. They do a much better job on the first, and spend far less time on the second. Thus, they are less likely to get burned out, and less likely to have out of control classes. However, I suspect they are no more likely to be retained than Type I teachers–even less so, in some cases—because administrators luv them some Type Is, anxious to be mentored, eager to contribute, ready to give it all.
My first year teaching included the best day I’ve had, so far. Granted, that was in English/History, which is easier for a novice to teach than math, but even now, as I look back, it counts as a great day. As a math teacher, I was good enough. Not great, but my classes were well-managed—and I had a tough crowd. More importantly, I learned essential information that first year. I learned that my students didn’t always learn what I taught them the first, second, or even third time. I learned that contrary to my ed school beliefs, I didn’t much like using text books for everything. My kids learned well enough, for that first year, and I learned how to improve for the next year.
Well enough! Fighting words. We need better than “well enough”! No. We really don’t. Not every time, not every minute. In many ways, I was much better than other teachers. My top kids got more attention. My struggling kids learned how to make sense of math. I did no damage, and a fair amount of good—and while that was going on, I learned how to be better.
But it’s that type of thinking that makes Type II teachers less attractive to education watchers. Type II teachers don’t get much press because they don’t feed a narrative. Progressive educators and teacher unions want to push the story that teaching is hard, demanding, draining, difficult to master, and thus need more money, more training, more appreciation. The reform narrative, on the other hand, is not served by effective teachers who don’t think hard work and great teachers are all we need to improve academic achievement. So those people who paint a narrative, who make money from selling that narrative, want a better story—and they aren’t terribly impressed by teachers who show up, enjoy the job, slowly improve their own performance as they gain experience, and don’t break down or cry out of exhaustion or disappointment. Where’s the drama? Where’s the urgent drive and dedication that will end the achievement gap and put us ahead of Singapore?
Yeah, yeah, broad outlines. But if teacher burnout is a problem—and it is, in the very schools everyone worries about—wouldn’t it be better to profile teachers? Instead of looking at external factors that might lead to stress and anguish, why not look at internal ones? What expectations do teachers have when they begin, and how does that influence their experience?
Meanwhile, a note to the Melancholy Math Teacher: go home. Stop working so hard. Throw a few more kids out of class. Get some sleep.