In an article in The Atlantic, Paul Barnwell describes how difficult it was for him when he was a new teacher assigned to a low-performing school.
In a span of three minutes, the group in room 204 had morphed from contained to out of control. Two boys were shooting dice in the back of the room, and as I instructed them to put their crumpled dollar bills away, several others took off their shoes and began tossing them around like footballs. Before I could react, one boy broke into my supply closet. He snatched handfuls of No. 2 pencils and highlighters and sprinted out of the room, slamming the door behind him.
He was 22 years old, and he was working in one of Kentucky’s most troubled, underperforming, and dysfunctional middle schools. He quit before Christmas. Eventually, he realized that the school needed experienced teachers and stability, but federal policy does not set a priority on either. In fact, NCLB and Race to the Top encourage churn, pretending to “fix” schools by firing principals and teachers and moving in new and often inexperienced teachers.
How can struggling schools attract experienced teachers? Combat pay has repeatedly failed; so has merit pay. The practice of tying teachers’ compensation to test scores will only make matters worse by incentivizing teachers to avoid the toughest schools.
I asked several of my public-school teaching colleagues from around the country—from New Hampshire to Washington—what it would take for them to voluntarily switch to the neediest schools in their regions. Julie Hiltz, an educator in Hillsborough County, Florida, with nearly 13 years of teaching experience, told me that the following would need to be in place: The ability to make local decisions, professional development designed and led in-house, more time for collaboration, and smaller class sizes, among other factors. Unfortunately, current guidelines for struggling schools under No Child Left Behind often disenfranchise administrators and staff.
Lauren Christensen, a social-studies teacher in the Waltham, Massachusetts, with six years of experience, currently works in a low-poverty school. I asked her if she’d voluntarily transfer to a high-poverty school in her area. “Maybe, she said, “but I would need to know that the whole school would be supported with a long-term commitment [from decision-makers]. I think the pressure of standard assessments and the stress put on educators to turn ‘failing’ schools around immediately might be too much to overcome.”
When I think back to my first year, I’m no longer bitter. I’m now completing my 11th year as a teacher; I mentor new educators and advocate for better support and working conditions. But unless those resources are in place, I wouldn’t voluntarily work in another struggling school.