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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Without a Net: Teachers Need Support -- Yearlong

Undersupported and overwhelmed, a new teacher can’t go it alone.
By Juniper Hanover
Credit: Brian Cairns

I am a first-year science teacher in a failing middle school. Like many beginning teachers in low-income urban districts, I came in on a wing and a prayer. During an intensive summer training before the school year began, every instructor in my program insisted on the same ideal: Have high expectations for these students, and they will achieve. I rallied behind that mantra, repeated that prayer, and I still do. I believe in these kids, and I see their potential, even if many are reading at a third-grade level in eighth grade, and even if many come from backgrounds of foster homes, hard drugs, and gang violence.

But now, the prayer is faltering. The ideal is fading. I’m utterly exhausted, disheartened, and drowning. It’s not only because of the difficulty of working with this population of students, or because this is my first year and success will come with experience. It’s also because there’s only so much I can do in the classroom without support from outside it.

There’s only so much I can do when students get into dangerous fights during class, and, when I call down to the main office for help, no one answers -- and, when I call again, no one answers. There’s only so much I can do when to be out sick means knowing I will be subjected to the exhausted scowls of colleagues who have to baby-sit my class during my absence, because the school has such a bad reputation that substitutes rarely take the job. There’s only so much I can do when morale is so low and school culture so antagonistic that it seems teachers and administrators occupy opposing teams rather than hold unified aims.

There’s only so much I can do when administrative roles and policies are so poorly defined that to have a stack of white paper on hand is rare, and to effectively manage truants or misbehavior is even rarer.

There’s only so much I can do when school funds are being drained through mismanagement and neglect. Each time I attend staff meetings, full of requests for change, my half-hearted principal -- who has never once set foot in my classroom and is frequently absent from campus -- says he still doesn’t know what the school’s budget is.

There’s only so much I can do when the veteran teacher assigned as my mentor is not only as frazzled and frustrated as everyone else but also is called upon to serve as the de facto principal. When administrators ask an already overworked teacher to shoulder tasks a principal should take on, he has no energy left for support, collaboration, or encouragement.

If we really want to close the achievement gap, raise test scores, and instill a love of learning in kids whose positive role models are few and far between, we need more than high expectations. We need organization. We need communication. Teachers can’t be doing the jobs of principals, truancy officers, or administrative-level disciplinarians, nor can schools function without people in these roles. Teachers need both the space and the support to teach; administrators need to know what school policies are, and which staff position is designed to meet which need; principals need to help make these distinctions, be present on campus and in the classrooms, and stay up to speed on school budgets so we can have some idea of where the money is and where it isn’t.

Yes, attrition rates for teachers, principals, and other staff at struggling schools in low-income districts are staggering. Yes, I see myself becoming another statistic. But when the working conditions are so terrible, when the moral support is so miserably thin, when the system is crumbling and disorganized, how can anyone be expected to stay? If the school is hemorrhaging funds and employees as quickly as it gains them, how can we ever hope to change the trajectory of these young people, no matter how hard their teachers work, no matter how high the expectations?

I don’t want to leave teaching; I love teaching. I can see the small impact I’m making every day in the classroom, even if it’s draining and difficult. I know that if I weren’t here, there would be a series of substitutes in my place, and still fewer adults who these kids could look up to. But I simply can’t teach without support -- and that starts with a functioning, unified school structure. If we try to heal those broken ties, maybe we can make a difference.

Credit: Brian Cairns
Juniper Hanover is a pseudonym for a first-year middle school teacher in California.

Comments (5)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As a student teacher in a Los Angeles over-crowded school in 1972, I felt much the same way as "Juniper Hanover". Now, 35 years later I feel I made a difference "one student at a time". I know that NCLB wants us to save everyone, but sometimes it's helpful to realize that saving one soul at a time is a perspective that helps us stay.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This article hits on the one area that has always been a frustration to me in my 22 years of teaching. That is that teachers have so little time left over to teach after they have had to attend meetings, be class sponsors, go on field trips, take attendance, handle their own discipline, sometimes clean their own rooms, etc. In high school, there are so many "other duties as assigned" and so much testing that we have lost the main focus of our day.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Dear Anonymous,
I feel as frustrated as you do with the current state of affairs in public education. The thing is what do we expect from a system that is suffering from a one design fits all syndrome. I think that you have a valid point in not having enough time to manage your teaching affairs having to do what others have failed to put appropriate measures in place to manage. We must have room for creativity in making adjustments that fit our particular students needs. We can not do a good job if we have worn out teaching spirits that has been sacrificed for who knows what. Keep the faith and remember why you decided to teach in the first place "The Teacher Professional".

Muse

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What we need is a fresh outlook as simple as this may seem, as native as this may seem this is where we must begin to make the change. We can not count on instant public morality where there has been none, or teacher support from cooperation communities that have no say so in state, and national decisions pertaining to their own children. What we can do is start with ourselves by believing in what we were born to do- to teach. The teacher who was most inspirational to me was my sixth grade teacher that was forty years ago. Not one other teacher made a impact on me like that teacher did and guess what the schools weren't as troubled with the violence, but we were segregated in many communities my zoning and other tactics. What I'm saying is things move in cycle good, bad better, worse ect. What has to be stable is ourselves please believe in to teach, to teach to teach anywhere , anyplace, and anytime.

Blaze's picture
Blaze
Staff Training

We are living in a time in which we should be able to get this right. Everyone knows how important it is to support teachers but following through on it seems an impossible task. We need a movement...a revolution...specifically to protect the people no learner can do without. But where do we begin?

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