Thursday, November 8, 2012

How to Lose Your Teaching Job: The Big Three

Why do teachers get fired?

An old joke in Waldorf schools goes like this:

A new teacher meets the teacher she’s replacing as he packs up his belongings. He gives her three envelopes. “When you’re in trouble,” he says, “open one of these envelopes.” He wishes her luck and leaves. She starts to teach. After a few weeks, she receives a summons from the school’s governing body (Council, College of Teachers, whatever). Seems they’re concerned about her class. Quaking, she opens the first envelope and reads, “Blame the parents.” Fortified, she enters the meeting and talks about the parents who let their kids eat sugary cereal, watch TV, stay up too late, dress inappropriately, and on and on. The College calms down and offers support. Our teacher returns to her classroom. A couple of months go by, and she receives another summons. She opens the second envelope and reads, “Blame the kids.” She goes to the meeting and describes how Jill needs special attention, how Johnny suffers from anxiety, how Brad is a bully, how Samantha tries to run away. The College understands, and offers renewed support. She returns to the classroom, but, a couple of months later, receives yet another summons. Curious, she opens the third envelope and reads… “Prepare three envelopes.”

Maybe you believe teachers don’t get fired often enough, but they do, in fact, get fired. The rule of thumb is that half of all those who enter teaching are gone in 5 years. About half of these leave of their own volition—it’s not the job for them—and about half don’t. Maybe they get to resign before they’re actually fired, but they’re gone. This is true pretty much across the board—large public school, small Waldorf school, you name it.

In my experience, which is in small private schools, mostly Waldorf schools, teachers are fired for one of three related reasons. I’ve come to think of these as “The Big Three,” and, to the extent that we can, we in teacher education should address these so that promising young teachers don’t get fired before they find their feet in a classroom.

In no particular order, these are the three: Parent relations, collegial relations, and classroom management.

A promising young teacher runs afoul of the tuition-paying parents and, before Thanksgiving, despite whatever gifts she may have, they’ve banded together against her, written ultimatums to the school, and she’s gone. Maybe she’s great with kids but tongue-tied around adults. Too late. Doesn’t matter.

Or the parents love her, but she’s too strident in faculty meetings, has ideas that don’t match the culture of her school, insists on doing things her own way, and, again, she’s gone.

Or the parents are on board, colleagues are hopeful, but our naïve young teacher—brilliant, personable, well educated, and well liked as she may be—can’t command the respect and decent behavior of her students. Eventually, this becomes common knowledge, and parents or colleagues or both together arrange her swift exit.

One sweet graduate student told me, “I’ll just love my students and they’ll just love me.” I said that they’d eat her alive by Thanksgiving. She was offended, but so be it. Teaching is wonderful, but it is not an easy job, and sentimental feelings give way to hard realities pretty quickly.

It rarely happens, by the way, that someone makes it into the classroom who actually just can’t teach—can’t teach reading or arithmetic, or, later, history or botany. In my experience, teachers aren’t fired for a fundamental lack of knowledge or teaching skill, but for the reasons listed above.

So, what can we do about this?

Some of my colleagues in teacher education maintain that students can’t be taught to address these things, that each teacher has his or her own style, that what works for one teacher won’t work for another.

This is true, but I believe two things are also true: First, forewarned is forearmed, and we can at least raise this topic for discussion so that our students enter the classroom with eyes open, more alert and more likely to seek help quickly.

Second, we can give our teacher education students tools that they can use, at least for the first few months, until they begin to develop their own styles (and then they can decide what to use and what to discard). Students can be taught to set expectations from the beginning, to begin a class only when it’s quiet, to establish small rituals to begin and end a class, and on and on. Students can be taught such things as “I” language for conversations with parents and colleagues to avoid creating defensive reactions. Role play, student teaching, group discussions, checklists, the number of ways to fortify our teachers before they enter a classroom is large, and we only serve them well if we make our best attempt to ensure their success in every way.

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