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Should new teachers get the toughest assignments?


The bright faces of brand new, fully credentialed teachers ought to be in the toughest classrooms.

These teachers are young, they're strong, and they have the latest in skills and pedagogy. They are not burned out, aren't about to use the same old worn lesson plans, and still believe that calling home and involving parents is possible.

Placing qualified new teachers in difficult schools is good for all parties. The kids get a fresh attitude, the new teacher gets a challenge, and the experienced teacher gets to use years of valuable resources in another location, still serving youth.

Oops! You say that new teachers are sent into schools that are overcrowded, seething, cultural melting pots--multilingual, discipline-challenged, dilapidated, and full of low-achieving, abused, and transient children with little parental support? Your point?

The school I just described is neither new nor unique. It is the site where I did my 16 weeks of student teaching 34 years ago. I was intimidated, but enthused, even when a "girl fight" broke out while we waited in the office to be introduced to our master teachers, who then escorted us across a dusty, ungrassed yard to our leaky trailer classrooms.

The people with me that day have endured. We have become the backbone of the district, experienced in just about anything that comes our way. We're able to meet challenges ignored in education textbooks, ready to teach the same old subject in as many ways as possible to develop success for the 38 or 40 kids in our classes, on whichever day they happen to attend. And you know what? I expected the challenge. I knew what was coming. I knew that I would be successful and so would my students. And, yes, my NDEA college loan was forgiven at 15 percent for each year I taught in an inner city school.

At the high school where I taught my first three years, the statistics were the same, and the career results are not embarrassing. I have become a teacher leader, and an African American counselor at that school became superintendent.

Two months ago, the graduating class of my first year students, the Class of '69, invited me to attend its 30 year reunion as an honored guest. What a blast! I knew then that that battlefield baptism had been worth it.

Make no mistake, under-qualified and emergency credentialed teachers have no place in the toughest schools. Solid training simply must be in place before putting classroom keys into the hands of new teachers.

It is unconscionable that some colleges skip pre-service exposure to inner city realities and disregard training in techniques for helping all students achieve.

As a member of the California Teachers Association's Teacher for the 21st Century workgroup, I've been looking at our state's ability to attract, recruit, and retain teachers. Of course, the best answer is two-pronged: fantastic college prep and dynamic first-year support, in California called BTSA, Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment.

By the way, I am not Pollyanna. I've taught most of my life in urban schools and I do know the problems.

SUZANNE EMERY is an English teacher at Mira Mesa High School in San Diego. She edits the San Diego Education Association monthly newsletter, The Advocate, and is a member of the NEA Today Local Editor Advisory Board. She has taught for 34 years.


Absolutely not!

As professionals, we must never lose sight of our responsibility to provide for the academic, social, and emotional growth of all of our students.

With research showing that the critical predictor of student success is the quality of the teacher, we cannot ignore the need to support new teachers as they broaden their experiences and continue to develop their competencies.

How many potentially outstanding teachers do we lose when committed new teachers no longer view the challenges they face as a mountain they can navigate, but a deep pit from which they cannot escape?

Over 50 years ago, my father was certified to teach in New York City. He was immediately placed in one of the most difficult high schools in Harlem. His experience was not the exception, but the rule. Many new teachers did not make it. They chose to move to another school system where the climb was not so steep, or to leave the profession entirely.

My father did remain for five years, before moving to California. He retired at age 70 from a California high school.

My first five years of teaching were quite different. I started my career at a middle-class suburban elementary school with supportive parents, staff, and administrators and with students who were, for the most part, well-behaved and eager to learn.

Those first years of my career were not without struggle, but I was able to focus my energy on developing my assessment and planning skills, learning curriculum, creating materials, exploring schedules and strategies, and focusing on my students.

My next teaching placement, returning after a maternity leave, was a lower-achieving middle school with some rather complex racial and socio-economic issues. I was to teach three different classes, none of which I had ever taught before. Two of the classes contained students with serious behavior issues.

I was the fifth teacher assigned to these classes--and it was only October. I struggled to find a way to connect with my sometimes angry, often distrusting students. The first few months were painful. By the end of the day, I sometimes found myself holding back tears of frustration.

I survived--actually I began to understand and appreciate my students. I broadened my skills. I learned--and so did my students. I relied on other teachers and support people for guidance and gave thanks every day for the five years of successful teaching that gave me the confidence and the tools to make this new assignment work.

Because of the desperate need for more teachers in our schools, many districts have hired people with little or no teaching experience or preparation. These hires create difficult, though unfortunately not unusual, circumstances --and serve to reinforce the need to limit our expectations for new teachers and provide them extra support during these early years.

Asking our beginning teachers to confront unreasonable challenges promotes an endless cycle of teachers who cannot succeed and students who cannot learn. We must collectively commit to find workable answers because the price, for all of us, is too high.

WENDY PATTERSON is a full-time mentor in the Peer Assistance and Review program in Mt. Diablo, a suburb east of San Francisco. The program is a collaborative effort between the school district and the Mt. Diablo Education Association. She has taught for 27 years.

What's Your Opinion?

Should new teachers get the toughest assignments?

To vote, check the Web at and see the results instantly.

Should all teachers be trained in the teaching of reading?

The tally on this Debate question from the last issue of NEA Today:

46% Yes

54% No
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Publication:NEA Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 2000
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