Why Has Public School Teaching Been Stable over Time (Part 7)

The realities of teaching an elementary school class for six hours a day or meeting five classes daily in secondary schools banged up newbies. In order to survive their first year, novices had to learn quickly and deeply the tradition of teacher-centered instruction that dominated nearly all public schools. Each generation of rookie teachers, then, learned different ways of teaching while unlearning many (but not all) what they brought from their university courses in order to survive their initial years in classrooms[i].

The literature of new teachers surviving (or exiting) their first year of teaching is legion. From hundreds of descriptions, one paragraph from a novice nicely captures those 180 school days where a 20-something teacher not only encounters her first batch of students but lasts sufficiently to continue into a second year:

Overwhelming is the word that best describes my first year of teaching. I wasn’t prepared for the multitude of things on my plate. I didn’t have a handle on classroom management, and I left each day feeling exhausted and defeated. [ii]

One would think from the above paragraph, books written by first year teachers and war stories exchanged with friends and family that most newbies quit after that initial year. Not so. Many continued to teach. Helping to reduce attrition have been strong district and university efforts to ease entry of rookies through fellowship and residency programs, especially aimed at minority teachers. Such efforts, small as they are have begun slowly to reduce the attrition that does occur.  A recent study of 1900 first-year teachers covering the years 2007-2012 found that 10 percent of novices left after the first year; 12 percent after year three, 15percent in year four, and 17 percent in the fifth year—or over half within five years.[iii]

As in most professions, attrition of beginning teachers occurs in the early years but by the fifth year, exiting the classroom has settled down and most teachers have gained sufficient experience in comfortably managing groups of students and teaching required content and skills.

But in the process of survival and gaining confidence in being a teacher, these rookies also absorb the existing cultures of their suburban, rural, and urban schools. The learning curve rises steeply for newcomers as they learn the ropes of managing groups of students and crafting lessons.

Newbies toss out some of the research knowledge and techniques learned in university courses and practice teaching stored in their grab-bag and cook up new ways of teaching learned from trial-and-error in actual lessons they taught and techniques picked up from colleagues who they see as effective.

Should rookies stay at the school or try another school, by years three to five they have become experienced teachers. They have absorbed existing norms of “good” teaching and ways of being an effective teacher in their schools that are considered appropriate by colleagues and principals.  Eventually, many novices become members of a stable teacher corps within a school.[iv]

Thus, newcomers slowly inducted into the culture and ways of teaching in a school become, in time, part of the cadre of experienced teachers who continuously juggle both stability and change as they welcome new recruits to their profession.

What’s missing from this brief description of the all-important journey of going from university training program, to classroom rookie to experienced teacher is the decisive role that the unnoticed, taken-for-granted structures of the age-graded school play in converting novices into veterans thereby sustaining stability and change. Here is where the age-graded school structure and its “grammar of schooling” enter the analysis.

[i] The classic example is what university educators often called “classroom management” and public school teachers referred to as “discipline” or “controlling students” in order for them to learn. Over time, university educators incorporated into their teacher education curriculum either courses or short modules where “classroom management” techniques were taught. See, for example, Gordon Eisenman, et. al., “Bringing Reality to Classroom Management in Teacher education,” Professional Educator, 2015 at: https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ1062280.pdf

[ii] Cindy Bourdo, “The Biggest Lesson of My First Year Teaching,” Edutopia, February 11, 2019


[iii]Lucinda Gray, et. al. “Public School Teacher  Attrition and Mobility in the First Five Years,” National Center  for Education Statistics, April 2015)., p. 3.l; National Center for Teacher Residencies,  “Equitable Access To Teachers of Color Matters,” at: https://nctresidencies.org/    

Residency programs where aspiring teachers spend a year with an experienced teacher in an on-site apprenticeship while attending after-school university classes have helped acclimate new teachers to the unrelenting demands of classroom teaching. Many of these programs recruit and train minority teachers so that after a year they have become licensed and earned a Master’s degree. See: https://nctresidencies.org/

[iv] Susan Kardos, et. al., “Counting on Coleeagues: New Teachers Encounter the Professional Cultures of Their Schools,” 2001, Educational Administration Quarterly, 37(2), pp. 250-290.


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