Retaining Baby Teachers (A Tale of Ms. Hope)

Ms. HopeTeacher retention is a… challenge – ‘challenge’ here meaning ‘nightmare-of-impossibility-dear-god-what-are-we-going-to-do?!?’

If you’re a classroom teacher, many of the real problems (as is so often the case) are out of your direct control. The inane legislation. The crappy pay. The constant degradation from the ruling classes. Helicopter Parents. Entrenched poverty. Betsy DeVos. It can seem insurmountable.

Maybe it is.

But there are some things we can be aware of which might help us hang on to our baby teachers this coming year – some mindsets we could all stand to practice more regularly, even when interacting with our more experienced colleagues.

Don’t worry – I’m not a particularly touchy-feely-positive guy, even with newbies. Nor am I interested in forced sunshine and faux rainbows intended to ‘change the climate’ of a building. I do, however, care about the people teaching next door to me, and down the hall, and across the commons. I do, for reasons I can’t always explain, care about the kids we share throughout the day. It’s in that spirit that I offer the following humble observations and thoughts.

Let’s imagine a new baby teacher in your department this year. We’ll call her “Ms. Hope.”

You can spot the newness of Ms. Hope all the way across the faculty meeting. She’s adorable in a quirky-nervous way, well-intentioned and innocent despite her determination not to look it. She probably has a tasteful tattoo – a dragonfly on her shoulder or a Bible verse in Zulu underneath her many bracelets. She’s wearing a pencil skirt and her best upscale blouse in an attempt to balance stylishness and authority.

In her bag you see the spine of a Marzano book, an insulated water bottle, and what looks like a Blu-Ray of Freedom Writers. Had you met her in the parking lot, you’d discover she’s driving a sensible little Ford Focus and that she’d stopped at Starbucks for an extra-skim frozen go-gurt cappuccino cinnamon power-boost mocha grande with kale and fat-free whipped cream – her go-to drink in times of stress.

Ms. Hope may be inexperienced, but she’s sharp and determined and she means business. On Day One, when most of her veteran colleagues are droning through their syllabus and class expectations, she’s distributing a ‘Learning Styles Assessment’ or some sort of ‘Getting To Know One Another’ activity. And already, things are veering badly from what she’d envisioned in her planning.

“Can I write in transparent neon pink?”

“Is this a test? Is it for a grade? Will there be a lot of tests in here?”

“My mom says I’m not allowed to fill out paperwork without her approval because you’re trying to immunize me into believing the earth isn’t flat.”

“Is this Biology? I think I’m supposed to be in Biology.”

“¿Que esta pasando? ¿Qué se supone que debo hacer con esto?”

She’s quickly discovering that students are hard-wired to do everything in their power to convince us that they’re both helpless and complete idiots – even though they’re not. They think they want us to give up and go easy on them, but they really don’t – not in their core. It’s just that they’re not overly self-aware at this age. This clusterfoolery is all impulse and instinct on their part.

Ms. Hope’s first day doesn’t go well. Still, she’s back on Day Two eager to try again.

“OK, class – let’s get out that Learning Styles Assessment from yesterday and see if we can—”

“Were we supposed to bring that back?”

“My mom wants to know why we don’t have a syllabus and if the principal knows you’re using liberal psychology on us. She said not to trust liberal transgender socialist psychology.”

“My counselor never called me in about needing Biology this hour. Can I go ask to see her again?”

“¿Estás seguro de que tengo un estilo de aprendizaje? Miss? Miss?”

And on it goes.

Let’s fast-forward a few weeks, during which she puts on a brave face and tries a few different things in her efforts to get some positive momentum going. She stays late and cancels most of her social life as she wrestles through lesson plans and writing detailed feedback on mediocre student work. She genuinely wants to do well, and she’s not particularly bad for a newbie, all things considered. She’s even getting to know and love some of her kids individually, despite her difficulties managing them collectively.

You start to think maybe she’s gonna make it, until… THE DAY.

Crashing & Burning

It’s not quite Fall Break. Ms. Hope rolls in a bit later than usual, in torn jeans and a college t-shirt with a cappuccino stain on the front. Her hair is pulled back in an uncharacteristic ponytail and she’s not wearing any makeup. She avoids your gaze and at first appears hungover until you realize it’s more likely that she spent the morning sobbing uncontrollably until she absolutely had to leave for work.

You wonder if you should have stepped up before now. Maybe you’ll ask if there's anything--

That’s when Mrs. Mulligan wanders over and tut-tuts at the fresh meat she’s been eyeing, waiting for her moment.

It’s here. 

“Oh, Honey… now, now. Don’t be so hard on yourself.

“I know they tell you all these things in teacher school about personal learning journeys and flipping off the classroom and changing the world, and that’s all fine – in theory, I suppose. But Sweets, those folks haven’t been in front of a classroom in a LOOOOOONG time. These kids aren’t like the kids in them books. This is real school."

None of her claims are wrong, exactly – not entirely, at least – but she’s begun luring poor Ms. Hope into a damnable swamp of cynicism and shattered ideals. Her words are sympathetic on the surface, but what she’s really saying is that Ms. Hope needs to

lower

her

expectations

and

dial

back

her

ideals.

Forsake 

her primary purpose –

at least mostly.

Mrs. Mulligan offers her a crossword puzzle (with a word bank) to keep the kids busy the rest of the day and promises to bring her entire stash of VHS tapes tomorrow – a year’s worth of documentaries and mini-series recorded from network TV all the way back to the 70s.

Folks, if we do this to our baby teachers – of if we stand aside and let it happen – I assure you, on the day our scantrons are finally run through that Great Grading Machine in the Sky, we will go to a very special level of Teacher Hell.

What could you have done instead?

Let’s rewind the tape to before Mrs. Mulligan stepped in. Before the torn jeans and stained t-shirt.

Let’s instead envision you dropping by briefly a couple of times a week to check in on your new colleague. She may or may not be entirely honest or open at first; no one wants to start a new job by looking incompetent. But you’re all about the open-ended questions and you smoothly rise to the occasion…

“What was that thing you were doing in class today? It looked interesting.”

Should she express frustration or confess failure, you resist the urge to simply tell her what you’d do instead. Suave like a beast, you take another approach:

“So, what was your primary goal? What were you hoping would happen?”

It’s especially important that this sounds as open-ended as it’s intended to be. No matter what the answer, you will of course maintain your best deeply-reflective-but-never-judgmental face. Give Ms. Hope some room to try stuff – that’s how greatness happens.

Eventually.

“What went well?”

As teachers, it’s natural to fixate on the handful of kids being difficult, or tuning out, or otherwise throwing off the plan. They matter, but how often are 25 students playing along, mostly cooperating, maybe even learning, while 3 or 4 shape our entire perception of the day?

 “I wonder if there’s a better way to set that up so that more of them understand…”

“What do you think might make it more effective with those two classes you mentioned?”

Or even just…

“What have you tried?”

It’s possible Ms. Hope’s first lesson was too ambitious. Maybe she simply lacked the experience to pull it off. Some of her other strategies might work eventually, or she’ll stumble across new ideas to try. 

What she should never feel is alone. Helpless. Stupid. Like she’s failed at the most important thing she’s tried so far.

I’m not against venting our frustrations to one another. Be real with one another and get it out. But if that’s the defining element of our peer interaction, we’re doing it wrong. Way, way wrong. 

No one else is going to prop us up. A few administrators try, and are appreciated, but they’re not in our world – not exactly. There are well-intentioned parents who’ll say something kind from time to time. But by and large we’re on our own. Ms. Hope and her ilk are anathema to entrenched political authority, to principalities and powers and wickedness in high places – not because of her politics (we have no idea how she votes, nor do we care), but because she tries to teach children. Because she loves them all in spite of themselves. Because she believes in them even when no one else does, including themselves.

And she’s 23. Or 31. Or 56.

Let’s give her some backup. Let’s make it a point to be honest, to be real, to speak our minds behind closed doors, but to always always ALWAYS follow that up with “What COULD we try? What CAN we do? What IS worth rolling in tomorrow for?”

And perhaps, within a few short seasons, she’ll wander in your room one day and do the same for you.

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