To stay in the classroom, teachers need support.
by Nora Sullivan
“I don’t want to come to school anymore.” As I looked into Simon’s wide eyes, my heart broke, and I thought to myself, I don’t want to come to school anymore either. In the corner of our classroom, a new student, Maurice, screamed while jumping on top of a table. Simon was covering his ears to block out the noise and chaos, and I desperately wanted to do the same. I was sitting on the carpet with the other 15 children in my class, attempting to read a book which no one could focus on, our gaze drawn to our classroom aide trying to coax Maurice off the table behind us. I was a second-year teacher–my first year teaching a full class of preschool students in-person–and I was failing. Maurice, a student with significant behavioral and academic needs, joined our general education classroom three weeks prior, and I did not have the tools to help him or the rest of my students through the transition. While I learned how to lesson plan, I wasn’t taught to manage student behavior like this during my teacher preparation program.
Becoming a teacher had always been my dream. I expected my first few years to be difficult. I just didn’t know how difficult they would be. I needed help, in the form of extra observations and feedback. I needed support from administrators and coaches. Instead, I was left to manage on my own. I felt more and more disillusioned, dreading school each morning, and crying daily in the single-user school bathroom.
At a time when so many states around the country, including my own state of Illinois, are facing a critical shortage of teachers, it is imperative that we consider how we support new educators throughout their first five years in the classroom. Across the United States, approximately half of teachers leave the classroom within their first five years in the profession. Last year, I nearly joined them. Luckily, I was partnered with a district coach through Chicago Public Schools. For me as a new teacher, having a coach from the district who I could speak to privately and honestly about my struggles was invaluable. My coach, Jim, suggested a number of strategies I could try on in my classroom. I learned to acknowledge the positive behaviors in students while gently redirecting them toward another action. I learned to find replacement behaviors, such as giving my students a “roller coaster cheer” to channel their excited energy.
Another way of supporting new teachers like me is to create “problems of practice” groups. These affinity groups provide educators with the space to collaborate around issues that are specific to them. The groups could be facilitated at the school level, district level, by teachers’ unions, or by teacher preparation programs. Each group would include teachers with different levels of experience so that new teachers can receive feedback and tips from veteran teachers and veteran teachers can learn about new teaching methods from early-career teachers. If I had been a part of such a group, I would have tried to learn de-escalation tactics to help calm Maurice and the rest of my class during his outbursts.
Third, more teacher preparation programs should adopt a residency-style model to ensure that the bulk of pre-service teachers’ work takes place in a classroom, approximating the role and responsibilities of a lead teacher to the greatest extent possible. Some of the skills that could be learned through a residency-style program are professional communication skills with other school staff, family connection skills, real-time behavior management, and the ability to understand and plan an entire school year. Although I participated in a residency-style program, I could have benefitted from taking on even more responsibility. My mentor teacher did most of the behavior management in the classroom. In an environment where responsibility is truly shared, I could have learned de-escalation and behavior management strategies before becoming the lead teacher rather than during my first years on the job.
With Jim’s help, I navigated how best to connect Maurice with the support he needed. At the end of the year Simon tearfully hugged me goodbye, saying, “I am going to miss you and all of my friends here when I go to my new school for Kindergarten.” I was incredibly proud of my students and myself for the community that we had maintained and the learning we had engaged in. I did not quit my dream job. Let’s make it so other teachers have the support they need to not quit theirs.
Nora Sullivan is a 2022–2023 Teach Plus Illinois Early Childhood Educator Policy Fellow and a preschool teacher at Audubon Elementary in Chicago.