December 18, 2012
Some experienced educators believe that new teachers taking the “alternative certification” route into the classroom through programs such as NYC Teaching Fellows or Teach for America will leave soon after entering. It’s not just them — when I tell my friends I want to be a teacher, they ask, “But then what?”
Administrator? Politician? Non-profit CEO? None of those jobs interests me, but to other people, getting on-the-ground experience as a teacher is a fundamental step toward working effectively in them. Teachers who go this route face the criticism of being called “revolving door”educators, for creating churn in school systems and devaluing the concept of teaching as a career in and of itself.
I understand these concerns and think it would be preferable for new teachers to build long careers in the classroom. But as an aspiring teacher looking for a way into the system, I also understand the practical perspective of many new teachers. Fifty-three percent of my graduating cohort this past June is unemployed, and we have on average $27,000 in college loans to pay off. Meanwhile, most school systems are dramatically scaling back their hiring and tenure policies. Put simply, it’s getting harder to become — and stay — a teacher.
For some, joining education-based service models is not just a great way to “give back.” It is the only practical way for many college graduates (who, like me, did not major in education) to get into the education field. AmeriCorps service members get their college loans frozen for the duration of service, and receive grant money towards paying those loans off. Many college grads can’t afford going to grad school for a second degree and becoming teachers through what is called the “traditional route,” as much as we respect those who do it. We want to get in the classroom as soon as possible, and financially can’t afford to do it any other way.
One college friend, F., applied to two dozen jobs, including Teach for America and NYC Teaching Fellows. In the end, TFA was the only job she got. After much deliberation, she chose TFA over unemployment, despite her ideological reservations about the organization. She decided she would rather not move back home and let her thousands of dollars in college loans accrue interest, particularly because she did want to work in education. I talked to her about her decision at length. I told her about Veltri’s Teaching On Other People’s Kids, explained Ravitch’s campaign against corporate privatization, and recited some lines from Gary Rubinstein’s blog — which all detail and criticize the drawbacks of TFA’s “revolving door” model. But apart from these big-picture concerns, the simple fact was that F. needed a job, any job, and TFA was a good opportunity to do work that she believed in and be financially stable post-graduation. For my generation, it is a privilege to have our job reflect our ideals. Many of us want to follow our ideals perfectly, but we have to live within our means first.
Another qualification of the “revolving door” critique is that the door is not just revolving for education. According to a Future Workplace study, 91 percent of millennials expect to stay in their job for less than three years. In other words, we are a flighty bunch, and it’s not just in the field of education.
Still, the drawbacks of teacher churn are clear. But instead of disparaging transient educators, we need to work with them. We can capitalize on the energy of eager, talented college graduates: If we rebuild the system, the service model could complement — and support, rather than dissolve — the career pipeline towards becoming a full-time educator. We should work towards a system where veteran teachers and apprentice teachers can work in conjunction, learn from each other, and support each other, regardless of where our lives take us. We need a service model that prepares new teachers fully so that they do not burn out and leave the profession within three years. We need a service model that supports and encourages young educators rather than criticizes them for being flighty and idealistic. We need a model that gives new teachers networks of support and opportunities for professional development rather than disparages them through controversial metrics.
The model I found that is trying to do these things is Blue Engine. Blue Engine Teaching Assistants partner with lead teachers rather than replace them. They partner with the schools they work in to increase academic growth rather than come in with their own ideas and take over. Unlike other education service models (see comparisons here, and here), Blue Engine works only in district schools. No charters, no private schools. And we spend the years as apprentices, learning from experienced teachers rather than replacing them or working against them. We do not have to bear the professional burden of being solely responsible for the education of 120 students after a single month of training. The support structure this provides counters the burnout effect that so many new teachers suffer from.
After Blue Engine, I’m planning on staying in the classroom for as long as I can. Some of the other BETAs aren’t — some already have plans for graduate school. Many still don’t know whether or not teaching is for them, so they will stick out another year with Blue Engine or apply to certification programs (traditional and alternative alike). One of our BETAs last year moved on to secure a position as a lead teacher in the same school he started, through the Teaching Fellows program.
But what’s important is that none of those leaving will have deserter’s guilt; we are not lead teachers, so we won’t leave as big a hole behind us when we go. And our year as apprentice teachers has disabused us of illusions about working as a teacher, so if we continue as teachers we know exactly what we are getting ourselves into, and are practically vaccinated against burnout.
Like the rest of my generation, I don’t know where the next 10 years will take me. And that’s okay. This is why I joined Blue Engine. I don’t think it’s perfect by any means. But what we are doing makes sense, and the revolving door is still there for those who want it. My hope is that we can continue to tweak our country’s education service programs so that they cater to the financial and ethical needs of our generation, while also supporting the system that is already in place.