The new teaching career – short and sweet?

shutterstock_77123365I believe that charter schools have introduced needed innovation and competition into public education. I believe that programs such as Teach for America have brought new life and talent into the classroom. But . . .

An article in this morning’s New York Times still worried me. Entitled “At Charter Schools, Short Careers by Choice”, the article recounts that:

As tens of millions of pupils across the country begin their school year, charter networks are developing what amounts to a youth cult in which teaching for two to five years is seen as acceptable and, at times, even desirable. Teachers in the nation’s traditional public schools have an average of close to 14 years of experience, and public school leaders and policy makers have long made it a priority to reduce teacher turnover.

But with teachers confronting the overhaul of evaluations and tenure as well as looming changes in pension benefits, the small but rapidly growing charter school movement — with schools that are publicly financed but privately operated — is pushing to redefine the arc of a teaching career.

“We have this highly motivated, highly driven work force who are now wondering, ‘O.K., I’ve got this, what’s the next thing?’ ” said Jennifer Hines, senior vice president of people and programs at YES Prep. “There is a certain comfort level that we have with people who are perhaps going to come into YES Prep and not stay forever.”

I don’t actually think that a twenty-year veteran is always better than a second year teacher, especially if the former is a burnt-out case and the latter is charged with youth and energy. At the same time, I know that I was a much better teacher in my fifth year than in my first year, and I also know how much I relied on more experienced teachers in those early days. I like to think I’m returning the favor now as a  mentor to new teachers at my school.

I guess I hope that charter schools figure out a way to lure at least some of these bright young people into longer teaching careers. At the same time, I think shorter teaching career trajectories may make sense for many people, including those who investigate teaching as a second or third career. (Full disclosure: I started teaching in my late forties, and have always felt that my business and government experience benefited my students . . . at least once I figured out what I was doing)

What do you think?


  1. Howard Beale

    I’m not sure if this is a good thing. Collaboration and setting common goals in a school is hard to do with constant staff turnover. The schools of the near future will feature older teachers who would probably like to retire but can’t in our economy and newbies, with the span between the two barely having anyone. Those say in the 10-20 year range will become increasingly extinct. It will be a rare exception for a new hire to last more than five years. Then in say 20 years our schools will just have newbies as finally the old guard is out. This is what I see. There is nothing good or satisfying about teaching overall that would make teachers want to stay, especially this younger set. Working with students is rewarding certainly but being constantly ridiculed by the media, politicians and parents is difficult. Little or no raises, decreased benefits, along with endless “innovations”, huge stresses regarding testing etc. will only cause more teachers to leave the profession sooner rather than later. The good financial things like benefits and pensions have been stripped or will be stripped and of course the salary is small and raises in most Utah districts have been stagnant for years. Even if you love kids, it is too much. Further, male teachers, even at secondary schools, will be endangered species in 10-15 years. This will hurt our students, many of which really need good male role models.

    Okay Mary, tell me where I’m wrong. The high school in my neighborhood is seeing constant turnover. It hired three new math teachers this year and one or two last year. The staff needs name badges not just because of increased needs of security, but just to tell who is who…

  2. howard beale

    I would also add this concept. I think one advantage many veteran teachers have is being parents themselves. I think this adds a lot of life perspective that comes in handy when dealing with children. It’s not saying that younger, single teachers can’t be great teachers. But I think having a school mostly filled with those isn’t good. I would imagine that a veteran teacher who is a parent themselves could add incredible perspective when it comes to dealing with parents and some of their concerns. Again, it is just about life perspective. I think schools like the YES and KIPP schools are successful but they also have highly motivated students and parents, who if they don’t measure up, are jettisioned out of the school. Remember public schools don’t have this option. They are also usually privately funded and have smaller class sizes. I think putting scores newbies in a traditional public school and hoping it comes out okay is dubious thinking, once again something public schools suffer without. I think why many charters aren’t measuring up when they have many inherent advantages over public schools, including self-selection, is the fact that many of these schools simply suffer from poor teaching, much of it coming from just lack of teaching experience. And so you know I’ve had both of my children attend public, charter and private schools. All have their advantages in some ways but only public schools have to deal with all the children who come their way.

    • Mary McConnell

      I agree that one advantage older teachers have is that they’re more likely to be parents.

      I wonder, though, if your other points aren’t actually an argument for training young teachers in charter schools. Many have more hands-on management.

  3. howard beale

    I think many charters do train their teachers better than traditional public schools. I would see this as a potential benefit. However, I still think the cream of the crop in regards to potentially better teachers generally (with plenty of exceptions) still desire traditional public schools where salaries are generally higher. But there tends to be more oversight at a charter school and more parental involvement. I think traditional schools are doing better with yearly evaluations etc. I think the charter schools like KIPP and YES do support teachers better than most but they also have a lot of independent money coming to them that public schools and most charters generally lack. Also, charter schools are generally smaller. There isn’t a charter high school in Utah that is a 3A sized school. The largest ones might have 600-700 students. That’s a far cry from being Davis High. There are a lot more variables going on there that are going to prevent or lessen teacher support and evaluation. However, I see public schools are more of a community entity than a charter school. I mean when you think of Provo city, does one think Freedom Academy or Provo/Timpview High School? I think having teachers invested long term in a community high school does pay dividends to the school and community. Many parents who have taken their students to charter schools, for better or worse, have insulated themselves from the larger community or perhaps rejected it altogether. I see parents at charters as both a strength but also a burden but have always wondered what good things could have happened at our public schools if these parents have invested in their public schools instead of giving up on them? A great debate I’m sure. But all in all, I’m not seeing charters producing the great results promised. Nobody can convince me that the academics at any charter are better than Davis HS. And certainly no charter high school can produce the wide array of extracurricular activities nor curricular choices of our larger public high schools. Again, I would agree Mary that charters might do better job at training and evaluating teachers but I don’t think their starting talent is as good. And then as the original article seems to imply, they burn these young teachers out and then recycle. I think there is a better way out there than this.

    • Mary McConnell

      Thoughtful comments, as usual. I would just note that online classes now create an opportunity to expand everyone’s curricular offerings, especially using a blended learning format (where a classroom teacher helps monitor progress and assist students in completing assignments, maybe even for multiple classes.)

      I also think that many charter schools have provided a stronger alternative community, especially in high-poverty areas. This is one of KIPP’s strongest features, for example.

      And finally, charter schools like KIPP attract money because they are producing strong results. For a donor who wants to make a difference in the lives of poor kids, that’s a pretty strong incentive.

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