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Nicholas Stone: October 2011 Archives

October 2011 Archives

What Happened to My Students?: Part One

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Most teachers leave off with their students in June and pick up new ones in September, relegating a holistic picture of the transition between grades to glimpses and estimations.  For perhaps the only time in my career, I’ve gotten to advance with my students.  Our move from kindergarten to first grade has proved a bit peculiar and I’m not sure either my students or I quite knew what to anticipate.  Our arrival in kindergarten was, of course, an enormous benchmark; their first year in school, my first year of teaching. Eric Carle considered entering school the greatest trauma of childhood.  kindergarten marks the beginning of student-hood and thereby entrance into a way of life that will persist into adulthood.  We all arrived, excited, terrified and energized. Moving to first grade isn’t so dramatic.  The beginning of the year is, ostensibly, business as usual.  Language Arts, Reading and Math all pick up where kindergarten left off and performance expectations are raised a notch from where they were at the end of last year. The routine that we spent the kindergarten year establishing and acclimating to falls neatly into place.

Nonetheless, I’ve been confounded by the sophistication of my students’ work and thinking just in the first five weeks of school.  Almost immediately, they were able to perform well beyond expectations that were challenging at the end of kindergarten.  In Math, they decipher permutations, add automatically and subtract with confidence.  Recently shaky number facts have solidified and are readily recalled.  Almost all of my first graders sit down with chapter books and at least make a concerted effort to read them, peering into the pages for over half an hour.  In kindergarten, they were hardly ever asked to read without guidance.  They write stories several pages in length and edit their work for grammar, spelling and expressive language.  The most writing we required for a single piece in kindergarten was five sentences and editing was limited to a basic (literal) checklist.  Most astoundingly, they do it all independently.  In kindergarten, my students needed a great deal of support and scaffolding to meet our expectations.  Now, with little prompting, they refine and develop their thinking and pursue their work with determination.  I don’t look over their shoulder or walk them through tasks.  Mostly, I just tag along and take some notes.

What happened?  Clearly, much of this new performance originates with a leap in self-regulation.  My first graders approach their learning strategically and with high motivation.  They can evaluate and monitor themselves.  Even their social skills have improved.  The students who had the most difficulty regulating their emotions and impulses in April are able to focus, participate and resolve conflicts with aplomb.  Everyone seems more respectful of and sensitive to one another.  Of course, this kind of progress is the developmental task of a six or seven-year-old, but they didn’t demonstrate this level of self-regulation in May.  

I’m no expert, but I know enough about child development to understand that the school calendar and the passage through grade levels isn’t organized around developmental stages.  All children develop at different paces within a two to three year normal range, a long time for a group six-year-old with birthdays up to eight months apart.  It seems unlikely that such a variety of children could have experienced a developmental surge over the same, narrow period of time.   Moreover, isn’t development more of a continuum than a series of leaps and bounds?  Other teachers tell me this shift is typical of first graders, but why?  How did three months off from school and a new class send them rocketing up the developmental spectrum?  My students’ precipitous growth prompts me to wonder why development progresses in any particular way at all.
In a 2002 symposium on “Unraveling the ‘Teacher Shortage’ Problem,” the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future noted that debate over teacher recruitment detracts from the more pressing issue of teacher retention. Ten years later, a strong focus on recruitment persists. Teaching attracts highly-qualified recent graduates. New York City public school teachers start at $45,530, with benefits and three months off, in the worst job market for young graduates since the Depression. Teaching offers respect, authority and purpose to a competitive and socially conscious generation. Unfortunately, half of new teachers quit within five years, a grim number in a profession with a steep learning curve. Associate teacher programs, popular at independent schools, can alleviate attrition and maximize young teachers’ effectiveness.

The NCTAF highlighted low attrition among “beginning teachers who have access to intensive mentoring by expert colleagues” and high student performance in schools with extensive faculty induction programs.  Associate teacher programs, essentially apprenticeships, demonstrate why. Associates teach under the direction of a head teacher, in the head’s classroom, often while pursuing or after finishing a Masters degree. Independent schools employ associates as utility teachers and distribute them to where they are most useful. Associates reduce student-teacher ratios and can take responsibility for any aspect of instruction, from a lesson to an entire subject. They typically work with one class or grade-level each year, participating in every aspect of classroom life. Almost all aspire to head teaching positions. Their standing resembles that of an associate lawyer; educated, qualified, less experienced and working in the field with promotion opportunities.

Associate programs create fluidity in faculties without sacrificing consistency. Associates connect different classrooms and grade-levels by working with different head teachers during their tenure. The programs allow new teachers to join faculties without turnover among heads and schools can efficiently fill vacancies from within their own ranks. Most associates become head teachers elsewhere, creating professional networks among schools through teachers who have worked closely together.

If “intensive mentoring by expert colleagues” reduces attrition, then associate programs can address high teacher turnover while quickly improving schools. The NCTAF urged, “we must develop and sustain professionally rewarding career paths for teachers, from induction through accomplished teaching.” Associate programs make teaching a true growth profession in which a classroom with your name on the door becomes an aspiration.

Associate positions are mostly limited to the lower grades of independent and some charter schools. Financial limitations and credential requirements keep them out of public schools, which instead employ aides, assistants and paraprofessionals. Nonetheless, associate programs offer a model of a teaching career path that can improve instruction and help new teachers grow in all schools and grade-levels.
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