First Person

On The Revolving Door Into (And Out Of) The Classroom

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.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.