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Fall 2002 l Capital University Journal

Lessons for keeping the head of the class
story by Laurie Hall
photo by Sherry Mark

Photo of Virginia Dixon and Nadeen RuizHundreds “drop out” of school every year–dropouts with a college degree and a teaching credential. As the state of California struggles to add 30,000 additional teachers a year for the next 10 years, two veteran educators share their thoughts on what causes first-time teachers to bail out of teaching and what teacher preparation programs can do to encourage them to stay.

Isolation, unrealistic expectations and mountains of paperwork are among the reasons cited by exiting teachers in national surveys. Virginia Dixon, associate dean for the Sac State College of Education, notes that California presents additional challenges for teachers including a rigorous statewide accountability system and the unique needs of the state’s diverse population.

Efforts to address these situations need to begin before teachers make their first solo forays into the classroom, Dixon says. “When teachers go out into the reality of the schools, they need to feel prepared to deal with the needs of 21st century children.

“The demands in public school are challenging – in terms of the need to have accountability, in terms of the intensity of the focus on testing. Many first-time teachers came into teaching to create learning opportunities, but find they must work around the testing demands,” Dixon says.

“While some are able to adapt, others become frustrated that their vision of engaging students isn’t aligned with the testing requirements. They see a multitude of needs. And they can’t teach exclusively the subject matter they were trained in, particularly those who come into the teaching profession after working in another career.”

Teacher preparation programs need to help future teachers discover how to capture their students’ attention, she adds. “New teachers may overlook the key, which is how to convey concepts to people who are under the age of 18.

“You hear new teachers say, ‘I thought I’d be teaching eighth grade math’ when they’re really teaching a group of rambunctious eighth-graders and on top of that
they’re trying to teach those eighth-graders math. They need to be able to handle the individual kids first before they can teach math.”

First-time teachers may have unrealistic expectations of their students’ skill level. Some children, such as those for whom English is a second language, have the same aptitude as other children but are challenged to keep up with the content while acquiring a new language.

If a new teacher expects to only work with a certain kind of child, and they don’t end up teaching that population, it could cause them to rethink the decision to become a teacher, says Nadeen Ruiz, coordinator of the Education Student Services Center, which oversees Sac State’s teacher credential program.

“There can be a clash between expectations and realities,” she says. “We really try in teacher preparation to talk about diversity—linguistic, cultural, socioeconomic and unique learning needs. In California, it is our responsibility to get that message out.”

One way Sac State is trying to expose future teachers to what they will face in the classroom is through professional development schools the University operates with area school districts. The partnership brings together University professors, teachers-in-training and the school’s teaching faculty. Among the benefits is the chance for teacher preparation students to develop relationships with faculty in the schools.

Many development schools are in urban districts or in what might be considered “challenging” schools. “We want them to have challenges but also have the background, training and support network beginning teachers need,” Dixon says.

That support for beginning teachers may prevent the sense of isolation that prompts some to leave the profession. Dixon cites an Oregon study that showed teachers who participated in weekly group meetings were less likely to quit.

“Teachers need to create a comfort level to be productive and to take care of themselves if they start to feel stress,” Dixon says. “We need to help them find ways to balance what they’re called upon to do with perceptions of what they should be doing. We don’t want to lose good people.”

At Sac State, efforts to build support systems start early. Teacher preparation candidates go through as a “cohort”—groups of 25 to 34 candidates who take their courses together and are clustered at a single school for their classroom training. “Moving through as a group allows them to develop a support network,” Dixon says. “It’s a way they can keep up with each other and provide reality checks.”

Ruiz adds, “It begins to build a community of practice about the occupation and allows them to say, ‘We belong to a profession with expertise and responsibility.’ If a person feels isolated when teaching, what will hold them there?”
One area where that can be a boon is dealing with the ever-looming prospect of testing, Ruiz says. “If all the direction is coming down from above, it’s easy to get frustrated.”

At some schools, she notes, teachers come together by grade to look at the content and standards. “Rather than being passive, they say, ‘Let’s take ownership, let’s set priorities. How can we take this into the classroom then go beyond the standard to have rich, engaging learning?’” Ruiz says.

Several other steps have been implemented to ensure teachers are as prepared as possible before and after they go into the classroom. A teacher internship program with Sacramento Unified School District places students who have completed their bachelor’s degree and other test requirements as the teacher for a class, under the supervision of faculty. “Teacher intern programs have their own retention problems but this two-year internship has a 92 percent return rate,” Dixon says.

The College works with school district Beginning Teacher Support and Assessment programs to continue professional development. Sac State also gets feedback from a new California State University system survey of recent teacher education graduates and their principals, assessing the teachers’ preparedness level. Dixon says the survey results give them invaluable information for planning and improving the teacher education program.

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