Improving on their practice
To succeed in the classroom, teachers look for supports both in and outside the District.
by Margaret Ernst and Wendy Harris
While many new teachers find it difficult to take on more than the daily rigors of the classroom, Girls' High history teacher Brendon Jobs signed on to be the sophomore class advisor in his second year of teaching. He promised to stick with that class until they graduated.
I like being able to be that stable figure who sees them through their high school career," said Jobs, now in his fourth year. In his advisor role, Jobs meets regularly with a group of student council girls – all while teaching, coaching the tennis team, and completing his master's thesis.
But when it comes to getting what he needs to improve his craft, Jobs said, the District has fallen short.
Like all new teachers, Jobs attended a state-mandated five-week induction program to get oriented to the school system and his responsibilities.
But when Jobs entered the program, he said, fellow teachers called it an "abduction" rather than induction. His instructor seemed to rush the process rather than actually discuss teaching, so "it felt like it was just something to get through," Jobs said.
Last summer the District, in partnership with the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), overhauled the program.
Jobs is far from alone when it comes to feeling unsupported. In districts like Philadelphia – where teacher retention is only 50 percent after three years – many new teachers abandon the classroom early on. Veteran teachers may flounder too, and may resort to shutting their doors when problems arise, especially if the school culture is weak in providing resources for improvement.
Teachers need more than paper and pencils to do their jobs. Many say they want better ongoing supports that provide targeted professional development, promote a culture of collaboration, and create opportunities for idea-sharing with their peers.
Some teachers say their schools do promote a positive teacher culture. For its part, the District has increased professional development opportunities, introduced new teacher coaches at its Empowerment Schools and Promise Academies, launched the Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) program to assist new and struggling teachers, and opened the Office of Teacher Affairs.
But other educators say they get more from out-of-District teacher networks like the Philadelphia Writing Project and Teachers Learning Cooperative.
Education scholar Deborah Meier encourages teachers to look outside for supportive communities to serve as a "sustaining source."
She said it can be challenging within a district to build the trusting relationships needed for effective teacher support when there is pressure from a top-down structure focused on meeting academic targets. But it can happen.
"Teachers need to be in a place where they can explore ideas with their colleagues, in addition to their students," Meier said.
A helping hand
Jim Hardy, a fourth-year teacher at Kensington Culinary Arts High School, says most of his first-year support came "from talking to teachers in the teachers' lounge." But he was also assigned a new teacher coach, who checked in regularly.
"It was nice to have someone who sought me out," Hardy said.
Today, new teachers working at Empowerment Schools and Promise Academies get a new teacher coach to help them with lesson planning, content, and teaching methods. The District currently has 23 coaches for new teachers, maintaining a teacher-to-coach ratio of 22:1 for first- and second-year teachers.
Dina Portnoy, who taught 24 years in the District, said new teacher coaches can be counterproductive if they don't know a teacher's subject area.
"Where there is a new teacher coach who is prepared to support teachers in their content area, then I think there's some ongoing support [that's worthwhile]," said Portnoy, who directs the University of Pennsylvania's Teach for America training program.
Teachers at each of the Empowerment Schools have support from a school-based instructional specialist (SBIS), who helps coordinate staff development and assists with the implementation of the new scripted curriculum.