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Good Teachers Are Important, But They Aren't Enough

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It was the first day of school at an elementary school in Florida. In just a few moments, my first group of 4th graders would walk into my classroom. Feeling both excited and nervous, I knew I was ready to launch this new chapter in life as an elementary school teacher. As I welcomed my students, all 28 of them, I thought about how I would be the great teacher, the one who would inspire and challenge them.

But the first hour passed, and hours turned into days and then weeks, and my idealistic vision of the teacher I wanted to be shifted into realistic reflections on the students I was charged to educate and my preparation to do that. Was I well-prepared; did I have what I needed to teach in a high-poverty school where 90 percent of the families were Hispanic? In short, no, I was not. The policy on which I work today is personal to me because my teaching experience led me down a path to a place where I could—and can—help make sure that each and every child has high-quality, well-equipped teachers who have the support they need to be successful. Teachers who can answer that, yes, they do have what they need to teach their students, regardless of demographic background.

That path went like this: I taught for four years and every year had its challenges, but that first year was, as to be expected, the most challenging. I felt like I was swimming against the current. In my class I had seven special education students, including one student who had severe anger issues; I had zero special education training. I’ll never forget the many times I had to send my class with the one next door out to music or art because I needed to stay behind because Robert*had had an angry, sometimes violent outburst, because so and so was looking at him funny or laughed at him. Robert, who was also highly intelligent, needed extra attention on a daily basis.

I also had three students who spoke little English, and I had no training on how best to meet their needs. I also had two foster children. And my class was made up of students with a vast range of reading abilities, from those who were just learning to decode basic words to four children who were reading at least three grade levels above fourth. The majority of my students were from low-income families. Much of this information I learned over the first several weeks of school. Professors from my teacher-education program discouraged their classes from reviewing children’s files from previous years to avoid bias. But at my elementary school, these files were not accessible until the school year had already started.

My preparation at the college of education I attended emphasized educational theory and lesson ideas in the various subject areas I’d be teaching. My student teaching experiences—the opportunities I actually had to teach students under the guidance of a current classroom teacher—were in schools with students from middle-class families. I had no coursework or experiences working with students from low-income families. I had no coursework in how to teach special education students, and certainly none that went over how to be their primary teacher. There was little discussion of state standards or assessment. In the classrooms in which I student-taught, there were no English learners or special education students, at least to my knowledge. They were fairly easy student teaching experiences in which I was very successful. I felt prepared.

But I wasn’t. I had the passion and drive to be a good teacher, but I lacked the knowledge and skills I needed to be a successful teacher to the students in my class. I sought out mentors who told me that, yes, I had a tough class, and who did their best to suggest things to try. I sought out professional development opportunities offered by my district; these were mostly unhelpful. And the feedback I got from my administrators when they observed my classroom or from fellow, more veteran teachers was that I was doing a great job.

This was perhaps the most disappointing part to me: I knew I was not a perfect teacher. In fact, I knew each day was a struggle. I wanted to do more for my students, but didn’t have the necessary resources or support. In the end, my students did better than I expected on the state’s standardized test, the FCAT, and they all had learning growth over the year—some more than a year’s worth. This should’ve felt like a success, and on some level it did. But on another, ultimately more important level, it didn’t. I knew it wasn’t enough and I wasn’t satisfied.

The fact is that the nine to twelve year-olds in my classroom had several years of poor experiences in school. This was compounded by the challenging family situations that many of them had at home. And based on statistics that say if children leave third grade not reading at grade level they are more likely to drop out of school, many of my students likely did leave high school before graduating. As hard as I worked to be an effective teacher for them, I was not what they needed.

My students needed and deserved better teachers, yes, but also a better educational system. They needed teachers who have the knowledge and experience working with diverse groups of students and who are able to implement strategies that help them succeed. They needed principals who are able to provide rich feedback to teachers and connect them to resources and trainings to help them better meet the needs of their students. They needed schools that recognize students bring a lot with them to school and provide them with the emotional support they need, and  connect their families to resources to help reduce the stress of the situations. They needed systems that recognize that children begin learning and developing from birth, and from that young age as they enter early childhood education programs these children should have access to high-quality teachers who know how to lay a strong foundation in language and literacy development, early math and science, and social-emotional learning.

They still need those things. All children deserve to succeed and putting policies in place that help to ensure they have strong teachers and schools throughout their education, from pre-K up through high school, is a key step in helping them to do just that. Our current educational system does not work for all children, but I am happy to be a part of helping to try to make one that does.

Author:

Laura Bornfreund is director of early & elementary education policy with the Education Policy program and co-director of the Family Centered Social Policy program at New America. She leads a team of writers and analysts working on new ideas for improving children’s birth-through-third grade learning experiences.